ODEs should focus on creating shared digital infrastructure: Varad Pande

The Open Digital Ecosystems (ODE) approach has become even more relevant now, with the rampant spread of Covid-19 across the globe.

Omidyar Network India has been focusing on digital society, emerging technologies, education, governance and citizen engagement, etc. It works with the entrepreneurs in the private, non-profit and public sectors, who are also tackling India’s hardest and most chronic problems.

A recent  report by Omidyar Network India and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) states that India is at an inflection point in its digitization journey.

Over the course of a decade, India has undergone a digital revolution – from modest beginnings of downloading forms and being able to view the status of an application online to paying taxes online and receiving welfare payments digitally. And today, we stand at a new frontier – India is leading the world in building shared digital infrastructure that can be leveraged by both government and private sector to unlock new solutions and enhance citizen experience.

The report describes this approach of designing technology infrastructure which can unlock economic and societal value, while minimising risks and possible harms, as ‘Open Digital Ecosystems’ or ODEs. ODEs are defined as: “open and secure Digital Platforms that enable a Community of actors to unlock transformative solutions for society, based on a robust Governanceframework”. It identifies three layers to help bring an ODE to life – digital platforms comprising technology infrastructure and solutions built on top; community comprising builders, facilitators and end users; and a third layer of governance which consists of laws and rules and the accountable institutions that uphold them.


Here, Varad Pande, Partner, Omidyar Network India, tells us more about the open digital ecosystems (ODE). Excerpts from an interview:

ODEs have been around for long. How can India make use of this on its digitization journey?

Varad Pande: The government has been building technology for the public sector (’GovTech’) for long, but the Open Digital Ecosystems (ODE) approach is new. This new approach suggests building digital platforms which are open and secure, and which enable a community of actors to unlock transformative solutions for society, based on a robust governance framework.

There are three key differences between the ODE approach and old approaches to building GovTech. First, a focus on creating shared digital infrastructure on which public and private sector entities can build a wide range of innovative services. Second, a focus on enabling interoperability among disparate systems and datasets. Third, a strong emphasis on building in safeguards and incorporating ‘Privacy by Design’ (PbD) principles within digital platforms to protect the rights of individuals and prevent misuse.

This approach can help India leapfrog in its digitization journey. It has applications across a variety of sectors, including skilling and jobs, health, education, agriculture, urban governance, etc. We estimate in our report, that by 2030, 10 high potential ODEs can collectively create new value of USD 500+ billion (INR 35+ lakh crore) – equivalent to 5.5% of India’s GDP, and in addition, it can generate USD 200+ billion (INR 15+ lakh crore) in savings to the country.

DQ: How can India make use of a shared digital infrastructure? Give examples.

Varad Pande: The approach of creating shared digital infrastructure so that others can build products and services on top, reflects a radical shift – away from building monolithic, end-to-end solutions – and towards enabling multi-stakeholder collaboration to deliver more user-centric solutions at a larger scale.

Examples of a few path-breaking digital platforms that have adopted this approach, in India, are the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) in the financial services space; the National Digital Infrastructure for Teachers called DIKSHA; the National Urban Innovation Stack,which is enabling more efficient provision of municipal services; a digital ecosystem for agriculture, which is currently being designed by an inter-ministerial committee; and the National Digital Health Mission,which will create digital health infrastructure for India.

The Open Digital Ecosystems (ODE) approach has become even more relevant now, with the rampant spread of Covid-19 across the globe. The pandemic has widespread economic and societal ramifications, not just in the healthcare sector, but also in areas like employment, education, and economic growth.

This underscores the need to establish digitally enabled, interconnected ecosystems that can be built using the ODE approach. Various types of ODEs can be used not only to predict the onset of crises (such as pandemics or natural disasters) and effectively manage response, but also to restore normalcy.

For example, a Healthcare NODE (National ODE), which provides an interoperable platform for all health and related services can prove to be invaluable in the current environment – similar to what has been announced by the Prime Minister under the National Digital Health Mission. A Social Protection NODE can provide the critical technology infrastructure required to ensure seamless access to government benefits for those who need them the most.

DQ: There are still many siloed systems. How can they be included in this new vision?

Varad Pande: The ODE approach suggests that the government should focus on creating the ‘digital commons’; enable interoperability between siloed systems, so that innovators can build solutions on top, by leveraging the open source software, open data, open standards, open licenses, and open APIs.

Creating interoperability and allowing data that is fragmented across systems to be exchanged safely can lead to new insights and a better understanding of users’ requirements. This will facilitate the creation of new solutions that provide improved access and service quality. For example, the India Urban Data Exchange (IUDX) is an opensource platform that will enable real-time coordination and exchange of diverse streams of public data to create solutions for smart cities.

Anonymised data from the government, speed sensors and cameras, combined with the crowdsourced data from navigation apps and private platforms like delivery and cab-hailing apps, can lead to a number of useful solutions like emergency response and safety in public spaces, and optimization of parking spaces.Similarly, the National Digital Analytics Platform (NDAP) being built by NITI Aayog, will enable datadriven policymaking and research by unlocking the value of datawhich is already available in public domain on various central and state government website, but is currently lying in silos.

DQ: How can India overcome the risk of data centralization?

Varad Pande: It is important to recognize that different types of data have different levels of sensitivity. For example, it is much more critical to establish adequate safeguards for sensitive personal data like individuals’ biometrics, financial and health records, as compared to non-human generated, non-personal data such as information on climate trends, which can also be aggregated for various use cases enabled by ODEs.

Consolidation of personal data into a centralised registry can increase its vulnerability to cyber-attacks by creating a single point of failure. It may even compromise personal data in a manner that can potentially be misused, for example for unauthorized profiling or surveillance. To mitigate the risks of data centralization, the ODE approach suggests adopting a federated or decentralized architecture which make the system more secure by avoiding a single point of failure, and mitigating against the risk of unauthorized combining of datasets for purposes like surveillance. An example of a decentralized data exchange protocol is the X-Road platform developed by Estonia.

DQ: How should the issues related to data and citizen privacy be handled?

Varad Pande: The ODE approach suggests the adoption of ‘Privacy by Design’ principles. These include technological and policy choices made about theoperation and governance of the platform, which are embedded into the platform design rather than needing to be enforced post-facto. Looking at the lifecycle of the platform, from design to data collection, storage, processing and data sharing, Privacy by Design-principles would need to be incorporated at each stage.

For example, specifying the exact purpose for which data is being collected and/or shared, minimizing the amount of personal data being collected, stored and shared, enabling electronic consent and authorization frameworks such that users have full agency over how their data is accessed and shared with the choice to revoke consent at any desired point in time, etc.

DQ: Do we have an ecosystem-thinking culture, yet?

Varad Pande: The open digital ecosystems comprise of 3 layers

First is the digital platform layer with technology infrastructure designed to be open, modular, and extensible, facilitate interoperability and co-creation, so that end-user solutions can be built on top.
Second is the community layer, which includes platform builders e.g., government, software developers, and startups, who build the infrastructure and solutions, end-users who access various services through digital platforms, and facilitators like civil society organizations who hold government to account.

Third is
the governance layers, i.e., the laws and rules that govern these digital ecosystems, and the accountable institutions that uphold these rules.

So far, much of the discourse on the digital platforms has been on the ‘tech’ layer. We believe that the ‘non-tech’ layers, i.e., governance and community, are equally critical, given the ‘public good’ character of Open Digital Ecosystems.

For example, take the National Digital health Mission that has been announced recently which will be anchored by a set of digital infrastructure components, including a health ID, digital repositories of doctors and health facilities, electronic medical records etc. While it is critical to get the design and architecture of the digital platform right, it is equally important to define an accountable public authority as the institutional home (the National Health Authority in this case) and establish rules of engagement for all government and private players in the health ecosystem.

Further, it would be critical to build trust with end-users by establishing strong grievance redressal mechanisms and ensuring multiple online and off-line touch points for last mile access. In addition, driving adoption amongst tech developers and health tech start-ups, incentivizing them to build products and services leveraging the infrastructure layer would result in creation of a vibrant ecosystem of service providers in this space.

This kind of ecosystem-thinking culture can help ensure that the public platforms India is building are able to maximize the public good and minimize potential harms.

DQ: How will the ODEs unlock new services in future?

Varad PandeThere are three ways in which ODEs can unlock transformative solutions for society –

One is The ODE approach focuses on creating shared digital infrastructure on which public and private sector entities can build a wide range of innovative services for individuals, businesses, and government bodies. This means rather than providing one option of an endtoend service, many options can be provided to end-users giving them greater choice.

Secondly by designing public digital platforms in a modular way, and enabling interoperability between siloed systems and datasets, more efficient service delivery can be done at a population scale. This means better access and targeting, cost and time savings for all stakeholders, and greater transparency.

And thirdly ODEs can create a more user-centric experience by providing services with consistent quality by putting in place standards and protocols, allowing a greater degree of local customization to be done, and building safeguards that protect citizens from potential harms such as exclusion and privacy violations.

We estimate in our report, that by 2030, 10 high potential NODEs in sectors like health, jobs and skilling, agriculture, justice, logistics, etc., can collectively create new value of USD 500+ billion (INR 35+ lakh crore) – equivalent to 5.5% of India’s GDP, and in addition, generate USD 200+ billion (INR 15+ lakh crore) in savings to the country.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *