What is Digital Public Infrastructure? A Top 10 Reading Guide

Blog Post
July 19, 2022

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic generating new conversations around digital public infrastructure, you might be wondering what that is and where we can improve. DIGI has gathered the top 10 resources that provide background on digital public infrastructure (DPI), recommendations on how to strengthen DPI through digital public goods, and guidance on how to address gaps in governance.

1. Check out this FAQ essay by Ethan Zuckerman, a scholar currently serving as the director of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, answers “What is Digital Public Infrastructure?”, why it is important, and what the implications are of it being built.

“The social shifts brought about by the pandemic and the techlash give us an opportunity to consider the capabilities and vulnerabilities of our physical and digital infrastructures, especially those that host our civic and political interactions…To put it simply, we need to imagine and build better digital public spaces that address the failures of our current infrastructures and actively work to create healthy and engaged civic discourse.” - Zuckerman

2. Next, read Ethan Zuckerman’s “The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure.” You’ll walk away with an understanding of the history of public service digital media and some ideas for what public service digital media can become.

“My goal is neither to eliminate the powerful internet platforms nor to cede the future to them – it is to imagine possible futures where surveillant advertising delivered by monopoly providers isn’t the only available option to build a thriving future of democratic communications.” - Zuckerman

3. See “Government as a Platform” by David Eaves, Richard Pope, and Ben McGuire to gain an overview of how to build a platform-government model and policy implications to be aware of.

“The core requirement of a platform-government model is that government provides access to a set of canonical databases and shared applications that other parts of government, civic society, and the private sector can leverage to solve public problems.” - Eaves, Pope, & McGuire

4. Richard Pope’s essay series “Exploring digital public goods” is critical of some prior definitions of digital public goods and explores DPG infrastructure, the need for transparency, and establishing institutions to maintain DPGs in the long term. Read any of the essays for key aspects and implications of digital infrastructure.

“All societies and governments of all levels, from central to local, are facing the question of how to create effective digital infrastructure (in the UK, for example, sometimes held up as an example of digital central government, the question of how to create shared infrastructure for local government remains utterly unsolved). Collaborative creation and maintenance of software could make this accessible to more public institutions around the world.” - Pope

5. This article by Govind Shivkumar, Kevin O'Neil, and Liv Marte Kristiansen Nordhaug provides four reasons to help you understand the importance of “good” DPI and “How to Bring Digital Inclusion to the People Who Need it Most.”

“‘Good’ infrastructure must be inclusive, protect the privacy and security of citizens, and be governed by regulations that ensure accountability and transparency in their implementation. It must be built to enable governments to collaborate with the private sector and to promote vendor diversity and innovation on top of the foundational systems.” - Shivkumar, O’Neil, & Nordhaug

6.What is “Good” Digital Infrastructure?” by Priya Vora and Jonathan Dolan provides an in-depth evaluation of digital stack development and implementation, as well as current measurement approaches and tools. This article ends with recommendations as to how to better measure “good” digital infrastructure.

“The difference between a positive future state and a negative one will, in large part, be defined by whether digital public infrastructure is designed, implemented, and governed in service of the public good.” - Vora & Dolan

7. If you’re curious about how to navigate the gaps between the public and private sectors, Marietje Schaake’s article emphasizes the need for more effective governance mechanisms. “How democracies can claim back power in the digital world” outlines a democratic coalition to close the accountability gap.

“What we need now, therefore, is a large democratic coalition that can offer a meaningful alternative to the two existing models of technology governance, the privatized and the authoritarian. It should be a global coalition, welcoming countries that meet democratic criteria.” - Schaake

8. Liv Marte Kristiansen Nordhaug's and Kevin O’Neil’s Co-developing Digital Public Infrastructure for an Equitable Recovery” notes two new mindsets as a result of economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing the need for equitable solutions.

“If DPI systems don’t meet the needs of the poor, women, informal workers, or marginalized groups, they will only reinforce inequity. If they are captured by corporate or authoritarian interests, they could be used for monopoly and surveillance. If they aren’t built to connect everyone, they promote fragmentation that slows economic growth and crisis response.” - Nordhaug & O’Neil

9. Need to understand best practices to understand DPI? Marten Kaevats’s article provides seven recommendations as to “How to build Digital Public Infrastructure,” using Estonia as a model for good digital services and infrastructure.

“Building a truly digital society is about leading by example and nourishing individual responsibility and personal integrity.” - Kaevats

10. Regulation and policy changes to promote “Strengthening digital infrastructure” are necessary, according to Brieanna Nagle. This article analyzes current policy and outlines how the U.S. should implement changes to improve access to free and open-source software.

“The biggest limit to existing U.S. policies related to [Free and Open Source Software (FSOSS)] is that they are nearly all focused on the federal government’s use of, creation of, and purchasing of technology for its own systems. No policies are targeted at measuring, investing in, or securing the FOSS ecosystem as a whole or in a direct manner.” - Nagle

Many thanks to our Fall 2021 - Spring 2022 intern Avery Reyna for his research contribution!