Image of Heath's essay "stewarding digital public goods" from the pdf proof

There’s a growing understanding that digital technologies and data can be a shared public good and that if there’s shared investment in both the creation and maintenance of these, the outcome is more beneficial on a social level.

Digital public goods (DPGs), (like electronic health record management systems) and digital public infrastructure (DPI), (for example, identity and payment systems), that leverage open source are being used to deliver essential national services, aid national digital transformations, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

At the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), we estimate there are approximately 500 active open source software projects focused on social objectives related to the Sustainable Development Goals. Despite this, many of these projects struggle with long-term viability. In a recent survey of DIAL’s open source partners, 94% said their top challenge was resourcing for sustainability.

It’s a challenge that has often been overlooked. Who is responsible for maintaining and managing a public good? How do we steward our collectively-owned digital assets through development? Essentially, what is our long-term plan for supporting an asset meant to last years not months?

We can learn important lessons if we look at how we invest in and maintain physical infrastructure such as parks, roads and bridges. Governments invest in essential physical infrastructure but once built, revenue streams such as taxes and tolls maintain them.

DPIs and DPGs face similar sustainability challenges.

Let’s look at an analogy that demonstrates how efforts to maintain public goods often fail. Usually, a new park starts out as a government investment. The government can then license private enterprises, such as an ice cream shop, to use the park’s basic infrastructure for the public good. Developing public attractions in the park creates a good customer experience which enhances the city’s initial investment. The city planners think the attractions will encourage more families to visit and the revenue can help subsidise the park’s maintenance. From the ice cream shop’s point of view, the initial investment is a great opportunity and when it opens, it attracts many children anticipating a cool treat. All parties then declare success. The shop’s fee to the city, combined with tax revenue, covers the overall costs and maintenance for the park. For a few years, all is well—many people visit the park, the ice cream shop is profitable, and the park is well maintained.

However, after some time passes, enthusiasm for the park fades, city designers turn to new projects, and the park’s operating budget is eventually cut. The park infrastructure deteriorates—landscaping is no longer maintained and the playground equipment begins to rust. With no city funds available and few citizens volunteering in the park, the ice cream shop faces a key decision—does it close its business or does it take on more responsibility? Its whole business is wrapped up in the park’s ability to attract new visitors. Their profitability and ability to deliver their services depends on a responsible steward for the park.

Sketch by Jamie Arnold (Public Digital network)

In other words, the ice cream shops are organisations and individuals who take on an outsized financial and directional responsibility to keep a digital platform running. At DIAL, we’ve seen this happen with developers of many DPGs and DPIs. Sometimes they’ve been universities, non-government organisations, individuals, or governments. Sometimes they’ve been non-profits like the Mifos Initiative and Mojaloop Foundation who steward open-source financial inclusion tools. Sometimes they’ve been companies like Get ODK Inc. who support data collection projects, or Ona Systems Inc. who maintain the frontline healthcare platform OpenSRP.

What they’ve all had in common is that once the initial donor funding dries up, they find themselves in the position of being the most invested user. This means they often end up taking on the primary (often sole) responsibility of maintaining and improving the platform so they can continue delivering.

We believe that both the root of the challenge—and its solution—can be found by clarifying governance responsibilities. There are 2 primary models currently in use:

1. A single trusted vendor

In this model, the digital platform’s de facto maintainer often becomes the legal sole maintainer. They may pursue commercial revenue streams, membership fees, or grant funding. While the licence may remain open source, there is a single dominant vendor which means that community participation is more challenging, as they often require assignment/transfer of copyrights from contributors. Although this is often the simplest achievable path to sustainability, it raises the question whether a single vendor approach makes the term digital ‘public’ goods inaccurate.

2. Community governed

In this approach, digital public goods must establish custodians that are clearly chartered and legally empowered to govern in the public interest. Returning to the ice cream shop: let’s suppose the owner asked the city to convene a community meeting in which all attendees agreed the park was an essential public good. Together, they established an entity with a board to steward the park. The board took input from the community, mobilised volunteers to help clean up the park, and raised funds from local businesses and citizens.

Similarly, to create a sustainable system of community maintained open source tools, we must more often embrace custodial structures. The Apperta Foundation’s custodial structure for open source health projects provides a model for digital public goods. Further, identifying sources for core financial support and contributions, and a system to manage them, remains the most challenging task for those who maintain the projects. This challenge must be solved for investments to realise their full potential.

As donors continue to invest globally in DPIs that will thrive, DIAL advocates for the following:

1. A funding mechanism(s) for long-term core support.

2. An independent foundation(s) to act as a legal fiscal home and custodian.

3. Appropriate and easy-to-deploy community governance processes.

4. A platform(s) to facilitate volunteerism and contribution.

Several initiatives already support digital public goods and must work in cooperation to further strengthen these support systems. The Principles for Digital Development, also stewarded by DIAL, provides guidance in designing for long-term sustainability. PATH’s Digital Square provides custodianship responsibilities in the health sector. The GovStack partnership aligns DPGs to guide national government digital transformation. The Digital Public Goods Alliance maintains the DPG Standard and drives awareness and support for DPGs. The Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP) and Mojaloop, among others, are forging a path for other projects to follow.

While all these programmes support DPGs, we must do more. It is not enough to simply co-develop digital public goods. The ecosystem must also co-maintain them. The establishment of a funding mechanism, an independent foundation, and a volunteer contribution platform are interventions that will drive the scale, use, and impact of digital public goods.

Public Digital


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