What are Digital Public Goods
Digital public goods are public goods in the form of software, data sets, AI models, standards or content and contribute to sustainable national and international digital development.
The UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation defines Digital Public Goods 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, and help attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
Open source usually refers to software that people can modify, share, and re-use because its design or “source code” is made publicly accessible. Open-source products provide universal access through an open-source license that legally enables it. In order for something to be recognised as a digital public good, it must demonstrate use of an approved open license.
The concept of digital public goods derives from the economic term “public good” which refers to something that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous. Non-excludability indicates that you cannot prevent someone from using or consuming that good. Non-rivalrousness indicates that one’s consumption or usage does not limit or take away from someone else’s.
The digital environment is particularly conducive for public goods and has created new methodologies for delivering them. The most common examples stem from free and open-source software (FOSS). FOSS has an open code base, meaning others can utilise it for their own product development, and by doing so it doesn’t take away or limit someone else’s ability to do the same.
Digital Public Goods in Action
Digital public goods take many forms and facilitate a range of positive impacts. Whether it be open-source software that enables government agencies to better serve their citizens, open datasets that power digital solutions to make better decisions, or open standards that improve digital interoperability, one thing is clear, they can be a force for good for a country’s digital transformation efforts.
The Digital Public Goods Alliance believes that 21st century solutions are needed to address 21st century challenges. That includes the use of digital public goods, which can be powerful tools for addressing the Sustainable Development Goals, which are some of the greatest challenges humanity is facing. See examples of Digital Public Goods aimed at achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Why digital public goods matter
When implementing digital solutions, digital public goods should be considered and prioritised. Digital public goods provide benefits to countries, institutions, and businesses trying to advance and achieve the SDGs. Below are some of the leading benefits of digital public goods:
- Adoptability: DPGs can be freely adopted by governments or agencies.
- Avoid Vendor Lock-in: Because DPGs are open source, they do not lock the user into one technology vendor, thus ensuring compatibility.
- Scalability: Adopting DPGs that have been successfully implemented at scale elsewhere can save countries and institutions resources and enable lower risk experimentation, piloting, and roll-out.
- Adaptability: DPGs can be adapted to fit local needs which can also help build long-term ownership and agency of implementing countries.
- Collaboration: Any users of a particular DPG can collaborate and share best practices, as is the case in most communities of practice.
- Project sustainability: Adaptations and iterations in countries can be supported by open-source communities. New features and best-practices developed by implementing countries can be merged into the generic DPG.
- Country ownership and capacity: DPGs can enable deep involvement of local expertise in country-specific implementations and can be deployed together with dedicated efforts to build long-term local capacity to maintain and iterate these implementations for future needs.
- Transparency and accountability: The open-source licensing of DPGs means that their code base can be independently scrutinised and audited. This also facilitates accountability and public discourse around issues such as incorporating best practices and designing DPGs with the aim of doing no harm.