In recent years, the term digital public goods (DPGs) has seen increasing use and been linked to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and concepts like digital sovereignty. At the same time, a global campaign to advocate its uptake has gained endorsement from a growing number of actors, including some national governments of both developed and developing countries (e.g., the US, Germany, India, and Sierra Leone), international organisations (e.g., the UNDP and the UNICEF), and some major philanthropic donors like the Gates Foundation. What is driving the growing interest in this term? Is it only a buzzword? Can DPGs make real contributions to enhancing digital sovereignty and achieving international development goals? This short paper introduces the concept of DPGs, discusses its implications, and asks whether the DPG movement will realise its potential.
Reasons behind the interest in DPGs
The definition of DPGs used in this paper is taken from the United Nations 2020 Roadmap for Digital Co-operation:
“open-source software, open data, open artificial intelligence models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable international and domestic laws, standards and best practices and do no harm.”
That is, in addition to their open availability, DPGs need to satisfy other desirable public interest criteria, including protecting privacy and adhering to principles like “do no harm”. The term public goods in economists’ language requires that they also be non-rival and non-excludable, and this is incorporated in alternative definitions of the DPG (see for example a paper from Harvard).
DPGs have been largely associated with supporting efforts to attain the United Nations’ SDGs. The SDGs stretch across all aspects of development – as diverse as gender equality and clean water – and it is widely agreed that digital technology has important contributions to make to each SDG, as explained for example by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). DPGs are often seen in development circles as especially attractive because of their low or even zero cost of acquisition, related to a production cost which is almost zero when the code already exists and is shared. The global open source community continues to grow (for both principled and practical reasons) and is available to advise on product choice and implementation.
Another driver for the interest in DPGs is the Covid-19 pandemic, which strengthened global implementation of digital technologies in tackling health-related challenges. During the pandemic, digital technologies not only enabled people with access to continue their economic and social activities, but also provided vital healthcare services including contagion warnings, pandemic data and vaccination certificates. Digital products that for decades been known as open have come to the fore, alongside proprietary counterparts, to provide rapid solutions to Covid-19 and other challenges.
In addition, DPGs have the potential to counterbalance commercial digital oligopoly, at least to some extent. This leads to justified excitement around global co-operation in producing, sharing and implementing DPGs. For many governments around the world, using DPGs to build their digital infrastructure like digital ID and financial transaction systems certainly has its advantages, compared with relying on foreign private companies.
International supportive activities
Several related international initiatives are foremost in promoting the adoption of digital public goods: the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), and GovStack. Among them, the special role of the DPGA is to identify criteria by which DPGs may be recognised and certified as such. The list below shows the criteria used by the DPGA:
- Relevance to Sustainable Development Goals
- Use of approved open licences
- Clear ownership
- Platform Independence
- Full documentation
- Mechanism for extracting or importing non-personally identifiable data
- Adherence to privacy and applicable laws
- Adherence to standards & best practices
- Do No Harm by design (including Data privacy & security, Policies and processes for handling inappropriate & illegal content, and Protection from harassment)
In addition, the above-mentioned Harvard paper supplements this list by stressing the great importance of implementing DPGs in ways that will permit them to adapt flexibly to changing circumstances, that cannot initially be foreseen.
As of 1 March 2023, 142 DPGs are listed at the DPGA’s Registry. Among them, most are open software (121) and others include open data (14) and open content (15). While these DPGS usually target multiple SDGs, they particularly focus on areas like health (73), education (33), and reduced inequality (30). Just the first four entries in the alphabetical list illustrate their variety:
- Aam Digital – case management software for the social sector
- Accessible Kazakhstan – digital map with information on physical accessibility of public facilities
- AccessMod – software to model physical accessibility to health services
- African Storybook – children’s picture storybooks in African languages
In September 2022, the international DPG movement produced the Digital Public Goods Charter, seeking endorsement of its approach from a wide range of stakeholders. So far, 21 endorsers are listed, including several international agencies and major donors and also government departments of Germany, Norway, the US, Sweden, Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Uganda.
While there is now a strong movement in some circles (not all development-oriented) towards producing and promoting DPGs, they still form a very small proportion of available digital tools, with the great majority remaining proprietary – and the bulk of these, by usage if not by count, being controlled by large corporations, usually in non-transparent ways. The main factors affecting choices between DPGs and proprietary solutions are outlined in the next section.
Why countries choose to use DPGs
An important motivation for choosing DPGs is digital sovereignty. This, here, means the ability of national governments to make their own decisions about the digital infrastructure, tools and data that contribute to their nation’s economy, stability and progress. There is a widespread desire to keep national data, and especially its personally identifiable information (PII), within national borders. DPGs can help with digital sovereignty in the following ways:
- Keeping PII at home rather than sending it elsewhere. Digital identity systems are a prime example here.
- Providing the opportunity to develop a country’s own digital skills base. Digital payment systems are an example where the Global South has often led the Global North. The South is well equipped to devise and implement simple, low-cost work-arounds that do not rely on the latest mobile phones and technologies.
- The modular and modifiable nature of DPGs allows flexibility over time, and avoids lock-in to foreign suppliers. Digital education systems adopted as an emergency measure during the COVID pandemic may be an example of unforeseen lock-in.
- Using DPGs contributes to the global effort to reduce dependence on a few large digital companies.
On top of digital sovereignty considerations, there are all the usual procurement considerations like cost, speed of supply, vendor reliability, flexibility and sustainability. DPGs may win on some counts, but the established nature, wide availability and technical competence of giant digital corporations (mostly based in North America) continue to lead many countries to accept their services in both private-sector and public-sector contexts in spite of their disadvantages. Liv Marte Nordhaug and Lucy Harris, co-leaders of DPGA, speak of “balancing digital sovereignty and proprietary solutions”, pointing out that even alongside adopting DPGs, “a role remains for private enterprise in the need for systems integration, maintenance services, infrastructure such as cloud and data-centre services, and cybersecurity”. Considering countries’ pursuit of digital sovereignty, it is hoped that over time a home-grown skill base will reduce and eventually remove the need for external support.
Implications for international development cooperation
DPGs, by nature, are open-source solutions and foster best practices like interoperability and adaptability, which means they have great potential for international cooperation and collaboration regarding sustainable development. DPGA argues that DPGs will foster a move away from traditional donor-recipient relationships towards more equal partnerships, based on mutual openness, co-operation and co-development. One typical example is the Digital Infrastructure for Vaccination Open Credentialing (DIVOC) project in India, an open-source platform that enables countries to digitally orchestrate large-scale health campaigns such as vaccination and certification programs. DIVOC is also used in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Jamaica and Indonesia, demonstrating its potential for international cooperation, including cooperation among countries of the Global South that is set to grow.
Certainly, international cooperation around DPGs would be a desirable direction of travel for many countries in both Global North and Global South, but how far and how fast will this happen remains to be seen. In promoting international cooperation, it is important to include a wide range of stakeholders in deliberations around the choice, detailed implementation and development of DPGs. There can, of course, be difficulties in ensuring suitable representation of marginalised groups – including those who are poor, disabled, ethnic minorities and often digitally excluded – and of designing digital solutions that meet their pressing needs.
There is also a possibility that current geopolitical tensions on digital technologies may add some obstacles for international cooperation around DPGs. We have seen the impact of geopolitical competition on global technology standards —a public good in nature. A press statement released in June 2022 from Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, said that the U.S. would continue to play a ‘leading role’ in championing the use of DPGs for achieving the goals of sustainable development, and emphasized that the DPG Charter declared “principles for open-source technology products that respect human rights”. While such principles sound plausible, will they, in practice, be disruptive for international development cooperation, given that “human rights” can be politicised? At the moment, this concern seems just a cautious warning. In an ideal world, DPGs would have the potential to bridge differences among countries, rather than become another source of confrontation.
The title asked whether DPGs are just a current buzzword or a genuine trend. The view of this paper is that there is sufficient momentum for the promises of DPGs to be realised, though most likely rather more slowly than wished. It is noticeable that only a few Global South countries have so far made commitments to DPGs. Better understanding of why these few have taken this step, and by contrast why the great majority have not yet done so, would illuminate what needs to be done to realise the undoubted potential of DPGs.
The author is grateful for the support and encouragement provided by and through the OXGS. Special thanks to Jufang Wang, Robin Mansell and Denis Galligan.
 This started in the 1960s and 1970s with operating systems like Unix and Linux.
 DPGA is a public-interest initiative whose board includes two UN agencies (UNDP and UNICEF), representatives of the German and Sierra Leone governments, and an Indian thinktank for software. DIAL is a donor-supported body with a large international expert advisory team. GovStack is an e-government initiative of the governments of Germany and Estonia together with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the DIAL.
 This number is growing daily. It includes both recognised DPGs and others that have applied for recognition but whose recognition process is not yet complete.
 See: Can we future-proof Digital Public Goods? Rethinking sustainable business models, Venkatesh Hariharan, November 2022 https://dial.global/research/can-we-future-proof-digital-public-goods-rethinking-sustainable-business-models/
 In OECD Development Co-operation Report 2021, Shaping a Just Digital Transformation, at https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/development/development-co-operation-report-2021_ce08832f-en (a 503-page book), where there is an 9-page section called Digital public goods: Enablers of digital sovereignty.
 This is discussed in a 2022 OXGS report on global technology standards. See http://oxgs.org/2022/11/25/report-the-geopolitics-of-global-technology-standards-key-issues-and-solutions/