Digital transformation has enormous potential for positive change and much-needed innovation in both private and public sectors.
While overall access to the internet has increased globally in recent years, citizens of less developed nations continue to struggle with a still-large financial and digital divide.
To address these issues, global organizations have begun to focus on the previously untapped potential of newly available digital channels. For instance, the United Nations (UN) has an entire department dedicated to digital, with the primary aim of bridging the digital divide and reducing inequality by acting on its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through its extensive channels, the UN advocates for international digital cooperation to build inclusive digital infrastructure and increase access.
An essential part of these initiatives — one that enables them to be even more far-reaching and inclusive — are public goods. And, as the emphasis continues to move to digital, more efforts are consistently being put toward Digital Public Goods.
Digital Public Goods (DPGs) are digital products that serve the public on a large scale. The Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) defines DPGs as:
“open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards, and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm by design, and help attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
(The DPGA even has a set of standards that are used to determine whether a solution is indeed a digital public good. It is then made available on its DPG Registry.)
Let’s also recall the definition of open-source. In the context of digital, open-source software is built from publicly accessible source code that people can modify, share, and reuse. Open-source products offer full public access through an open-source license that legally enables it.
Critical to their public accessibility, DPGs must adhere to privacy and security laws and other applicable best practices. They are also non-excludable, meaning no one can be prevented from using them, and non-rivalrous, i.e., the use of a digital public good by anyone, does not reduce its availability to others.
This allows the application of digital public goods to extend to diverse countries and communities — they are not limited to a national scale or in a traditional economic sense. It enables both nations and organizations to adopt and scale such technologies in a flexible, adaptable manner.
In the context of knowledge and information goods, these products are provided for free: in digital form, public goods are essentially costless to replicate and scale.
The efforts to develop and promote digital public goods were first initiated by UNICEF and the Government of Norway in 2019 with the goal of advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through their collective contribution, the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) was created — a multi-stakeholder organization whose aim is to support the development, implementation, and scaling of digital public goods.
The DPGA is now endorsed by the UN Secretary-General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.
It not only guides the strategy for the development of digital public goods but also acts as an open platform that houses these important digital products and services for open access — the Registry of Digital Public Goods. It is a key player in ensuring that DPGs are discovered and put into action where they are needed.
In 2019, the UN panel on digital cooperation also defined five sets of recommendations on how the international community could collaborate to optimize the use of digital technologies to achieve the SDGs:
DPGs are a critical part of digital public infrastructures (DPIs) across the world. On a national scale, DPIs include systems of identification, payment, and data exchange, which are essential for nations to deliver vital services to their people.
DPGs comprise all the software, models, standards, and content that make DPIs possible: thanks to their open format, DPGs can be freely adopted and adapted. For countries, this means cost savings and better control over their technology and data to build their DPI, as well as flexibility in decision-making to reach their SDGs.
Usually, governments and organizations can modify and adapt public goods with support from development partners, even contracting work from the private sector if needed.
In the current digital age, digital public goods are an essential tool for development in nations across the world. A considerable benefit of DPGs is that they are built to work well in different places and contexts.
But, many countries are at significantly different stages of development, with some starting the construction of their main DPIs only in recent years. That being said, developing nations have limited digital resources, so they should not be expected to ideate and build entirely new digital platforms and services.
One of the overarching purposes of DPGs is thus to enable nations to learn from others’ experiences and then to adapt and reuse existing digital infrastructures and solutions to their particular needs.
Digital public goods are relevant for overarching global developmental goals, too.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focus on areas like poverty reduction, financial inclusion, education, gender equality, economic growth, health management, sustainable innovation, and more. In line with these objectives, DPGs can offer solutions to diverse issues, with categories of digital products ranging from inclusive growth to climate, health, gender, and crisis, among others.
Digital public goods are crucial in tapping into the full potential of digital technologies to move closer to achieving the SDGs, especially for low- and middle-income countries.
Despite the high potential and wide accessibility of digital public goods and the possibilities they afford, obstacles still remain for many groups who might need DPGs the most.
Up to 37% of the world’s population still does not have access to the internet — and has never used it before.
The internet is a highly effective and far-reaching medium for public goods, as they become essentially free to replicate and scale when in digital form. But this means they are only accessible under the condition that users have internet connectivity to access these goods.
The current challenge is not only to make DPGs global but to further expand the accessibility of the Internet in less developed countries.
Apart from a digital divide, there also remains a huge financial gap.
The cost of devices and data required to use DPGs can be an obstacle to lower-income groups who can afford the (free) DPG but cannot afford the means to actually use it. Governments and non-profit organizations need to consider and implement solutions to this issue if DPGs are expected to be distributed on a larger scale.
Besides limited access to both the internet and the devices needed to connect to it, a high percentage of people in developing countries are still struggling with low literacy rates.
With that, no less important is the obstacle of low digital literacy among communities where there is still a lack of education on digital innovations: not only how to use them, but also what implications and risks they may have. Importantly, DPGs must maintain privacy and confidentiality to enable users’ trust in technology and data use while ensuring inclusion.
Again, a reference to the SDGs will emphasize that the vital goals include quality education and a focus on human rights — both necessary prerequisites to efficiently scale DPGs.
Finally, developing countries may have less advanced digital public infrastructures (DPIs).
This can result in inequalities in DPG implementation — both in terms of content and language, and systems for access. There is often a lack of support in adapting digital products and software to new markets and customer bases. And, as it sometimes requires the support of private parties, there could also be copyright issues.
When relevant DPGs or open-source solutions are designed and built, additional action and investment are still necessary to scale, distribute, and implement them.
Fortunately, this can be achieved via platforms or databases of all available DPGs that allow for larger-scale discovery, use, adaptation, creation, and financing of digital public goods, and mobilize content and tech providers to enable their contribution.
Organizations like the UN can utilize big data and AI to create "digital public goods in the form of actionable real-time and predictive insights." These can serve to identify new risks in various fields, from healthcare to human rights and poverty, among other challenges. For instance, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, government institutions turned to digital solutions to track the spread of the virus and identify high-risk factors — while maintaining citizen safety.
As an example, in 2020, the Dutch government implemented the CoronaMelder contact tracing app (now suspended) to accelerate the detection of potential spread cases. Users were alerted when they were in close proximity to someone who later tested positive for COVID. The data collected via the app also helped measure the impact of the pandemic on the affected population.
Other DPGs include apps providing meteorological services, digital ID platforms (like another Dutch app, DigiD), a Global Digital Library that offers educational resources on a larger scale, and various health-related apps, such as DHIS2, the world’s largest health management information system.
Another notable example is Digital X — a platform created through the joint efforts of the UN and the DPGA to make scaling, distributing, and implementing digital solutions across the globe faster, easier, and safer. Digital X supports DPGs not only from the UNDP but also from other UN agencies, social enterprises, the private sector, nonprofits, NGOs, universities, and more. Its database lists over 100 digital solutions, open-source tools, and SaaS software, providing access to DPGs for more than 390 million people in almost 200 countries.
Digital public goods are critical to the pursuit of global digital equality. More than that, they enable nations to achieve developmental goals at both a societal and individual level.
Already, digital ID systems have become indispensable in many countries for their convenience and efficiency, along with COVID-19 contact tracing apps and tax payment systems, among other examples. There are entire databases of open-source DPGs, freely available for discovery, use, and large-scale distribution. This also helps DPGs to be adapted to different contexts through the contribution of various stakeholders. Existing solutions used in advanced digital infrastructures can be modified, making DPGs more readily available for developing nations.
To overcome some final roadblocks, the focus for global organizations should now be to enable wider access to the internet and the devices that are essential to use these DPGs. This is already highly important to the UN (with their UNDP Digital X platform) and is actively being implemented through initiatives to increase digital literacy.
DPGs’ universal focus on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is crucial for targets such as reducing poverty and inequality, making education more accessible where it is needed, helping maintain justice, or providing mental health services to citizens. Many of these can now move closer to completion thanks to digital solutions.