5 early insights for using digital public goods for development

January 20, 2022
5 early insights for using digital public goods for development
Photo: © UNDP/Morgana Wingard

This article was originally published in the WEF's Davos Agenda section on January 20, 2022. A link to the original article can be found here.


Digital transformation is critical for accelerating the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the UN has learned that digital public infrastructure (DPI) is becoming increasingly important to countries as they seek to establish their digital foundations. It allows basic functions essential for service delivery such as identification, data exchange, payments and more as countries explore the Web 3 agenda.

But what is it exactly, why is it important and how can it best be used?

Why open-source software

When building their digital infrastructure, governments have three main options:

  1. Build their own solutions, often too costly and technically challenging.
  2. Lease or buy proprietary technology, which can limit customisation.
  3. Deploy digital public goods (DPGs), including open-source software that meets the UN-governed DPG Standard, allowing customization and digital sovereignty.

UNDP and MOSIP have some experience working with governments to build and use DPIs and DPGs, including:

  • CoWin – a digital solution for COVID-19 vaccination management registration. It uses Digital Infrastructure for Vaccination Open Credentialing (DIVOC) to credentialize vaccines.
  • OpenG2P – a system for government-to-citizen cash transfers.
  • MOSIP – an open-source identity platform to help establish foundational ID systems for citizens being implemented and piloted in six countries.

Lessons can be elicited from this experience to help accelerate DPI implementation using DPGs and empower countries to build their digital foundations.

Lessons for better DPI implementation

1. Customizing DPGs is key

There's evidence to suggest that countries using DPI were more responsive to the socio-economic and health impacts of COVID-19 through cash transfers and vaccination campaigns. Now, governments want to accelerate DPI implementation, especially in low and middle-income countries.

To do this well, DPGs should be understood as more than a generic codebase but can be deployed through DPI implementation according to different country needs. Its success, therefore, depends on more than technical implementation but requires a roadmap for what countries want to achieve.

OpenG2P is an example of a DPI built during the West Africa Ebola crisis. Most of its spec was developed by the Government of Sierra Leone and local open source innovators with significant effort to coordinate and connect available identity and payment systems, assist field officers' capacity building, and support grievance redressal for help desks to assist all health workers.

CoWin's implementation in India also involved at least 70% of its budget on non-technical spend, including activating 325,000 more COVID-19 vaccination sites, allowing above-national-average immunisation in rural and hard-to-reach areas.

2. Marry country strategies with DPG commitments

There is a clear demand for DPI implementation opportunities and many countries are seeking support on how to get started.

Committing to incorporating DPGs into national development is a critical first step. Success, however, requires understanding the alignment of this commitment with governments' broader goals.

In Afghanistan, for example, UNDP launched the ABADEI strategy as part of the UN's overall crisis response, encouraging coherence and complementarity of intervention; 12 other UN entities joined them. The effort was a key opportunity for Afghan stakeholders and the global humanitarian community to share local understanding and commit to designing interoperable systems with robust standards that can build resilience and safeguards for the future.

Facilitating commitment through strategic planning is a powerful tool for progress and can be a tangible starting point to accelerate DPG implementation.

3. Shift from siloed to whole-of-society approaches

Countries must establish their own objectives to inform design choices in DPI implementation, and for that, there has to be a mindset that recognises what DPI at scale can achieve. It necessitates moving from a siloed or a singular department approach to a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach.

Systems-level change can facilitate DPGs and new forms of cooperation. For example, when the Government of the Philippines implemented MOSIP, it needed to move the conversation beyond just the Philippines Statistics Authority to include various departments of the Government. Now, several cross-functional use cases are being conceptualized leveraging DPI implementation.

This mindset shift can be stimulated through conversations about leveraging DPI during implementation. Talk about deploying and customizing interoperable digital systems that can serve multiple use-cases and unlock value for citizens.

4. Build capacity and facilitate collaboration

Capacity building is a foundational building block for successful DPG implementation, especially for DPI, and necessary for governments, local digital ecosystems and civil society organizations.

There are several considerations to these broad capacity-building needs. For governments, the first step to knowing where skills and resources must be strengthened is articulating a vision for their digital infrastructure.

However, capacity-building efforts should generally include:

  • Ensuring inclusivity and human rights considerations are built-in during the implementation of DPI, e.g. outlining what data sharing means and establishing safeguards within the digital architecture.
  • Working across different stakeholders, such as procurement and vendor management, that need to be on the same page.Technological capacity to supervise the DPG implementation.
  • Being able to visualize and set legislative and policy frameworks for the governance of national-scale infrastructure.

5. Foster a local culture of service and innovation

Attracting and retaining local talent is important for building local digital ecosystems. The Government of Bangladesh has done this remarkably with a2i, a joint programme with UNDP.

It shows how local innovation hubs can become important enablers for building local talent and provide ongoing support to DPI systems. It also helps remove dependency on global companies as vendors, fostering services and innovation locally.

This is also unfolding on an international scale. Co-Develop, for instance, a global not-for-profit fund and resource mobilisation platform, aims to create an ecosystem helping countries build inclusive, safe and equitable DPI.

Progressing the Sustainable Development Goals

As a recent Digital Public Goods Alliance and Rockefeller report highlights, DPI holds great promise to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by including more people in the digital economy, enabling good governance and service delivery, and creating new tools to respond to urgent challenges.

As we move these conversations forward, broader questions remain of how and at what level these discussions should be held and how support to countries must be anchored. But these early insights can hopefully help advance the conversation on DPI to ultimately forge better and more inclusive societies.