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Creating Open Resources and Digital Public Goods

An increasingly critical ingredient of our efforts as philanthropies, civil society organizations and change makers is the generation of data, code, content and processes (“resources”). For example, organizations advancing education create content and processes for training and teaching and those advancing access to healthcare or justice, collect, curate and validate data. Across the board, we are developing code and processes that are time and resource intensive to bring greater scale, efficacy and transparency to our work.

However, an intense mission focus means that we sometimes miss seeing opportunities in leveraging these resources to create a multiplier effect: one that can be potentially trigger impact larger than our individual missions alone.

Merely by enabling free, open, immediate and unrestricted access to such resources, we can create new digital public goods and resources that empower other changemakers to reuse, build on and repurpose for their own missions. We can enable these digital public resources to be localised, translated and adapted outside their original purpose and use, far beyond their intended reach and our individual imaginations. It will unlock scarce resources, avoid duplication of effort, generate savings and accelerate innovation and can democratise the ability to solve wicked problems.

In essence, each of us have the power to create open resources as digital public goods. And these are public goods of a new kind: not only their use doesn’t deplete the commons, but it enriches it.

If we recognise that philanthropic capital is capital that would otherwise have been taxed and that we, as philanthropies and changemakers, work for public benefit, then what we create must also be designed as public goods. Given that the sourcing, creation and validation of code, content and data is time and resource intensive, opening up publicly funded resources is critical – it will advance equity and enable collaboration. We can reach our highest potential only if we adopt an ‘open’ as the default position.

We must embrace “open”ness of four kinds. Philosophical openness, that is, we must all see these resources as public goods and be aligned on the necessity of such openness. Second, technical openness, that is, they must be available in an easy, timely, user-friendly manner online adhering to a set of applicable open standards. Third, legal openness, that is, they must be legally licensed for all manners of use and adaptation, whether commercial or not, subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute or share alike. Lastly, financial openness, by ensuring access for free or at a price that is no more than a reasonable reproduction cost. Particularly for philanthropic funders, this ensures that the resources continue to exist for the ecosystem independent of the organization or mission.

Foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have adopted such an ‘open access policy’ as a non-negotiable term for all peer-reviewed, published research partly or wholly funded by the foundation. The policy also requires that the data underlying published research results be accessible and open immediately. The underlying rationale is that “The free, immediate, and unrestricted access to research will accelerate innovation, helping to reduce global inequity and empower the world’s poorest people to transform their own lives.” The Shuttleworth Foundation states that they “… take the stance closest to extreme openness as a counterbalance to the prevailing idea of completely closed, in order to establish new norms along the continuum.”

Creative Commons states that they “… believe that in almost all cases, the copyrightable works produced with grant funding, as well as works concerning the problems the foundation seeks to address that are created by expert staff or commissioned by the foundation from external experts, will have more impact on those problems if they are published under an open license”. They also host a Generic Open Licensing Toolkit for Foundations to consider.

Organizations like Pratham Books and EkStep Foundation have been able to multiply their impact by adopting an “open” policy. Since early 2009, Pratham Books started making content available under open licenses and had tremendous successes with people taking the context and creating highly contextual reading solutions – from language to form to accessibility. However, it was still a process with much friction and in 2015, they doubled down on this and launched StoryWeaver as an open source platform for contextual story creation. And what a journey that has been – with over 15000 stories in over 2000 languages and nearly 2.5 million reads online.

We are seeing the emergence of new approaches, like Societal Platform Thinking, that promote the creation of open digital public goods; one that can be adopted by any philanthropy or civil society organisation. Building on this approach, the EkStep Foundation created Sunbird as a digital public good. While the first use was in an education context, it has gone far beyond that. This was only possible because the platform is truly “open” and flexible allowing diverse solutions to be built. It currently is used in contexts as diverse as water, financial inclusion, teacher training, school leadership and talent management. Many partners are already using the platform for their diverse solutions, dissolving silos and creating network effects.

Organisations such as Agami are making a compelling case of how “… open legal datasets have a similar potential to become an essential part of the infrastructure of legal education, legal practice, judicial functioning and accountability.”

Why, then, is this not a norm and a culture? For many, the reason is less a philosophical disagreement, but more an undervaluation of ‘open’ as a practice. For others, the barrier is possibly a zero-sum proposition: that openness may adversely impact recognition, the unique value proposition or funding for an organization. But by simply requiring attribution in the license and reframing our impact metrics to include the number of people leveraging our digital public goods these can be effectively addressed. And for some, it is a lack of awareness of and access to tools and practices that can advance openness; these can be easily solved for in the digital age. An organisations outcomes are more than the sum of their tools and data – effective missions involve insight, design and leadership as well.

In many ways, the bazaar has led in its contributions to the digital commons – Microsoft may be the largest contributor of code to open source projects. Sarkaar too has started doing it’s part with its Open Data Portal and Open Source Code Repository. It is high time samaaj, the philanthropic and civil society ecosystem, did the same.