Why Singapore is building digital public goods

December 7, 2022
Profile of woman viewing OpenCerts website

Singapore is investing in digital public goods to ensure that digital technologies work for the benefit of everyone.

Photo: GovTech

The 20th Century was defined in many countries by the role and availability of public goods, as well as shared and common resources to improve life and prosperity. These public goods range from public housing and public health systems to parks and open spaces. Today, the 21st Century we live in is highlighted by the need to ensure digital technologies are similarly equitable and equal – and work for the benefit of everyone.

When attention is focused on digital, it's often about trillion-dollar valuations and tech unicorns, but we also need to recognize the unsung heroes of digital transformation: digital public goods.

Digital public goods are open-source software, open data, open artificial intelligence models, open standards and open content that are designed to improve lives and livelihoods around the world. By design, they adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm, and help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. They often make up the digital plumbing that underpin our global digital economies and societies.

Singapore is shaping global digital public goods

Singapore has had a long commitment with building and fostering open-source technologies. From the founding of Singapore’s Government Technology Agency – GovTech – in 2016, Singapore recognized the need to be open about how digital is done – including sharing and building on best practices. The COVID-19 pandemic reaffirmed this importance and further demonstrated that all countries are on a digital transformation journey – albeit at different stages.

Across the world, we are facing common challenges and can learn from the successes – and lessons – of each other. Digital public goods provide an opportunity for countries to exchange knowledge on what works – thereby allowing countries that are less equipped, to build on existing solutions without needing to start from scratch.

With this in mind, GovTech has been working with the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development to accredit several of GovTech's digital initiatives as digital public goods. Such accreditation provides governments around the world with further access to Singapore’s proven solutions, which they can explore and implement based on their local needs in order to accelerate digital development. The initial solutions selected by GovTech and UNDP – Purple HATS and OpenAttestation (discussed below) – were chosen in response to key development priorities.

Driving inclusivity with digital public goods

According to the World Health Organization, around 15 percent of the world’s population, or an estimated 1 billion people, live with some form of disability. Barriers to their inclusion and participation in everyday life are exacerbated by the lack of access to affordable and relevant assistive technology. For instance, only one in ten persons with disabilities today has access to the assistive technology needed for them to have independent and autonomous lives.

Gaps in inclusive digital design may also discourage – or worse still – exclude persons with disabilities from engaging in the digital economy. Given this issue, GovTech developed and open-sourced Purple HATS: a customizable, automated accessibility testing tool that allows software development teams to find and fix accessibility problems to improve persons with disabilities' access to digital services. For example, it can identify whether government websites are properly accessible on assistive technologies, such as screen readers, and whether they adhere to global Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Purple HATS is now available on this page in the Digital Public Goods Alliance’s registry, where anyone can explore how to put Purple HATS into practice.

To remain relevant beyond today’s challenges, digital public goods also need to be future-proofed and engaged with emerging technologies. One growing area of interest is around distributed-ledger technologies (DLTs) such as blockchain. DLTs are decentralized database initiatives that allow verifiable and peer-to-peer collaborations or transactions. This verification is important, as it can minimize – or highlight – when records or information have been tampered with. DLTs could play a crucial role in traceability, accountability and integrity – from improving digital governance, to ensuring that academic and other credentials are trusted.

Understanding the importance of these features, GovTech and UNDP have worked to get OpenAttestation recognized as a digital public good. OpenAttestation was developed by GovTech as an open-source framework that allows for trustworthy academic data-sharing by facilitating the decentralized issuance, storage and verification of academic and training documents, in line with applicable data privacy regulations. It is also inherently scalable and could be applied in non-academic settings, such as Trade Finance e.g. TradeTrust. Read more about it here.

Digital for sustainable development

As a small state, Singapore has long recognized the importance of sharing lessons learned, and building on best practices to accelerate the country's development journey. As a result, the country makes guidelines, digital products and services, and technical documentations from its government agencies available through the Singapore Government Developer Portal. OpenAttestation and Purple HATS are among the GovTech-developed solutions that are open-source for other product teams to use and adapt. These solutions cover a plethora of key areas, such as digital identity, design and user identity, and infrastructure as code (where digital infrastructure can be programmed, instead of managed manually).

As we all explore the potential of digital for our economies and societies – from digital public services, to emerging concepts such as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Cloud – we need to avoid duplication by drawing lessons from what has and hasn't worked.  Singapore is joining an increasing number of countries around the world in creating a new sense of global digital cooperation aimed at actively engaging with others with similar experiences and collaborating on the development and deployment of digital public goods.


With contributions by:

Agile Consulting and Engineering team: Steven Koh, Director and Barry Lim, Deputy Director
Accessibility Enabling Team: Zui Young Lim, Senior DevOps Engineer
Technology Management Office: Hazel Koh, Manager

This article was originally published on UNDP Blog.

"When attention is focused on digital, it's often about trillion-dollar valuations and tech unicorns, but we also need to recognize the unsung heroes of digital transformation: digital public goods."