A conversation with Chris Fabian, co-creator of the UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, which act as an incubator and accelerator of technologies and innovative solutions to strengthen child protection.
Chris Fabian: UNICEF has a history of innovating for children. For nearly 70 years, UNICEF has come up with solutions like the MUAC band, oral rehydration salts, and the Mark II Handpump. To meet the challenges all children are facing in this fast-changing world, we need innovations from the ground-up, developed by the people they aim to serve.
UNICEF uses innovation to create solutions that strengthen its work in child protection, health, education, and other areas, bringing essential services to the world’s most vulnerable children.
At UNICEF, our Innovation Unit creates options for children. We act as an incubator and accelerator of new technologies and solutions. The team focuses on startup investments through its Innovation Fund, on mid-stage support and partnerships with technology leaders through its San Francisco node, and on scaling up approaches that show results through its Global Innovation Centre.
Our team has helped build the largest mobile health system called RapidSMS in Nigeria that has reported more than 18 million births by SMS (http://rapidsmsnigeria.org/br) as well as U-Report, which enables over 1.8 million young people in 18 countries to be connected to decision makers via SMS (http://www.ureport.in). We have also built open source platforms like RapidPro which help governments develop applications to understand the situation of teachers (EduTrac), health workers (mTrac), or other vital links to communities through rapid, actionable data (https://community.rapidpro.io/).
TDP: What can the tech community do to help European countries address the current refugee crisis?
CF: The best problem-solvers are often those who have the biggest problems. People who live in resource-constrained communities can come up with incredibly creative solutions. In many places where UNICEF works, we find those constraints. We work with these problem-solvers, in their environments, to help them build and scale solutions.
Here are four of the things that the tech community can do to help address the current refugee crisis:
– Open source development: If you are a designer or developer and want to get involved in building solutions to mitigate the current refugee crisis, make sure you understand the specifics of the problem on the ground and build your technology under fully open licenses (BSD, A/LGPL, CC-BY-SA).
– Share and connect with others: Governments are already working with partners on the ground that are coming together to build open source tools. Connect with them.
– Give money to organizations that are on the ground: Your donation will go further if you give money to organizations which have staff and existing programs on the ground and are well integrated into the overall responses across Europe and the refugees’ routes.
– Propel solutions that are being created by those affected by the problem: One of the best ways to drive immediate change is to support organizations and people that are building solutions locally with technologies that are already accepted in their ecosystem. Solutions on locally built open source technologies can scale quickly.
We have developed a set of principles, including open collaboration and learning from past failures, that have informed our successes and been built from our failures, such as design with the user, understand the existing ecosystem, design for scale, build for sustainability, be data driven, use open standards, open data, open source and open innovation, reuse and improve, do no harm, be collaborative.
TDP: Can you name examples where digital technologies have proved helpful in respect to the current refugees crisis and in particular in helping children?
CF: Last year, UNICEF was preparing to distribute winter supply kits in Lebanon. However, since people have been moving from one place to another due to the refugee crisis, it was difficult to track their locations to distribute the winter kits.
A team of innovation experts at UNICEF Lebanon designed a distribution system (UNISupply) utilizing an all-digital platform and tablet computers to better track and monitor the distribution of winter clothes to Syrian refugee children across hundreds of informal settlements in Lebanon.
UNICEF can now respond more efficiently than before in reaching the most vulnerable children. We can learn two things from this: 1) Technology helps us get information faster than ever; 2) Living in a connected world, we can make locally developed solutions become globally applicable.
TDP: How can digital technologies contribute to address the challenge of integration?
CF: When people are given a voice and can communicate with those around them, they quickly learn that their problems aren’t theirs alone. Realizing that others are going through similar hardships reduces fear, uncertainty, and it allows people to come together to solve problems in unique ways.
Integration is the realization of common human constructs, even among uncommon partners, in difficult times. During the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014 and 2015, we set up U-Report and helped 60,000 young people communicate directly with people in government to make positive changes. U-Report helped open the door to those realizations. With U-Report, young people are making their voices count and can access new opportunities.
TDP: In a continent as Europe, where there is a huge shortage of ICT workers, can the wave of immigrants be translated into an opportunity? How?
CF: Some of the biggest problems in the world are often not specific to a country or continent. Problems are shared by everyone: whether it’s climate change, job automation, or the migratory movement of 60 million people.
We should be looking at global machinery to solve global problems. From our teams’ experience, we know that the best solutions are often created by heterogeneous people and some of the best opportunities are created by those who have the most needs.
For example, if an organization or someone starts a company to solve a problem that is unrelated to them, that company will most likely fail because of the lack of understanding of the problem that needs to be solved. But, if we take a problem that seems foreign to us and we make it our own, we have a far better chance of making that solution scale.
Now, imagine people from different countries of origin with diverse life experiences coming together: you are actually uniting a strong group of people bringing valuable assets, looking to build a stronger world and a global community of problem-solvers.
Christopher Fabian co-created and has co-lead UNICEF’s Innovation Unit in New York since 2007 - follow him @