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Digital public goods: a viable way to ensure open access to data for all

Digital public goods are digitally modifiable technologies, such as open-source software, open data, and open standards with relevance on a global scale. Within the Sustainable Development Goals context, they play an essential role, particularly for low- and middle-income countries.

The open-source ethos of the Internet that encouraged collaboration and experimentation is something related to the past. Over time, the percentage of open source and public Internet has significantly decreased. As a consequence, much of the most helpful information online, such as open education resources and health management systems, is not easily accessible, especially to those who need it the most.

Digital public goods can play a crucial role in actionable real-time and predictive insights with the support of big data and AI. Thus, all the stakeholders, including the United Nations, can more easily identify new disease outbreaks, counter xenophobia and disinformation, and measure impacts on vulnerable populations, among other relevant challenges. For instance, during a health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, solutions such as open-source digital data packages can be beneficial to accelerate case detection and open educational resources during school closures.

The main reasons for limited access to digital solutions lie in copyright regimes issues: most existing digital public goods are not easily accessible because they are often unevenly distributed in terms of the language, content, and infrastructure required to access them. A viable solution to tackle these issues is digital public goods platforms. Currently, the most successful example is the Digital Public Goods Alliance, a multi-stakeholder initiative whose mission is to accelerate the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals in low- and middle-income countries by facilitating the discovery, development, use of, and investment in digital public goods. The work of the Alliance is also supported by the efforts of the Global Data Access Framework, a UN initiative that uses the power of big data and AI to develop technical infrastructure.

Society is facing with the challenge of providing duties and rights for the digital citizens. A just and fair participation mechanism and appropriate rights and duties will be the main challenge. It is also essential to find ways to remove digital barriers, thus guaranteeing easier data access. The result would then be a safer, inclusive online space which would increase both privacy and control over personal data.

These initiatives are critical to developing common standards on open data that can guide the private and public sectors in providing open access to data sets, ensuring that more data become available as digital public goods. A concerted global effort to create digital public goods would be vital in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

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