Can open-source technologies support open societies?

Report by Victoria Welborn, and George Ingram: “In the 2020 “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres highlighted digital public goods (DPGs) as a key lever in maximizing the full potential of digital technology to accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while also helping overcome some of its persistent challenges. 

The Roadmap rightly pointed to the fact that, as with any new technology, there are risks around digital technologies that might be counterproductive to fostering prosperous, inclusive, and resilient societies. In fact, without intentional action by the global community, digital technologies may more naturally exacerbate exclusion and inequality by undermining trust in critical institutions, allowing consolidation of control and economic value by the powerful, and eroding social norms through breaches of privacy and disinformation campaigns. 

Just as the pandemic has served to highlight the opportunity for digital technologies to reimagine and expand the reach of government service delivery, so too has it surfaced specific risks that are hallmarks of closed societies and authoritarian states—creating new pathways to government surveillance, reinforcing existing socioeconomic inequalities, and enabling the rapid proliferation of disinformation. Why then—in the face of these real risks—focus on the role of digital public goods in development?

As the Roadmap noted, DPGs are “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 SDGs.”[1] There are a number of factors why such products have unique potential to accelerate development efforts, including widely recognized benefits related to more efficient and cost effective implementation of technology-enabled development programming. 

Historically, the use of digital solutions for development in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) has been supported by donor investments in sector-specific technology systems, reinforcing existing silos and leaving countries with costly, proprietary software solutions with duplicative functionality and little interoperability across government agencies, much less underpinning private sector innovation. These silos are further codified through the development of sector-specific maturity models and metrics. An effective DPG ecosystem has the potential to enable the reuse and improvement of existing tools, thereby lowering overall cost of deploying technology solutions and increasing efficient implementation.

Beyond this proven reusability of DPGs and the associated cost and deployment efficiencies, do DPGs have even more transformational potential? Increasingly, there is interest in DPGs as drivers of inclusion and products through which to standardize and safeguard rights; these opportunities are less understood and remain unproven. To begin to fill that gap, this paper first examines the unique value proposition of DPGs in supporting open societies by advancing more equitable systems and by codifying rights. The paper then considers the persistent challenges to more fully realizing this opportunity and offers some recommendations for how to address these challenges…(More)”.