We highlight blog posts from all UN Entities related to innovation in the UN below. If you would like to suggest a post for us to include, you can do so here.
If there’s one constant in the realm of innovation, it’s change. That’s because it’s impossible to innovate without tirelessly seeking opportunities for reinvention, for new ways of approaching an old problem, for finding collaborative solutions that make better programs and processes possible.
That’s certainly true about the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Innovation Fellowship Program. First launched in 2013, the program has evolved significantly in the years since — adding or eliminating elements each year to refine and rethink the program to make it more beneficial to UNHCR, the participants, and the country operations where Fellows are tasked with motivating everyone they work with to embrace innovation as a core aspect of their work.
A range of frontier an digital technologies can be combined to monitor our planet and the sustainable use of natural resources. If we can leverage this technology effectively, we will be able to assess and predict risks, increase transparency and accountability in the management of natural resources and inform markets as well as consumer choice. These actions are all required if we are to stand a better chance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
However, for this vision to become a reality, public and private sector actors must take deliberate action and collaborate to build a global digital ecosystem for the planet — one consisting of data, infrastructure, rapid analytics, and real-time insights. We are now at a pivotal moment in the history of our stewardship of this planet. A “tipping point” of sorts. And in order to guide the political action which is required to counter the speed, scope and severity of the environmental and climate crises, we must acquire and deploy these data sets and frontier technologies. Doing so can fundamentally change our economic trajectory and underpin a sustainable future.
This article shows how such a global digital ecosystem for the planet can be achieved — as well as what we risk if we do not take decisive action within the next 12 months. This is an extended version of the Foresight Brief issued by the UN Environment Programme in September 2019.
From artificial intelligence to mobile applications, technology helps to increase your access to secure and efficient financial products and services. Since financial technology (fintech) offers the chance to boost economic growth and expand financial inclusion in all countries, the IMF and World Bank surveyed central banks, finance ministries, and other relevant agencies in 189 countries on a range of topics and received 96 responses.
A new paper details the results of the survey alongside findings from other regional studies, and also identifies areas for international cooperation—including roles for the IMF and World Bank—and in which further work is needed by governments, international organizations, and standard-setting bodies.
Some interesting and startling trends emerged in the survey: foremost in all countries’ minds is cybersecurity.
ITC’s Refugee Employment & Skills Initiative has been working in two major refugee complexes in Kenya to enable refugees and host communities to tap into international markets for home décor goods and freelance digital services. Together with the Norwegian Refugee Council and other partners, ITC offered skills training combined with support for business development and connecting to markets.
In Dadaab, home to close to a quarter-million refugees from Somalia, the initiative kicked off in May with a digital training and mentorship programme. Over five months, Samasource Digital Basics, the Nairobi office of a San Francisco-based non-profit that teaches digital skills to people without traditional paths to employment, trained about 100 participants in internet research, word processing, translation and spreadsheet capabilities. It also coached them on how best to present themselves to potential employers on freelancing platforms.
Samasource and ITC provided follow-up support and professional skills mentorship.
In an emergency, every second counts. For governments and humanitarian organizations such as WFP, understanding the effects of a disaster will help everyone to launch a faster, more effective response to reach those in need. Working with the Government of Cambodia’s National Committee for Disaster Management, the World Food Programme launched the Platforms for Real-time Information SysteMs (PRISM) initiative in 2015. PRISM is a hub of information on Cambodia, using an interactive online map to pool data from government ministries and vulnerable people.
This offers the Government and the humanitarian community a single source of information. The Government then has the data it needs to lead in a coordinated approach with UN partners, NGOs and others to prepare and respond in the event of a disaster.
It is rainy season in Northern Uganda. In the rural areas of Adjumani District the maize crops are at full height but are not ready for harvesting yet. This is still a few weeks off. Simon Peter Mwesigye who works with UN-Habitat and The Global Land Tool Network (GLTN), is standing on the edge of a small maize patch with Ochen Ronald from the Adjumani District land office. The two of them are staring intently at a handheld mapping device. They take the measurements and move carefully to the next boundary position. This is part of spatial data collection training GLTN is doing with the District Land Office and Area Land Committee.
With participatory approaches, GLTN introduced the use and application of low-cost geo-spatial technologies and tools. It has revolutionised access to land mapping and enumeration services in three pilot areas in Uganda. In the past it cost upwards of USD $600 to have one plot accurately mapped and land rights registered. These innovative approaches and tools bring the process cost down to between USD $20 to $40. This is a significant price drop in a country where so little of the land has been formally mapped and registered.
More than 200 million women in developing countries want to avoid, delay, or space their pregnancies, yet are not using an effective contraceptive method. So how can we uphold this right, and protect the health and futures of women, adolescent girls, and their families through innovation?
The Innovation Fund at UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, in collaboration with the World Food Programme’s Innovation Accelerator, is inviting innovators who can help address the challenge to End Unmet Need for Family Planning. Eight carefully selected teams will join us from 22 to 26 July in Munich, Germany, for a high-intensity Innovation Bootcamp. These teams will design, prototype and test bold solutions to help accelerate universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Their innovations aim to ensure that no one is left behind, expand access in remote geographies, close the last mile for reproductive health commodities, and leverage low or high-tech possibilities that put rights and choices at the centre of decision-making and service delivery.
Twelve teams competed in Afghanistan’s largest and first-ever hackathon on women, peace and security, aiming to create a national platform for rural and urban women to voice their priorities for peace. The hackathon, called #code4peace, was organized by UN Women in the province of Bamyan, Afghanistan.
“A hackathon is traditionally all about technology, but #Code4peace is different,” said Aleta Miller, UN Women Representative in Afghanistan, adding that this social innovation hackathon aims to “get the most Afghan women’s voices represented in peace, whether a woman lives in Kabul, or the Wakan corridor in Badakhshan, or the furthest village in Nangahar.”
The benefits of distributed ledgers have become a hot topic of discussion and debate in the technology and payments arenas. Proponents argue that they are transparent, faster, cheaper and more secure than other systems. While all these assertions may have some truth in principle (depending on the use case), a deeper dive reveals a set of more complicated issues and qualifications and, in some cases, issues of legality. Distributed ledgers may run on very different protocols, or rules. Different governance ultimately means that these ledgers have very different characteristics and ways of operating. In addition to this, some of the advantages of distributed ledgers at the same time present disadvantages. Below we unpack a few key questions.
Are distributed ledgers transparent? In principle, yes, but not necessarily.
Are distributed ledgers more efficient? Potentially but not necessarily.
Are distributed ledgers more secure? In principle, yes, but not necessarily.
From UNHCR Nigeria’s perspective, what went right and what could have gone better on a recent engagement?
When faced with new or perplexing challenges, it’s not unusual for the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) country operations to turn to UNHCR’s Innovation Service. After all, the Innovation Service is tasked with supporting the needs of country operations by helping them develop more effective approaches for working with refugees and other displaced people.
But what exactly does it look like from the country operation’s perspective when the Innovation Service collaborates with them on an engagement? Is it helpful or can it sometimes be a hindrance? Does the operation develop new approaches to identify challenges and test creative solutions? Do they have the confidence to use these new approaches and tools in the future for other challenges, even after the engagement with the Innovation Service is completed? Does the engagement build competency and confidence in using the innovation approach?
Humanitarian crises require that we make difficult choices. As they increasingly become complex, as are their impact on the environment, the choices we make must be the right ones. And to make sound, informed decisions, we need data.
Thankfully today, all those who work in the environmental field have at their fingertips a combination of global environmental data, technologies and data science tools and techniques. These have the potential to create insights that can underpin a sustainable future and profoundly transform our relationship with our planet.
For decades, the UN Environment Programme has been working with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and partners such as the UN Refugee Agency, to make sense of environmental data for improved humanitarian planning. In December last year, UN Environment with support from the UN Refugee Agency piloted an innovative tool for environmental data gathering and risk assessment, the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+).
Air pollution in Kenya’s capital is on the rise, and there is no escape from it. In an effort to measure this, UN-Habitat’s Urban Pathways project partnered with the University of Nairobi’s Maker Space Lab to train citizens to measure air pollution.
The project is called “Open Seneca Nairobi – Air Quality Monitoring powered by citizen science”. Open Seneca works to create a global air quality sensor network using citizen science. Residents learn how to build air pollution sensors. These are attached to various vehicles and devices for a set period of time to measure and contrast the air pollution in different areas of a city. The results from these experiments are used to raise awareness about urban air pollutants along transport corridors, and can result in changes in commuters behaviour as well as influencing urban planning and legislation.
Air pollution has emerged as a growing health issue across Asia and the Pacific and affects the lives of millions of citizens. With this concern in mind, Pulse Lab Jakarta has been investigating how to deploy a machine learning model it developed to nowcast air quality using deep learning. Building on exploratory research conducted in 2018 and in line with our mission to build collaboration and exchange expertise and technical skills with the private sector, we applied to the Computer Vision for Global Challenges (CV4GC) initiative and were delighted that our proposal was selected as one of the final 17 challenge winners. During the workshop, we presented our nowcasting air pollution model and received expert feedback from the computer vision community on how to refine its development.
Aquaponics has become all the trend. The combination of aquaculture, the practice of fish farming, and hydroponics, the cultivation of plants in water without soil, aquaponics is one example of recirculating systems generally called Integrated Aquaculture Agriculture (IAA). Some integrated farms can reduce water consumption by 90% compared to traditional agriculture. This is very good news for the agriculture sector, which worldwide, uses about 70% of available freshwater.
In aquaponics, water serves a dual purpose: hosting fish and growing crops, generating two products at once. This isn’t the only benefit; the waste from the fish fertilizes the water used to irrigate the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish. It is a win-win situation. Producing more food with less resources: this is part of the future of agriculture.
To create a learning network whose speed matches the pace of change in development, we need a new kind of intelligence. We’re working with Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence to learn how to tap into distributed, real time intelligence as a global good. To start, this means learning to see in a new way — getting more real-time data. This work has started in exciting prospects, but it is not yet operating at scale. We need more of it. While a minister may need to make development investment decisions with data that is two years old, who would cross the street based on data from 2017?
But getting faster data is not enough. We also need to find better ways to channel people’s insights, views and activation towards intractable development problems. We’ll also need to learn to model new forms of accountability that tap into shifting and varying realities.
“My name is Lihle, and I am a young person living with HIV. I am here to bring hope to those who are feeling lost. Remember, you are not alone,” says Lihle Bhebhe, a young woman featured in 360HIV, a virtual reality film launched by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in 2018 to address a major obstacle in the AIDS response globally: The social stigma of living with HIV.
In the 360HIV films, Lihle takes us through her journey as a young person getting tested for, and diagnosed with, HIV. She meets with a nurse and a peer counselor, and builds a plan and support system so that she can continue to live a full life.
UNAIDS partnered with Google and Makhulu, a creative media agency in South Africa, to put viewers in the shoes of young people like Lihle living with HIV/AIDS and their health care workers. By being fully immersed in Lihle’s story, virtual reality viewers get a real sense of both the challenges young people with HIV face, but also the future they can create when they get testing and treatment.
A selection of 13 Virtual Reality films from UN Agencies and the MY World 360º young media creators showcasing the challenges of inequality and the importance of leaving no one behind will be screened at the European Development Days. The films take place around the world – in the Philippines, Albania, South Africa, Nepal, Iraq, Malawi, Nigeria, Lao PDR, Germany, USA, Brazil and Mongolia.
Experimenting with a new technology isn’t always easy, particularly within large organizations. One of the most powerful aspects of working within a UN Agency is that we find ourselves part of a larger, global system that, with the right tools, can allow us to harness our collective, cross-agency efforts to accelerate change. Blockchain-based applications are currently being explored by several UN agencies, and as a team, we wanted to come together to find a way that we could leverage one another’s learnings, while also enabling more agencies to experiment. The Atrium is an interagency development sandbox designed to enable collaboration across UN agencies who are interested in blockchain technology.
The United Nations human settlements programme, UN-Habitat, and Portuguese energy company EDP, are constructing a solar energy system to supply 12 classrooms – which have been built to withstand 180 km per hour winds – with clean, renewable energy.
This will have a huge impact on the community because, as well as enabling some 1,300 students to study at night, people living in the area will, for a small fee, be able to charge their mobile phones, and access the internet. They will also stand a better chance of surviving, when the next cyclones and floods hit the country: Mozambique has developed an early-warning system, with SMS alerts sent out by the government, but this only works in communities with access to energy.
Earlier this month, researchers created an AI-driven malware that can be used to hack hospital CT scans, generating false cancer images that deceived even the most skilled doctors. If introduced into today’s hospital networks, healthy people could be treated with radiation or chemotherapy for non-existent tumours, while early-stage cancer patients could be sent home with false diagnoses. Today’s medical intelligence about the treatment of cancers, blood clots, brain lesions and viruses could be manipulated, corrupted and destroyed. This is just one example of how “data-poisoning” – when data is manipulated to deceive – poses a risk to our most critical infrastructures. Without a common understanding of how AI is converging with other technologies to create new and fast-moving threats, far more than our hospital visits may turn into a nightmare.
Do you remember our last post on how chatbots can help to respond to humanitarian crisis? Well, since then we have made a lot of progress and new experiences, including the development of chatbots builder platforms but also deployment and user testing. Sharing is caring, so here is a write-up of what we have been up to lately.
Artificial Intelligence is frequently in the headlines these days, sometimes portrayed in apocalyptic terms as the technology that will take over our jobs or even our lives. But what if it could also become a valuable tool in the worldwide efforts to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?
UNHCR has always been innovating. Currently, in Quito, Diego Nardi is working on challenges around how we communicate with communities. In our Global Learning Centre, Clarisse Ntampaka is working out how to train people on protection more effectively. In Nairobi, Sandra Aluoch and Kent Awiti are scaling connected learning across Africa. Netta Rankin is grappling with Artificial Intelligence and human resources systems. The commitment and efforts to innovate exist in our organisation, in the obvious but also in the prosaic. They exist agnostic of age, and professional profile, and they exist because of a huge diversity of thought.
I’m not making the case for innovation being a panacea, I’m saying that it’s an important tool, an important part of what we do, and how we do it — including how we solve challenges big and small. At such a complicated and complex time, we must not only invest in innovation but also our ability to effectively change and adapt.
A UNESCO publication produced in collaboration with Germany and the EQUALS Skills Coalition, I’d Blush if I Could, features recommendations on actions to overcome global gender gaps in digital skills, with a special examination of the impact of gender prejudice coded into some of the most prevalent artificial intelligence (AI) applications such as digital voice assistants.
The publication locates this prejudice in the gender imbalance of technical teams leading the development of frontier technologies and identifies policy solutions to help women and girls cultivate strong digital skills.
The recommendations about the gendering of AI are urgent in light of the explosive growth of voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa technology. Almost all of these assistants are given female names and voices and express a ‘personality’ that is engineered to be uniformly subservient. The title of the publication borrows its name from the response that Siri, the Apple voice assistant use
Pigs play a key role in Papua New Guinea, both culturally and economically. Rising global demand for pork presents new export opportunities, but only if farmers can prove the quality of their product. Together with the International Telecommunications Unit, FAO is creating a distributed ledger system (a blockchain-based system) that can track livestock and allow consumers to buy with confidence by verifying the history of their pigs. Before the system was implemented, consumers had no means of verifying this information. The implementation of the new tracking system is vital for establishing consumer trust and ensuring farmers can expand their markets and earn a fair return on their investments.
As part of UNICEF’s work to support the Government of Indonesia’s response to the earthquake and tsunami struck Palu in 2018, UNICEF piloted a new WhatsApp partnership on the digital platform U-Report.
U-Report has traditionally used text messages to crowdsource people’s opinions and participation to deliver impact on UNICEF and partner NGO programmes. UNICEF asks young people about issues that matter to them which then informs UNICEF’s daily work, but when a natural disaster happens, the platform has a dual use: First, UNICEF, the Government and NGO partners can send short, simple, useful messages to thousands of people to keep them safe. In turn, the subscribers can reply, in real time, to tell the responders what they need to survive.
For the first time, innovators from eleven United Nations entities will come together to participate in the first Interagency Innovation Bootcamp, jointly hosted by the UN Innovation Network and the World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator in Munich, with the common purpose of working through game-changing humanitarian solutions in the same space — all aiming at tackling one or more of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The bootcamp is a week-long high-intensity training programme to spark and catalyse new innovation projects across the UN. Innovators will refine their projects, rapidly test solutions and develop business models to tackle some of the world’s most challenging problems. Recognizing the equal importance of all 17 SDGs (especially the 17th, “Partnerships for the Goals”), the bootcamp will be an embodiment of what the UN strives to represent, including international cooperation and harmonization of actions.
In a remote town in Ethiopia, a health worker learns lifesaving midwife tips from a WiFi-enabled tablet linked to a projector. In the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, displaced Syrian engineers help run a giant solar plant so families can cook, study, and work. In Kampala, Uganda, a team of analysts uses artificial intelligence to study public radio broadcasts and learn what marginalized communities really worry about.
These stories span issues and geographies, yet they share a common thread: They are stories of how the United Nations is innovating to improve lives on the ground.
Farmers in Namibia now have new crop varieties of cowpea and sorghum that are more tolerant to drought and pests planted this year, thanks to nuclear technology provided with the support of the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Traditional seed varieties no longer meet the needs of close to 700,000 agricultural households in northern Namibia, where drought and poor soil inhibit crop productivity
In response, the IAEA and the FAO have supported Namibia through the transfer of technology and helped to build capabilities in plant breeding and soil and water management. The new varieties are expected to benefit over 8,000 farmers in the first season, and more farmers will be able to get involved as the seed production increases, Andowa said.
PAHO’s Health Emergencies Department and UNICEF’s Office of Innovation joined forces to explore the potential of machine learning to predict areas of yellow fever incidence in the Americas and assess the importance of geographic and environmental factors, employing PAHO’s seminal work and unique datasets. Increasing availability of digital data and development of Machine Learning techniques, and Artificial Intelligence in general, has proven extremely useful in understanding patterns of disease and health dynamics in populations. This trend of popular field of research called digital epidemiology uses digital data collected and generated inside and outside the public health system.