Open Source for Digital Sovereignty
The multidimensional development crises won’t be tackled with closed systems. UNICEF’s work in Ghana aims for a more equitable digital infrastructure.
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Every Friday, a teenage girl stands in front of the national parliament, holding a cardboard sign in solitary protest for a safer, more equitable future. Gradually, more students join her in what they call a ‘school strike’ — and similar campaigns start emerging in other countries. Soon after, the young activist becomes a symbol for the international movement of millions of young people. She travels to global meetings and meets with dignitaries. She speaks at a UN summit. She becomes the youngest Time Magazine ‘Person of the Year.’
It is the year 2030. The young girl is from Sub-Saharan Africa. The cardboard sign reads: “Action on Digital Crisis”.
Today's world is built on digital infrastructure that was not designed to ensure a safe, equitable future for all.
While 3.5 billion people in the world do not have access to the internet, those connected, both to individual user platforms and digital governance systems, are subject to a network and solutions that are increasingly monopolized by Big Tech, limited in access, guarded against open and public innovation, mired in data surveillance and routinely less secure. The fading promise of transparent, collaborative, community-oriented and meritocratic technology may push developing countries into the arms of ill-advised national internet schemes — trading digital colonization for self-imposed digital isolation.
UNICEF has long maintained that one of the main components necessary to develop healthy, equitable and safe digital solutions that can address societal challenges is the Open Source approach. Open Source enables what closed systems hinder: designing with the user, developing towards public good, rapid prototyping, the culture of sharing, transparent peer review, and unobstructed multinational collaboration. Over the past several years, UNICEF has developed various tools and platforms to operationalize its commitment to Open Source, which include fostering knowledge and capacity building, agreements to develop new products with vendors, collaborations in the open with partners, and financing. The UNICEF Innovation Fund provides equity-free seed funding for Open Source solutions developed by companies based in countries where the agency has presence on the ground. UNICEF endorses and rewards global entrepreneurs’ far-sighted approach to digital equity. So far 113 investments across 67 countries have been made, demonstrating UNICEF’s commitment to champion Open Source and develop a global catalogue of Digital Public Goods (DPGs).
Ghana is one of ten Pathfinding Countries identified by 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 DPGs. Endorsed by the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, the DPGA defines DPGs as: “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.” It is the Pathfinder Countries’ regional 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.
The UNICEF Country Office in Ghana, which became a Pathfinder in January 2021, took a three-pillar strategy to deliver on these tasks. Firstly, we looked for a local Open Source institutional champion who can support us in understanding the local landscape and with whom we could leverage each other’s strengths. We found such a collaborator in the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT (AITI-KACE). It became immediately clear that AITI-KACE’s local wisdom and expertise, along with UNICEF’s access to a global network of partners and tools, can accelerate the DPG agenda. Little did we know how quickly we would see progress — within two months of the initial conversation, following a scrupulous technical vetting process, the DPGA announced adding an AITI-KACE-developed Open Source solutions to its Registry of globally accessible DPGs. EduNOSS, an Open Source operating system for primary and secondary schools, became the first officially recognized DPG developed in Ghana. Together with AITI-KACE, we continue to engage relevant decision makers in public service to create awareness for the need of the Open Source governance systems.
Secondly, UNICEF has engaged the Ghanaian startup ecosystem in conversations about DPGs through its StartUp Lab, a co-creation space and accelerator located at UNICEF’s offices in Accra. Over a 6-month period, the StartUp Lab provides a unique offer of integrated business incubation and social sector technical expertise to selected companies. In 2021, the StartUp Lab is supporting a group of 22 businesses addressing challenges in health, education, WASH, cybersecurity, financial inclusion, and emergency interventions delivery. Four months into this year’s program, the DPGA has provided group webinars and individual consultations for those companies interested in submitting their solution to the DPG Registry. At this point, 4 startups have opened a DPG submission track with an additional 4 developing their products towards future submission. Here again we combine the ingenuity and expertise of local entrepreneurs with the strength of UNICEF’s network. Once part of the DPG Registry, solutions developed within the StartUp Lab will become immediately visible to all of UNICEF’s 124 Country Offices and other development partners, opening opportunities for piloting, scaling up and localization for other markets.
Finally, we are developing a strategy for technical capacity building. It is one thing to propose a viable tool, but another to develop an ecosystem to sustain it. Without a technical workforce well-versed in maintaining DPGs, we risk providing a more sophisticated version of the PlayPump – one that works but that no one knows how to service.
It is clear from the few examples highlighted above that UNICEF’s commitment to Open Source as a means to bring more equitable, safe, and simply better digital infrastructure is deep-rooted and unfading. No international development stakeholder should be in the business of colonizing with tech. While awareness of the dangers behind the Big Tech monopolies has increased, there is an urgent need to drive a public call for key decision makers to act by committing to open source, and to educate the public about its merits.
In the hundreds of submissions to the Innovation Fund and among participants of the Accra StartUp Lab, we have seen over and over again the brilliant foresight of young people, entrepreneurs, and technologists, who understand the importance of the ethos of the open, notwithstanding the burden of business modeling dilemmas. It would be a fallacy to think that the multilayered SDGs reality and the multidimensional character of development crises can be tackled with closed systems, digital walls aligned with nation-state borders, and monopoly-mediated digital sovereignty. These young cohorts which UNICEF interacts with daily feel responsible for the state of the digital world in 2030, and act accordingly. Theirs is a vision of solidarity, collaboration, and cohabitation.
It is either that, or the girl with the cardboard sign.