Ghana, home to some of West Africa's first DPGs
How UNICEF crafts support mechanisms for open source social entrepreneurship and innovation discovery, creating pathways to implement digital solutions that help attain the SDGs
In the world of fast-changing innovation fads and attitudes, UNICEF has long maintained that the most reliable path to innovation - and perhaps the biggest innovation itself - is the open source approach.
More than ten years ago, UNICEF established its innovation principles, one of which advocates to “Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation” to unlock greater impact in international development and cooperation. A steadfast commitment to open source is reflected in the entirety of UNICEF’s innovation programming and tools. The UNICEF Venture Fund provides equity-free seed funding for open source oriented startups and Country Office solutions. The UNICEF StartUp Lab in Ghana educates its cohorts on open source business modelling and licensing. As part of this commitment, innovation at UNICEF is being reimagined using a global innovation portfolio-based approach, ensuring investments in innovations are evidence-informed across specific priority areas in Global Innovation Hubs.
UNICEF is a co-founder of the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), a multi-stakeholder initiative with a mission to accelerate the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in low- and middle-income countries by facilitating the discovery, development, use of, and investment in digital public goods (DPGs). 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.” This definition is drawn from the UN Secretary-General’s definition found in the 2020 Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.
For the DPGA to succeed in its mission, it is crucial that UNICEF Country Offices lead the way in DPG discovery and development; regional teams are best positioned to identify local challenges and the ecosystems that can solve them. For this reason, the DPGA identified 10 pathfinding UNICEF Country Offices with the task to raise awareness of open source; strengthen the policy environment for supporting and developing open source solutions; engage startup and entrepreneurship ecosystems to consider open source as a viable approach and business model to develop products; and discover and develop DPGs.
UNICEF’s office in Ghana is one of the Pathfinders. Through its StartUp Lab, it supports social and sustainable entrepreneurs in developing their product and business model. The Lab also functions as an incubator of DPGs, by supporting startups which already develop in open source, and educating those who consider doing so. The objective is to graduate DPGs from the Ghana Country Office StartUp Lab so they are better-positioned to apply for the UNICEF Venture Fund investment. The Country Office assesses viability of the StartUp Lab solutions through its programmatic sections - the type of vetting that cannot be done from New York or Geneva. Finally, the Country Office works with national institutional partners to support their open source work and embed it within the wider policy solutions.
The StartUp Lab, Venture Fund and Innovation Hubs are UNICEF’s tools to capture and support innovations at different moments in their lifecycle. This year, by tapping into this carefully crafted pathway toward innovation discovery and scale, the UNICEF Country Office in Ghana was able to discover and develop two DPGs: Bisa App and EduNOSS; and DPG nominee Project Konko.
DPG nominee Project Konko is a Virtual Reality lesson creator built in Unity. It was designed by Ghanaian startup NubianVR, a 2018 UNICEF Venture Fund graduate, who sees content creation as the primary difficulty in adopting extended reality (XR) for learning. Hence, Project Konko’s goal is to provide an aggregated toolkit to publish and manipulate 2D content, 360 video content, and 3D objects into virtual learning environments and assess learning outcomes using a multiple choice question engine. By expediting immersive content creation, this DPG bridges the barriers developers, creators and educators face while using VR for learning. Developing in the open allowed NubianVR to benefit not only from their research, but also parallel research happening across other geographies where Project Konko could be deployed. At present, Project Konko is compatible with the OculusGo VR device, with a Quest integration in early development stages. Eventually, Project Konko can be integrated with open-source Learning Management Systems, allowing educators to have the tools to keep track of learning & school records.
“For the Nubian team, Project Konko becoming a digital public good is an important impact indicator. In 2019 Nubian outlined that one of its key contributions to learning would be to facilitate the development of an open digital infrastructure to make immersive learning more accessible. Project Konko becoming a digital public good ensures that immersive learning gets a better chance of penetrating the world. With Project Konko, educational stakeholders can short-circuit the technological barriers we faced as we attempted to build our first educational content in VR. We look forward to having developers and educators in other parts of the world building VR learning tools, experiences and research using Project Konko.”
In further support of the open source approach in Ghana and globally, Nubian Foundation, the not-for-profit arm of NubianVR, was established, to serve as a vehicle to coordinate Nubian’s digital learning agenda. As part of its mandate - to initiate and support open-source projects that build critical digital learning infrastructure - the Foundation serves as a custodian of Project Konko, by ensuring that its digital public good status remains relevant through research, updates and developer support. Project Konko allows the NubianVR research team to build VR content quickly and test it with various stakeholders.
The second DPG discovered in Ghana and added to the DPG Registry in 2021 is Bisa, a mobile application developed by Bisa Health, this year’s UNICEF StartUp Lab graduate. Bisa allows patients to speak to doctors and receive relevant healthcare information through their mobile devices. This is an advantage for people who need medical care and advice but are unable to visit the hospital for various reasons, such as high costs, long waiting times, and the fear of stigmatization (especially for people who are exhibiting symptoms of Sexually Transmitted Diseases). Following the COVID-19 global outbreak, the Bisa app supported Ghanaians in receiving public health updates on the pandemic, checking their symptoms, accessing expert advice, and providing psychological support to survivors and health workers. Bisa Health currently works with the Ghana Health Service and hospitals to follow up on COVID-19 patients being treated at home. In addition, the platform allows health institutions and governments to easily set up a Bisa instance to manage patient and doctor communication through a mobile or computer device.
"We are happy to be a part of this great initiative because it gives Bisa the leverage to scale up our technology to many countries. Being a part of the DPGA platform will also assist healthcare systems in low income countries to easily set up an instance of Bisa instead of wasting resources to build another health app from scratch hereby saving time, money and to some extent lives. We believe access to doctors is a critical problem in most parts of the world and becoming a DPG gives us the platform to further develop this great technology to impact even more lives. Open source will allow other great software engineers to join our team and to maximize our efforts in solving the healthcare system one code at a time.”
Bisa serves as an example how locally developed support mechanisms (StartUp Lab at UNICEF Country Office) serve centrally positioned structures (DPGA and Office of Innovation at UNICEF HQ). Prior to its inception into the Lab, Bisa had not been aware of the DPGA. Six months later, it figures as one of 68 recognized DPGs, ready to be implemented in other countries, to provide access to doctors and healthcare information worldwide.
Another organization committed to advancing the use of open source in Ghana is the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT (AITI-KACE). With its own open source resource and research centre in Boltanga, the Ghana Centre for Free & Open Source Software (GCFOSS), the Institute has long been the nation's leading actor in open source development, education and advocacy. In 2019 the Institute developed EduNOSS, the educational variant of the NOSS GNU/Linux Operating System project, which became registered as the first DPG from Ghana. The goal of EduNOSS is to provide a platform for pre-tertiary schools in Ghana to support STEM learning and innovate solutions to promote national development without any restrictions. EduNOSS has already been adopted by several schools as a preferred operating system for STEM education, and was recently quoted in the Government Budget Statement for 2022 as a tool with potential for critical support to West African countries to meet SDG 4 (Quality Education).
“For EduNOSS to be accepted as a DPG which contributes to the achievement of SDG 4 encourages AITI-KACE to do more, knowing that the solution is recognised as supporting the total human development, including children.
EduNOSS as a DPG provides an opportunity for the Centre to share the success of this project with other groups and countries leveraging on DPGA, UNICEF and partners’ platforms. Open-source concepts and technologies provide unrestricted opportunities to create innovations by learning from others and sharing same with people who need such innovation to improve their lives.”
AITI-KACE remains UNICEF’s primary institutional partner in Ghana in advocating for the open source approach. UNICEF supported 2021 Ghana Software Freedom Day celebrations at AITI-KACE, and the two teams are currently discussing best ways to raise national open source awareness and technical capacity. Without a technical ecosystem to sustain them, locally developed DPGs risk a short-lived success.
There is a moral to this story. DPGs exemplify social and sustainable entrepreneurship and innovation. Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that such entrepreneurs and innovators need frameworks and institutional support to thrive. By having developed a kaleidoscope of tools that can capture social and sustainable innovation at various stages of their journey, and being committed to the open source approach, UNICEF has been making strides in expanding the global availability of digital public goods. Seven more startups from the 2021 StartUp Lab cohort have expressed interest in becoming a DPG, and UNICEF in Ghana is currently supporting their application submission process. By becoming open source, they would be well positioned to apply to UNICEF Venture Fund in the future.
The StartUp Lab, Venture Fund and Innovation Hubs are UNICEF’s tools to capture and support innovations at different moments in their lifecycle, and we are constantly looking to improve. Anyone familiar with HQ-Country Office dynamics in the world of international development will appreciate the challenge to make it an axis of knowledge transmission rather than perpetual miscommunication.
In 2021, it feels that we managed the former and did something right - spotlight the ingenuity of Ghanaian innovators on a global stage. It remains to be seen in 2022 if we can sustain it, and what other opportunities we can take.