It’s the Ecosystem, Stupid: Exploring the “digital poverty stack” – Part 2
In the first post in this series, we proposed that donors and governments advance digital and financial inclusion by focusing more on creating public goods that enable the broader ecosystem, rather than on peripheral innovation in service delivery. As examples of this approach, we looked at the Aadhaar Universal ID (UID) system developed by the Unique Identification Authority of India, and the Level One Project (L1P) financial services platform developed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In this second post, we discuss the implications of this shift and highlight some new efforts to move the fields in the right direction. In short, we argue that donors should focus more energy on similar projects, thus building a “Digital Poverty Stack” – a set of interoperable and reusable digital tools.
Executing on this blueprint in the future will require more than a new perspective, it will require a major change in the skill sets and investment strategies of donors. It is much easier to launch an innovation prize competition or fund than it is to go through the heavy-lifting needed to identify systemic needs, corral the relevant stakeholders, and work with them to build specifications for shared digital infrastructure. Specifically, this approach will require a new set of organizations and institutions to lead the charge.
New efforts around principles are a step in the right direction
There are already some nascent processes emerging in the development field for codifying best practices for the development of digital solutions. For example, DFID’s 2015 review of Digital in Development Programs examines three goals, including: increasing access to digital technologies, stimulating a global movement for collaboration, and making investments around capability building for digital interventions.
Additionally, the Principles for Digital Development stand out as a strong effort to lay out guidelines for technology-enabled programs. The Principles, initiated originally by UNICEF and other early digital development champions, offer guidelines, case studies and a community to begin the discussion around thoughtful digital development. The nine Principles are as follows:
- Design with the User
- Understand the Existing Ecosystem
- Design for Scale
- Build for Sustainability
- Be Data Driven
- Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source and Open Innovation
- Reuse and Improve
- Address Privacy & Security
- Be Collaborative
The Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) is now serving as the steward of the Principles, working with a global community of donors, implementers and technology companies to promote deeper adoption. The Principles are useful for the sector and are a great first step towards a more coordinated effort. However, they are not enough.
Moving beyond Principles to Digital “Stack” Thinking
The Principles should be augmented to include “public good” thinking about how and where donors should focus their resources – specifically, how to invest to build the kinds of platforms and infrastructure that can be really transformative.
In computing, the idea of a solution stack usually implies that the different components and subsystems are defined conceptually and in relation to one another, so that various software makers can build their own versions that will interoperate out of the box. This implies that a much wider range of competing solutions can be built, and that the eventual end product can be stitched together from the best components in each category. For example, a website is free to choose its web server separately from its database provider, and has many choices at each level that compete on features, price and other dimensions. Standards and platforms allow resource-sharing and interoperability within the stack, and developers are able to leverage the stack to quickly create beta and prototype solutions for testing.
This mindset is not pervasive in the international development community, where often solutions are conceived and funded end to end. And it is not just a mindset issue; grant funding does not facilitate better development practices, as it is usually predicated on solving a vertical problem rather than developing tools that can be leveraged horizontally across multiple verticals. This results in hyper-specific digital tools that often fail, and upon which no new or improved solutions can be developed. In our work to analyze the UID and L1P programs, we identified a set of important steps that both projects went through that we think offers a blueprint for future efforts. The key steps were:
- Identify a true need. This is perhaps the hardest step, especially in cases (as with both UID and L1P) where there was very little market activity to point to as evidence of a need. The teams in both cases invested significantly in specifying and understanding the problem.
- Define a reference model with modular architecture – this is the most critical element, and the one that is most often neglected in donor-funded technology deployments. Having a clearly defined set of interoperable components that map to the fundamental problem is key to being able to build a flexible, adaptable, scalable system.
- Decide (through careful analysis) which components should be shared “public goods” and which should be produced by various players. Donors should invest most in jump-starting the pubic goods (which can be run by the private companies or by industry consortiums, but in a shared fashion).
- Define system rules, standards and open APIs to allow the whole system to work together.
- Resource to promote deployment and adoption. UID registered over a billion (and counting) Indian citizens into its database, which turned the system from an elegant architecture into the core identity system for India.
These steps are a far cry from the usual process of grant funding and innovation competitions to spur innovation. We believe future donor efforts should attempt to adopt this approach and take a much more systemic approach to identifying and fixing underlying market failure.
The Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL)
To continue to identify, develop, and promote useful digital infrastructure, we need a fundamentally new approach to how money is invested in digital technologies in the field of international development. The Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) is a new effort that will rally the necessary technical vision, funding, stakeholders and cooperation needed for future efforts like the India Stack and L1P.
DIAL is a collaborative effort, initially scoped then funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA.) After conversations with various stakeholders, including donors and their grantees, the donor partners identified a series of challenges that plagued mobile for development (M4D) initiatives, including:
- a lack of common research and knowledge base,
- difficulty gaining access to critical mobile infrastructure (including both the channel and the data),
- difficulty procuring necessary tools for M4D deployments,
- difficulty identifying which tools are best suited for a particular deployment, and
- a tendency to build bespoke one-off systems rather than scalable platforms.
The roadblocks that hinder the M4D sector mirror the issues we have seen in digital financial inclusion, digital identity, and other sectors looking to build up digital systems in emerging economies.
As such, the partners involved in the development of DIAL realized that digital-for-development initiatives could benefit from the stack-centric approach that we describe above, and have sought to help build an organization that will champion that approach.
We believe that DIAL’s unique position as a knowledge and partnership broker between private companies, international NGOs, academia and donors will allow it to strengthen the M4D ecosystem itself. We are confident that DIAL can help the steer the sector away from an over-reliance on bespoke solutions and towards cooperative efforts to conduct research and build tools that amplify the abilities of the broader ecosystem.
 Full disclosure, Jake was the lead on the development of DIAL while at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and conceived of the idea for it in partnership with Priya Jaisinghani at USAID.