Platforms and Services

This is the digital platform era.  Platforms meet the varied needs and desires of billions of people by enabling millions of providers to deliver an unprecedented scope of content and services.   The dominant technology companies of our time produce platforms on top of which others deliver a previously unimaginable variety of digital services.

The opportunity

Amazon started as a store, grew to be a seller of anyone’s goods, and now they are the technical infrastructure behind nearly every digital service provider (DSP). Alibaba controls China’s eCommerce without a single store of its own. Its biggest competitor is WeChat—a chat platform—that has become a hub of digital services. Apple, the world’s wealthiest company, makes a hardware and software platforms on which thousands of other companies deliver more than two million apps and services.

In digital development, it’s imperative to take advantage of existing global platforms and, where needed, develop platforms tailored to the specific needs of the development community. Through the effective use of platforms, the digital development sector can lower barriers to large scale service delivery and achieve a robust and varied ecosystem of providers and services meeting the needs of underserved women, men and children.

Key barriers and root causes

Despite several large-scale investments in digital development projects, systemic barriers still hinder the emergence of a thriving digital development sector. These barriers fall into two broad categories: barriers to reach and barriers to software development—specifically, building mature, high-quality highly functional software systems.

The challenges of reach
When planning a digital service, a key consideration is reach: how does one get the service to as many potential women, men and children as possible?

To understand the barriers to reach, it’s necessary to distinguish between the two primary channels for delivering digital services, as each carries its own unique challenges:

  • Core mobile services (CMS): CMS are the bundle of services available to any user with a mobile signal and a phone. These are voice, SMS, USSD and few less well known messaging services such as cell broadcast. End-user services ranging from agriculture extension, health consultation and mobile-money have been successfully deployed on CMS.
  • Internet: The internet is the rails across which all modern digital services such as web pages, apps and streaming media are delivered. It is what connects smart mobile devices and computers to the cloud (low-cost, reliable, practically unlimited computing power and storage) and services.

The core reach challenge with CMS as a digital development is this: there is a platform gap. DIAL will not see volume, scale or innovation at even a fraction of what is produced by the smartphone app-ecosystem until this gap is filled. The solution is a platform that allows DSPs to reach the combined subscriber base of multiple MNOs through a limited set of technical integrations—without putting undue demands on the MNOs.

In contrast to CMS, the internet is unified. A DSP need only to offer its service on the internet for it to be available to anyone globally who also is on the internet. This unification of the channel has enabled internet based services like Facebook and WhatsApp to reach global scale with billions of users.

The internet digital development reach challenge is that adoption for low-income users, even among those within reach of key connectivity infrastructure, is limited by barriers including affordability, utility and awareness. Trends suggest that this situation is likely to persist for at least a decade.

The challenges of software development (for development)
Creating mature, high-quality, highly functional software is a known art—but it’s not cheap or easy. In the first decade of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D), there were notable software development successes, such as DHIS2, OpenMRS and RapidPro. But barriers still limit the number of successes. These barriers include:

  • Insufficient and fragmented investment: Development of software technology, especially platforms, is expensive. Many donor-funded and NGO-led software projects are so underfunded that they are bound to fail. Investments split across multiple similar projects can doom them all to underfunded failure.
  • Lack of sustained development: Most donor-funded work is short-term and project-based. While software development is relatively fast, the evolution of any system into a mature, highly functional, highly valuable system takes time—as any long-time Windows user knows. The ICT4D projects with the largest impact found ways to continue software development for many years. Without mechanisms to fund sustained development, many ICT4D software projects stagnate and die before achieving their potential.
  • Duplicative development: Since systems often don’t mature to the point of widespread applicability, similar functionality is repeatedly developed within new projects. In some cases, DSPs may be incentivized to create new systems rather than build upon existing work developed by others so that their organizations appear innovative. Donor fatigue has exacerbated the problem, with donors looking to fund new projects rather than investing in the improvement of existing platforms.

The result of these barriers is that few systems can reach a highly-functional level of maturity and countries are left to manage a proliferation of stagnant immature systems.

Platforms and Services investments
Enable providers of digital development services to design and deploy their services faster, at a lower cost and to a wider audience in select countries.

By reducing the barriers DSPs face in developing, deploying, iterating and scaling services, and by increasing the size of addressable markets, DIAL will:

  • Increase the number, variety and utility of services provided to underserved women, men and children.
  • Encourage entry of new service providers.
  • Increase the pace of innovation.
  • Drive greater adoption of digital services, leading to deeper participation in digital society.