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The growing demand for digital public infrastructure requires coordinated global investment and an ethical lens

Global leaders weigh in on the ethical facets of digital public infrastructure at a virtual conference held Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

By Govind Shivkumar, Director of Responsible Technology, Omidyar Network

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 was an arduous year, or that the year that followed has been just as fraught. We all had a collective experience of the pandemic as a destabilizing force. It exacerbated and highlighted societal inefficiencies and inequities as no other single event in recent memory has, and it did so on a global scale.

Underlying many of the achievements and disappointments in pandemic response was digital public infrastructure (or lack thereof). Where some nations were equipped to deliver cash transfers to citizens, collect and utilize comprehensive public health data, and distribute vaccines in an orderly fashion, others struggled. What made the difference was often preexisting digital public infrastructure (or DPI).

Our friends at The Rockefeller Foundation explain this well in a new report, showing that as more of our society becomes digital (especially the economy), it becomes increasingly imperative that we treat digital infrastructure like we do roads and bridges. They outline six key areas of cooperation. The bottom line? We need coordinated global investment in digital public infrastructure so that it’s in place before we need it. And we need an ethical lens to ensure that any digital systems reinforce safeguards such as inclusion, trust, competition, security, and privacy.

The need for more and better digital public infrastructure has not gone unnoticed by government and philanthropy. This week, a group of nearly 20 global leaders laid out a shared vision for co-developing broad-based, flexible digital systems to support an equitable recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic while strengthening inclusion and human rights.

Hosted by the Digital Public Goods Alliance, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Norad), and The Rockefeller Foundation, the virtual event elicited meaningful ideas and commitments from The United Nations, European Commission, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Africa Digital Rights Hub, USAID, India, Sri Lanka, Togo, Sierra Leone, Estonia, Norway, Germany, and many other champions.

Omidyar Network’s Senior Vice President of Programs, Michele Jawando, moderated the conversation, drawing out pledges of funding and other support to MOSIP and Mojaloop (two of Omidyar Network’s grantees), the health data exchange DHIS2, Digital Square, Digital Public Goods Alliance, technical assistance to implementing nations, research, and proposals for new funding structures such as The Giving Pledge or creating a GAVI-like alliance that pools demand and resources from the public and private sectors.

“More than 400 people tuned in to learn more about digital public Infrastructure (DPI) — the basic systems like digital identity, payments and data exchanges that can connect us at a societal scale,” Jawando reflected. “Some heard for the first time how innovators built on DPI to slow disease spread and deliver help. They heard calls for caution and the need for safeguards for inclusion and protection. And they saw that we have a shared and coordinated agenda for equitable global co-development, based on digital public goods.”

As the speakers reminded us, this is just the beginning. We have a chance to bake ethics and inclusion into society’s next great socio-technological transformation; the first that is truly global AND digital. Let’s use that opportunity wisely.

If history has shown us anything, it’s that creating systems that have society-wide implications without prioritizing ethical considerations is a fool’s errand at best; at worst it’s catastrophic. As the demand for digital public infrastructure becomes more widespread, it’s important to prioritize the ethical considerations when designing such systems.

That’s the objective of a new white paper funded by Omidyar Network and developed by Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. To provide governments with a roadmap for the ethical deployment of digital public infrastructure, the Center’s Justice, Health and Democracy Impact Initiative produced a set of best practices for organizations that covers the design and deployment considerations for technologists, national governments, and philanthropic funders.

“After taking a hard look at existing work on this subject, we realized much of the debate is happening at the wrong level,” said co-author Josh Simons, who holds a joint fellowship at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “There is too much uncertainty, change, and dynamism for hard and fast rules. What we need are concrete structures of decision-making and participation that hold actors to account for how they build digital infrastructure.”

Specifically, the paper advises technology developers to design digital public infrastructure that can adapt to emerging needs, concerns, and technological developments. Developers should consult directly with advocates of end users at all stages of development to ensure systems do not undermine their rights. Developers should also ensure their systems are able to be accessed by a variety of users, regardless of background or experience with technology, and regularly revise and maintain the systems once they’re built.

On the policy side, it is critical that policymakers integrate deliberation in the design and deployment of digital public infrastructure. These deliberation processes should also seek out input and feedback from groups have historically been marginalized. Additionally, policymakers should continuously conduct evaluations of how digital systems are affecting the communities they serve and establish clear ways to reform the systems, protect user rights, and establish transparency and accountability for politicians and technology developers.

Finally, philanthropists who are hoping to support the development of digital public infrastructure should identify and support developers and policymakers who have clear commitments to responsible digital public infrastructure development. They should moreover establish accountability measures for themselves such as adopting multidisciplinary ethics committees to help with oversight and navigating uncertain situations.

And the paper stresses regular discussions among all stakeholders involved to assess the merits, feasibility, and limitations of digital public infrastructure.

“Our guiding principles for stakeholders involved in developing and deploying digital public infrastructure are revisability of technology design, deliberative governance to create feedback loops, and accountability of funders and policy-makers,” said Jeff Behrends, Director of Ethics and Technology Initiatives at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and co-author on the project. “We advocate an approach to the ethics of digital public infrastructure that we believe is robust, resilient, and applicable to countries across the world.”

If you feel like this has only scratched the surface, you’d be right! As with so many things with social, political, economic, and technological consequences, digital public infrastructure is a complex topic. Below are links to further reading that highlights the need for digital public infrastructure and how to make it a reality everywhere, for everyone. We’re confident that once others in government, international organizations, civil society, business, and philanthropy learn more, they will want to help overcome some of the remaining hurdles.

We welcome them into 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.

How to bring digital inclusion to the people who need it most (World Economic Forum, Aug. 2021)

Reimagining digital public infrastructure is no longer just a development agenda (Omidyar Network, June 2021)

A digital agenda for the Eastern Partnership (European Council on Foreign Relations, June 2021)

Exploring digital public goods (An eight-part series written by Richard Pope and supported by Omidyar Network, May-July 2021)

Opinion: The time is now for digital public goods (Devex, May 2021)

Financing the digital public goods ecosystem (Digital Public Goods Alliance, March 2021)

Covid-19 spurs national plans to give citizens digital identities (The Economist, Dec. 2020 — subscriber access required)

‘Fire hose’ of health innovation risks going down the drain (Financial Times, Nov. 2020)

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Omidyar Network is a social change venture that reimagines critical systems, and the ideas that govern them, to build more inclusive and equitable societies.