How UNICEF Invests in Technology to Empower Underserved People

Originally published on 29 July 2015 on CEA’s blog. Written by Grace Dobush. To read original article, click here
You’ve heard of the United Nations Children’s Fund. But what you might not know is how much the nearly 70-year-old organization is investing in technology.

In the seven years since UNICEF started its in-house Innovation Lab, the team has grown to about 70 colleagues around the world with one focus: to use technology to better help children, youth and mothers in need. Mobile technology has brought two-way communication to the most remote parts of the world, making humanitarian response more agile and helping people lift themselves out of poverty.

Innovation Lab co-leads Chris Fabian and Erica Kochi (who were two of the Time 100 in 2013) chatted with me about their current projects and how the team works. The Innovation Lab has three main classifications of projects: generating real-time information, empowering youth and creating access to information. If those topics sound big, it’s because they are. The hundreds of projects the lab currently has in various stages of testing or deployment then aim to tackle one or more of UNICEF’s seven pillars: child protection; education; health; HIV and AIDS; nutrition; social inclusion; or water, sanitation and hygiene.

One of the team’s major successes is an open-source app development platform called RapidPro. Many of UNICEF’s projects are built on the platform, including U-Report, a text-based information gathering service in 14 developing countries that just surpassed one million registered users.

“We get unsolicited information from young people about what they think about social issues that impact their lives,” Kochi says. “We’ve never been able to hear from so many young people from around the world, from the most remote, most impoverished communities.”


“There’s no longer a question of whether somebody has access to a quality signal; the question is still what they have to do to get access,” Fabian says. A girl in a rural community might not own a phone herself, but she knows where she can find one.


Wearables for Good 

UNICEF wants to find ideas for wearable tech and sensors that can change lives in the developing world with its current Wearables for Good competition, in partnership with ARM, the microprocessor company, and frog, an innovation and design firm. Anyone can submit a proposal until the August 4 deadline, following the guidelines outlined in UNICEF and frog’s Use Case Handbook.

The document is essentially a crash course in technology for development, encouraging interested inventors to think about tough questions, such as: “Are wearables a viable technology asset in communities of need given common constraints such as lack of connectivity or electricity, access to repairs and parts, humidity or other harsh environmental factors, and varying levels of literacy?” The best wearable projects won’t just be nice to have, but essential to have. Ten finalists will be selected, and then the two winners of the Wearables for Good challenge will each receive $15,000 in funding and an incubation package including mentoring.

“The challenges we’re facing are vital,” Kochi says, giving a few examples. “In public safety: being able to detect a fire if it breaks out in an urban slum, for example, and notify the fire department and all residents. Or the idea of diagnosis, treatment and referral: People in remote areas especially die of preventable diseases. Ten million children died last year of preventable diseases. The cause is usually because they weren’t diagnosed in time, didn’t get treatment in time or didn’t go to facilities in time.”

One of the Innovation Lab’s key principles is to design with the users in mind. Many projects coming from developed countries are not designed considering end users in developing countries. When you’re designing for resource-constrained environments, you have to be especially cautious about energy consumption, as charging regularly might not be possible. Hardware has to be rugged and waterproof, as getting spare parts or repairs may be out of reach.

Mobile users in developing countries might pre-pay their airtime only a dollar or two at a time. “You have to build systems in a way that people don’t have to pay for and that they’re built in a way that’s useful to users, and that’s worth their time and money,” Fabian says. That means working with organizations and people on the ground in your target markets is essential.

And the messages also have to be tailored to the local populations. Local young people write the messages for U-Report in Liberia. “In Zambia, the HIV project (on U-Report) failed at first,” Fabian says. “The first set of questions were like, ‘Hello, young people of Zambia,’ and only one person wrote back and was like, ‘This sounds stupid.’”

How to get involved

People in consumer electronics have a lot to offer UNICEF’s Innovation Lab and other social impact organizations. You can donate brainpower: UNICEF works with corporate partners big and small to engage workforces on big projects that can change the world. Raising awareness is always good: Spread the word about relevant projects happening in the developing world through your social media channels.

Investment is another route. UNICEF wants to tackle some more risky projects this year with its Innovation Fund. Based on venture capital principles, the fund will identify and spawn self-sustaining projects around the globe. Rapid seed funding from $25,000 up to $100,000 and potentially more than $1 million will be available for scalable projects.

One “don’t” on the list: Don’t dump old technology on the developing world. “Think about designing your products for different use cases,” Kochi says. “Not just out of the goodness of your heart, but because it’s needed.” Younger populations in impoverished countries are booming while developed countries, on the whole, are aging. As the global middle class grows, you’ll see more discretionary spending on tech items. Innovating for the developing world is just good business.

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