Digital Public Goods, International Development Organisations, and Universities: Building communities of contributors to sustain digital projects for the long-term

By: Prof. Assane Gueye, Director of the Upanzi Network at Carnegie Mellon University; Lucy Harris, Co-lead of the Digital Public Goods Alliance; & Benjamin Bertelsen, Digital Consultant, UNDP

Earlier this year, UNDP convened leaders of well-established DPGs, academics, and experts on open-source sustainability to discuss the role of open-source communities, universities, and the elements required for long-term DPG sustainability. This post highlights insights brought forward in the discussion as well as some key takeaways for practitioners.

Digital has become an increasingly pertinent part of how governments and development partners deliver whole-of-society transformations. As more services move to digital, so does the responsibility to keep services up and running. Beyond maintenance, digital services must also be adapted and extended to meet the demands of the future. 

Continued scaling for open-source projects, including DPGs, is strengthened by active contributor communities which can help foster long-term sustainability. In this context, sustainability is the ability of an open-source solution to provide a consistent level of service to all users over an extended period of time. In practice keeping a software project sustainable can happen in multiple ways, but they all share a need to maintain the code base, fix bugs and vulnerabilities, support new and existing users, update technical documentation, and facilitate adherence to changing national legislation. All of this work is critical to ensuring that the software continues to be operational and meet arising needs.

DPGs are different from other software projects, and that impacts sustainability
According to the DPG Standard, DPGs must be relevant to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. For this reason, DPGs are most often created based on an observed social need or gap in the delivery of public services in low- and middle- income countries, and an ambition to bridge this need with a digital solution. DPGs tend to originate in international development organisations, universities, and NGOs, unlike other software projects which are created by businesses, software vendors, or technology startups.

The type of incubation environment affects how projects are funded and supported. As it is widely considered more exciting to start new initiatives, often more attention is paid to the innovation phase compared to when products need support for implementation, product iterations, and maintenance. Heath Arensen, DIAL’s CEO of Open Source Programs, provided the following insight at the convening:

“For the past 20 years investments throughout the UN system have realised open source is a good thing. I think where we struggle the most is in shifting these projects from the innovation phase to the scale, maintenance, and maturity phase. We collectively struggle with how to move into the next phase. A lot of that is tied to the way funding comes in, in that it often favours innovation.”

Leveraging different types of communities to bring open-source projects closer to long-term sustainability
Communities can be a powerful force in fostering sustainability for a DPG. To help ensure individuals loosely associated with the project become a productive source, product teams should be deliberate about attracting the type of community that is best suited to support the solution. This can bring the project closer to creating value for users and stakeholders, receive recognition, ideally open new avenues for revenue for the DPG, and bring it into a phase of on-going operations with maintenance and support. 

While it is an option to broadly involve many different types of contributors to an open-source project, there is value in focusing on one of three community types:

  1. The user community. The end-users of an open-source project that can act as evangelists and help spread your product to other users or organisations that may find value in your product, give feedback, and provide expert knowledge.
  2. The contributor community. Software developers, architects, and designers who provide actual code, help write and update documentation, translate text, etc.
  3. The ecosystem community. Implementors that support actual implementations of the project in the local context.

The discussion mainly focused on the contributor community, which is most often connotated with open-source software development. This archetype can bring tremendous value to a project, motivate new people to work at the intersection of digital and the SDGs, and relieve the gap of technical talent missing in many organisations, including in development organisations and within governments.

This complements a growing consensus that, in order for development to happen, the digitalization of services is a must. There is a spur in projects that can advance development agendas. This trend will mean international organisations will increasingly make an effort to help build digital capacities and broaden the understanding of how people can contribute to a project. Individuals familiar with the context in which projects are being deployed will prove invaluable to its ultimate success. 

Seeing the contributor community as a resource to move projects closer to a maturity stage, this naturally leads one to ask – how do I begin developing such a community? Creating intentional strategies and practical how-to’s is a good start. This includes having a friendly ReadMe file to introduce your project on Github, and clearly explaining to others how to contribute. A helpful resource for this can be found here by Github, a Digital Public Goods Alliance member.

Contributor communities and the role of university partnerships in DPG maturity
In the very early stages there will not be a project for potential contributors to join. In that case, for aspiring DPG teams and project leads, a strategy for bringing technical talent and building sustainability around an engaged contributing team can be done by allying with local university partners. As Liv Marte Nordhaug, Co-lead of the Digital Public Goods Alliance, has previously written on the transformative role of academia on DPGs, universities are not only knowledge providers but can also bring stability, independence, and provide important public services. Collectively, this makes them ideal as organisational stewards and maintainers for DPGs. This role is already fulfilled by multiple universities’ computer science and technical departments together with well-established DPGs.

One example of how universities support capacity building around DPGs is in Kigali, Rwanda, where the Upanzi Network – a project that supports DPGs from a four-year grant run by the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Africa – is implemented. Broadly focused on cybersecurity, digital transformation of Africa, and infrastructure, the network aims to address issues around unequal access, and barriers to financial services including availability, affordability, regulations, and trust.

CMU Professor and Director of the Upanzi Network, Assane Gueye, emphasised the need for a problem-driven approach when engaging universities. Involve the university partner early on in framing the problem and possible solutions, some of which may involve open-source projects or data. For instance, at CMU Africa students can run through a practicum where outside partners propose a problem, and students work on projects throughout the year to develop a working digital product by an assigned date. For the Upanzi Network, a lab is provided where projects can be developed, tested, and demonstrated to stakeholders, including designing with security and privacy elements at the forefront.

In such partnerships, the faculty and student body can get something tangible too by mixing academic research via grants connected to the implementation of DPGs. By doing so, they become a knowledge partner, coordinator, and capacity provider for digital implementations between development organisations, local partners, and government. This helps ensure local capacity building and can reduce the risk of disjointed communities by engaging local users and ecosystem communities from the project outset. In addition, universities and their associated partners enjoy a continuous stream of new potential development talent through the student body and the research network of faculty. This can also help foster credibility around the DPG when successes and failures have been documented, peer-reviewed, and published.

DPGs share a social mission and a spirit of open knowledge together with universities. Most development organisations bring a lot of clout and experience in implementation yet are less established at fostering open-source contributor communities. Therefore, when thinking about increasing the long-term sustainability of a DPG, and building technical capacity around a solution, identifying and engaging a local university partner should be a priority for digital development practitioners.

Contributors to the discussion:

  • Ed Cable, President, MIFOS
  • Robert MacTavish, Project Lead, Primero
  • Prof. Assane Gueye, Director, Upanzi Network at Carnegie Mellon University Africa
  • Heath Arensen, Director, Open-Source Center for the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL)
  • Keyzom Massally, Head of Digital Programmes, UNDP
  • Ben Bertelsen, DPG Ecosystem Lead, UNDP
  • Lucy Harris, Co-lead, Digital Public Goods Alliance 
  • Jameson Voisin, Senior Advisor of Programs and Communications, Digital Public Goods Alliance