The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) is fundamental to well-functioning economies and citizens’ well-being.
DPI refers to digital solutions that enable basic functions essential for public and private service delivery, i.e. collaboration, commerce, and governance. Think about our existing shared public infrastructure such as roads and education, but online: that’s DPI in a nutshell.
Typical examples include digital identification platforms such as Aadhaar in India, data exchange streams such as X-road in Estonia, or digital payment systems such as UPI in India and Raast in Pakistan.
Here are four reasons why you should care about DPI.
1. DPI proved invaluable to countries in fighting COVID-19
Countries that had existing comprehensive DPI before the pandemic were able to build a coherent, comprehensive and rapid response to the virus.
Take Togo, for example. The West African country used digital payments and data to target COVID-19 emergency cash transfers to the most vulnerable and got the programme up and running in 10 days. The programme paid more women than men, and also provided support to informal workers.
In another example, Sri Lanka built and deployed a real-time COVID-19 screening, contact tracing and monitoring system on its existing health platform and began deploying it within days after the first case of COVID-19 was registered. The country also shared the new tools with other countries using the same health software platform.
2. Digital public goods are helping DPI reach a global scale
The beauty of software and standards is that anyone, anywhere, can contribute to and use them and that they only gain value as they are shared and reused. Software developers have understood this and used open source as the basis for collaboration for years. We can do the same in building digital public infrastructure to address urgent global challenges and development needs.
Digital Public Goods (DPGs) – open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards, and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable best practices – are a critical tool for building infrastructure in ways that address some of the limitations of solutions that rely on proprietary software.
A good example is the District Health Information Software 2 (DHIS2) which was first created in post-Apartheid South Africa to address gaps in health data collection, access, and use at the local level. Today it is the world’s largest health management information system platform, managed by the University of Oslo, Norway, and is used by ministries of health in 73 low and middle-income countries representing 30% of the world’s population.
During the pandemic, countries such as Sri Lanka built new modules on DHIS2 for real-time disease surveillance and for vaccine rollout planning and monitoring. The core DHIS2 team refined and shared these modules with the broader community and they are now in operation in 41 countries and in development in others. The system has accelerated vaccine rollout in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries and streamlined clinical lab and travel certification processes.
MOSIP, also a digital public good, is a foundational digital identification system available to all governments for deployment as part of their DPI. It is designed to be secure, inclusive, and protect privacy. Morocco, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Guinea, Ethiopia, and several other countries are now assessing or implementing their own systems based on MOSIP, making adaptations to meet their own needs.
3. If DPI is not “good”, it can be very bad for everyone
Reports from Afghanistan indicate that people are worried that databases held by the collapsed government could be used against them by the Taliban. No one should have to feel this way, highlighting why it is crucial to get things right from the start and anticipate how things could go wrong. Bad DPI can have dramatic consequences – which is why building “good” DPI should not be an afterthought when developing such infrastructure.
“Good” infrastructure must be inclusive, protect the privacy and security of citizens, and be governed by regulations that ensure accountability and transparency in their implementation. It must be built to enable governments to collaborate with the private sector and to promote vendor diversity and innovation on top of the foundational systems. This is essential for ensuring that users get access to a range of services like healthcare, insurance and financing and that thriving local ecosystems evolve to provide these services. And there must be alternatives and redundancies to ensure those who can’t or choose not to use them aren’t excluded.
This is not easy to get right for any country and the consequences of getting it wrong can be dire – not only in terms of cost overruns and delays but also in terms of human rights abuses. As governments worldwide try to respond to the pandemic, the least developed countries in particular, need urgent comprehensive support to implement good DPI, and as a protection against hasty implementation of badDPI.
4. It’s a business opportunity for everyone
Building meaningful public-private partnerships is going to be instrumental in developing good DPI, and businesses, large and small, will also win from this.
In India, the digital payments ecosystem grew after Aadhaar and UPI were put in place, and attracted many new companies – domestic and international – who were able to build and deliver new services and gain sizable market shares. By bringing in over 330 million people in the formal financial sector, India’s digital infrastructure was driven by and has driven innovation both in the public and the private sector.
It has also allowed for competition and innovation, with PhonePe, PayTM, Google Pay, Amazon Pay and others contending to be the consumer’s favourite payments app. But it wasn’t only good for the big players; during COVID-19, digital transactions around the country have reached a new high both for big and small banks. UPI also removed barriers to entry, democratizing innovation to old and new businesses alike.
As these ecosystems grow, the most important goal should be to ensure DPI delivers benefits for the smallest of enterprises and the average person, taking away the barriers of distance, cost, paperwork, and bureaucracy that hold back their participation in the digital economy.
We are part of a rapidly growing international community of organizations working to change how countries are supported in their digital transformation journeys. There are no quick fixes. Only through better coordination, vastly more resources, and a clear vision of what “good DPI” is and why it matters can we accelerate deployments, strengthen national digital sovereignty and local value creation.
We also need to change how we work – silos in government, international organizations and business, and outmoded ways of approaching public technology are holding us back. Later this year, like-minded leaders are coming together to co-develop new ways of working, setting off a programme of action led by the Digital Public Goods Alliance and others.
This article was first published in World Economic Forum.