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5 Things Digital Public Good Software Projects Need to Scale

  • Heath Arensen

When we advise Digital Public Goods, the most commonly reported challenge is long term sustainability. They have validated the demand for their project, but the path forward is unclear.

The need to accelerate progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals has led to investment in digital tools that support social objectives. As this software is increasingly deployed, open source licensing has been widely embraced by countries, the UN system, and international NGOs to avoid vendor lock-in, enable global adoption, while allowing local actors to innovate. Dedication to the use of open source software has been reinforced by the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation in its stated support for “broad and multi-stakeholder participation in global efforts to facilitate the creation and sharing of digital public goods — open source software [+data, models, standards, content] … of high relevance for attainment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals”.

The Digital Impact Alliance’s Open Source Center (OSC) was launched in late 2017 to provide support to Digital Public Goods (DPGs). Its services include business and community governance technical assistance, access to volunteer mentoring programs, grants for critical infrastructure development, and outreach. Here are some things we have learned through deep programmatic engagements with 30 DPGs, from the 134 DPGs in our community, and through collaborations with organizations like Digital Square and the Digital Public Goods Alliance

When we advise DPGs, the most commonly reported challenge is long term sustainability. They have validated the demand for their project, but the path forward is unclear. As they plan for scale, identifying and implementing the five following factors is foundational for long term sustainability:

  • Fiscal Home: A host entity to hold intellectual property, execute legal contracts, and receive funding. This legal entity must be able to meet the audit requirements of multilateral donors, a bar that can be far higher than what many small nonprofits typically encounter.
  • A Primary Maintainer: A primary maintainer takes responsibility for facilitating community management, product roadmaps, community governance, etc., all on behalf of the project’s many stakeholders.
  • Dedicated Product Team: Consistent “staffing” (whether directly paid by the project or volunteer) ensures a continuity of quality and efficiency while reducing costs by as much as 40%. With some variance, a core product team typically comprises a product owner, community manager, technical architect, and one or more software engineers. 
  • Access to Core Funding: Stable and secure funding for a baseline budget to maintain core product development is foundational for maintaining quality with assurance of ongoing support. Core funds are likely to include a mix of grants and generated revenue, ideally through public-private partnerships.
  • Connection to a Community of Practice: Collaborating with others solving similar challenges leads to better products through knowledge sharing as well as reduced duplication of effort and greater interoperability between products.

A Digital Public Good that incorporates these recommendations will be well-positioned to scale globally and help support those working to achieve the SDGs.

The OSC was created with the working assumption that a “neutral” support organization could increase the effectiveness and impact of DPGs. Many were chronically underfunded and had weak community governance, while the siloed nature of the aid industry had led to a large duplication of effort and fragmentation. The OSC’s initial services were focused on strengthening community governance, funding critical feature development, increasing volunteer contribution, and facilitating a community of practice. We have validated the demand for these services while reinforcing that there are two critical areas with which DPGs struggle to achieve scale: community governance and adequate financial resourcing. Despite these challenges, the vision remains as relevant as ever: procurers of tools for digital transformation have a menu of relevant, affordable, supported, and high-quality DPGs from which they can confidently choose.

The life-cycle journey of a typical DPG starts with the need to develop technology to accelerate a social outcome. This work is often started inside NGOs or universities. With an ability to accept grants and meet the audit requirements of large international donors, these organizations find themselves not just in the business of implementing social programs but now also in innovation and software development. 

Because of the importance of allowing social objectives to lead the design of technology, and because they can typically easily accept donor funds, these organizations are often appropriate for incubating new initiatives. However, as those initiatives scale, the requirements of maintaining a DPG shift to focus more on technical improvement, partnership facilitation, community governance, and revenue generation.  

The fall-off in funding for the ongoing improvement of any product after the innovation phase can be very pronounced, and most DPGs with whom we consult are stuck in a state of chronic underfunding — even as they scale in terms of user demand. This is a common challenge as catalytic innovation-focused funding is typically not sufficient to finance the DPG long enough to reach a point where operating costs can be fully covered by sustainable revenue sources. Investors commonly call this challenge “the valley of death” — the critical period while scaling where expenses still exceed income. This imbalance, together with the reality that the social nature of the project may have limited available revenue sources, requires thinking about life-cycle funding more holistically. 

As DPGs scale, the requirements for maintaining those projects increasingly fall outside of the core competencies of the founding organizations, and when the cost of sustaining the project outlives the initial grant funding, many DPGs start asking the same kind of questions: How do we find a new long term organizational home? Should we “spinoff”? Where would we go?  

There are several organizational paths a DPG might take, falling under two broad approaches: single vendor and community governed. In many cases, a single vendor has created a business on top of the open source core product, and that vendor takes primary responsibility for maintaining it. Those businesses can be structured as startups or non-profits, but they are distinct in that one primary organization is dominant. While this structure provides support to the core product(s), the model can limit the eventual scale and impact of any community-led governance structure. Our stance is that while the decentralized nature of community-led governance can be harder to establish, such an approach best holds the promise of a truly shared public good that can benefit everyone.

The establishment of organizations like the Digital Public Goods Alliance and DIAL’s Open Source Center are important first steps, but such initiatives should pave the way for a dedicated organization that could serve many critical needs: accept DPGs as members, offer the ability to provide fiscal sponsorship, facilitate donor grants, enter into public/private partnerships, hire and pay employees, and perform shared back-office tasks. In DIAL’s 2.0 Draft Strategy, which is currently open for public comment, we propose that together with partners, we will take steps towards establishing such a software foundation dedicated to open source projects focused on the Sustainable Development Goals. 

We welcome your feedback on our strategy and–more importantly–welcome you to join us on this journey to a world where Digital Public Goods offer an extensive set of technological solutions for those working to help achieve the SDGs.

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