The transformative role of academia & digital public goods

Author: Liv Marte Nordhaug

Digital public goods (DPGs) can enable countries to directly address pressing development challenges while also strengthening long-term digital sovereignty, increasing trust in technology, and growing the local vendor ecosystem. However, in order to unlock the benefits of DPGs, more holistic support is critical. 

The third blog in our DPG financing series focuses on how funding the DPG ecosystem can ultimately enable countries to drive their own digital transformation. In particular, we explore the merits of helping finance academic hubs that can cultivate and foster country and regional expertise as well as incentivising local vendor capacity.

Read part I and part II in the financing series.

Digital public goods can enable long-term strategic digital planning while fostering independent agency by providing direct involvement in, and ownership of, the digital solutions that countries implement.

The open-source nature of these digital solutions can help incubate a local vendor ecosystem and, by including local academia in implementation plans, can build the foundations for countries to eventually develop and manage their own digital public infrastructure. In addition, strategic funding models can help facilitate regional collaboration, as countries adopting the same digital solutions can freely align and learn from one another, and even share mutually beneficial code iterations.

All this exemplifies the need to broaden the current narrative beyond short-term cost-benefit analyses of DPG implementation, to models that capture the long-term benefits DPG deployment can foster. And, the international donor community must evolve their funding models accordingly.

Empowered by open source and DPGs, countries are driving digital transformation

Globally, there are numerous countries showing leadership by utilising the collaborative benefits of DPGs. Sierra Leone’s National Innovation and Digital Strategy seeks to ensure that institutions, markets, citizens, and the government digitise inclusively by considering open source technologies as an opportunity to bring regulators, learners, and innovators together. Sierra Leone has also developed OpenG2P, a digital public good that facilitates large scale cash transfers.

Open source software can allow governments to quickly build off of previous implementation and deployment experiences. Lessons learned through the creation, development, and implementation of DPGs in one country may prove valuable to other countries in the region with shared contextual challenges. “This can reduce time, cost, and effort to solve similar problems” says George Gelaga-King, Software Engineer from Sierra Leone’s Directorate of Science and Technology & Innovation.

Code transparency is also becoming a key driver for the adoption of DPGs. While proprietary systems don’t allow for countries to see what is “under the hood”, digital public goods are open source and therefore allow others to understand, adapt, and build trust. This can be particularly important when countries develop sensitive national digital platforms meant to serve as horizontally enabling digital public infrastructure. These horizontal platforms need to interoperate with other platforms, and also be designed to stimulate vendor diversity.  

When the Philippines decided to implement Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP), a DPG, for its national ID system PhilSys, ownership, scalability, and developing trustworthiness in the system were critical factors. Over the course of the next three years, the Philippines Statistics Authority anticipates enrolling over 120 million Filipinos to the system, which will enable social benefit transfers from the government to millions of qualified individuals. 

The importance of stimulating the vendor ecosystem

Implementing DPGs creates a multiplier effect that exceeds the benefits of deployment alone. They can stimulate markets by creating opportunities for international and local implementation services, systems integrators, and other vendors to participate. Doing so creates jobs and establishes a means for continuous local capacity building. For instance, the DPG X-Road, a software that provides secure data exchanges throughout different organisations, offers online training courses that allow for vendors to upskill and learn how to best implement the technology. Capacity building is crucial not only for implementing and maintaining digital solutions, but also for incorporating local features into the existing system that may address context specific needs such as language or geography. However, vendors also need to feel the risk of prioritising open source solutions is worth taking, and there is potential need for both designing market forecasting tools and different types of small-grant mechanisms to incentivise a more vibrant ecosystem that can mitigate risk for vendors.

The role of academia and long-term capacity building

Academia has a unique role to play in helping build and evolve a sufficient base of technical skills, knowledge, and capacity in-country, which benefits both the public and private sectors. While government agencies are often influenced by short-term political objectives and the private sector is driven by economics that may not always benefit the broader public good, academia can provide a more knowledge-based, rigorous and long-term perspective that digitalisation efforts can benefit from. In addition, educational institutions like universities are already positioned to help train and build clusters of expertise, and to facilitate collaboration between students and faculty across multiple academic institutions and networks nationally and internationally. 

Collectively sharing ideas and research around implementations of DPGs can help establish best practices and ensure the long-term sustainability and upkeep of digital solutions. And, with access to its source code, researchers can develop a better understanding in the digital solution itself and therefore its potential.

Sustainable funding of academic research via grants connected to the implementation of DPGs can promote this type of knowledge sharing and allow government staff to build critical expertise by utilising the insights gained through research. This type of funding arrangement can help local experts identify opportunities for local customisation, and seed the potential for future commercial derivatives.

The digital public good DHIS2 has university collaboration at the very core of its model, understanding the value add it provides for future scaling and sustainability. DHIS2 Academies convene new and experienced practitioners from multiple countries to share their experiences with the platform and learn new features. To complement this and ensure local expertise is utilised, DHIS2 has the Health Information Systems Programme (HISP) community, a global movement working to strengthen health information systems in low- and middle-income countries. To support these communities, and with sustained funding from partners, hundreds of scholarships have been provided to engage students in informatics and health systems that have helped ensure long term capacity building in implementation countries. Numerous graduates have completed PhD and masters programs on topics related to DHIS2 deployment, and play critical roles in academia, government institutions, and the local vendor ecosystems. In some instances they have also gone on to lead local HISP communities. 

DHIS2’s intentional efforts to build networks rooted in academic and regional collaboration are paying off. Eswatini is currently implementing DHIS2 for Education, and while the country has never deployed DHIS2 before, local experts from Uganda and Mozambique are assisting in providing insights gained through their own implementation and deployment. 

Looking ahead

Digital public goods can help countries move from observers to drivers of their digital transformation. However, to do this we must move beyond only supporting technology implementations, and supplement with new types of funding assistance directed at stimulating the local vendor ecosystem and supporting academic institutions to become local hubs of expertise and capacity.

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Cover Image: Photo by Kojo Kwarteng on Unsplash