OSM Named as a Digital Public Good by UN-affiliated Agency

by Craig Allan

OpenStreetMap has applied for and has now been registered as a “Digital Public Good” by the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), which is a multi-stakeholder United Nations-endorsed initiative. The designation is an important step in making sure that OpenStreetMap is recognized for its positive role in global economic development.

By formally registering with the DPGA, the OSM project has now gained further legitimacy and an internationally raised profile tied to the advancement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What are Public Goods?

The phrase “public goods” was invented by economists to describe things that are free, inexhaustible, and non-competitive. Sunshine is a pretty good example – it costs nothing, it never runs out, and if your neighbour uses lots of it your own supply is not diminished at all.

Like sunshine, OSM data is free, you can use it as much as you want, and even if your neighbour uses a lot of it, too, your own supply doesn’t run out. Note that it’s the data that is a public good, not the servers – our server computers are not free and are a limited resource.

Making the World a Better Place

A panel of experts was convened by the United Nations panel in 2019 to look at digital co-operation in support of global development. Their report on “The Age of Digital Interdependence” had five main recommendations. All five are great proposals, but proposal five is particularly relevant for OSM as it says that the United Nations should foster global digital co-operation. The exact text is:

“Digital public goods are essential in unlocking the full potential of digital technologies and data to attain the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular for middle and low income countries”.

This means that the United Nations is promoting the use of free open software and data as a tool for middle- and low-income counties to allow them to advance and meet the United Nation’s agreed development goals. This promotion is especially important because free data pairs well with free software and the pair can be widely used by even the poorest governments. Plus, free data and apps allow governments to advance their development without diverting scarce resources to pay license fees to companies from wealthy nations.

The UN then created the Digital Public Goods Alliance as its implementing agency for proposal five, with a mandate to advance the development and use of digital public goods for development.

The DPGA has created a register for approved open systems, open applications and open data that is accessible by all for the advancement of global development.

Why is This Important for OSM?

OSM is a large but in some ways unrecognised force in global development. It underlies many humanitarian efforts, supports academic research of many different specialisations, and is a component of much software development, especially in geographic and navigation applications. OSM data is also already widely used by the United Nations agencies, international NGOs and governments at all levels around the world.

By formally registering with the DPGA the OSM movement has now gained further legitimacy and an internationally raised profile tied to the advancement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. More simply put, and this is something most of us knew all along – the UN thinks that OSM is a great tool to make the world a better place for all.

This registration boosts the legitimacy and profile of OSM and its partners and creates new opportunities. One important area lies in the governmental work environment. OSM’s status as a Public Good, could be used to open doors and promote an increased use of OSM by government organisations at national, regional and local levels. This could then give OSM an opportunity to gain access to government-held data, and/or to government funds to boost our mapping community and/or to a range of resources to reinforce our delivery systems, benefitting everyone.

(Note that OSM Foundation has not yet developed a strategy to encourage and facilitate the use of OSM in government spaces; this is still in the idea phase.)

The boost to the profile and legitimacy of OSM and its partners can also help us make the case for philanthropic investment in OSM.

A final wry thought at the possibilities of this opportunity is that OSM was originally created by Steve Coast as a response to controls on government mapping. It would be very satisfying indeed, if free and open mapping grows to be the basis of much government mapping.

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