Business Operations are defined loosely as “all non-programmatic activities needed to deliver UN programmes efficiently and effectively.” This in effect implies quite a range of operational processes, tasks and infrastructure development and maintenance, from policy to implementation, from personnel management to telecommunications infrastructure, from banking to security, from procurement to building maintenance.

In order to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of UN operations in country and throughout the UN System, the practice of streamlining a lot of this operational work has become known as harmonization of business practices, which includes common services and common premises.

Silo Fighters Blog

Crowdsourcing the campfire: how our data visualization contest opened doors

BY Abigail Taylor-Jones | November 14, 2018

“Visualizations act as a campfire around which we gather to tell stories.” - Al Shalloway, founder and CEO of Net Objectives. Telling our story well is key to ensuring we can influence policy and other key decision-making processes. In order to do so, it is important to get new insights from the evidence we generate from the data we collect. To give a sense of the scale, we collect data from 130 UN Country Teams, serving 165 countries. The types of data we collect ranges from operational data, socio-economic data, financial data, data on coordination and results. Sitting behind the walls of the UN can sometimes be lonely ploughing through all this data (other times it is quite daunting). So, we have to think of creative ways to gather new insights to tell a good and compelling story. The UN is known as an organization that brings people together globally to participate in various ways, for example working towards realizing the goals set for 2030 Agenda. For us, being open and inclusive about the UN’s work is always at the forefront of our minds, even when it comes to data. We started thinking about ways to include others from outside the UN in our analysis and data visualization process. As the Secretariat to the UN Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG) we have access to a wide range of data, so we thought, why not launch our first ever UNSDG data visualization contest and find out what others can see in our data? So, my colleague Kana Kudo and I did just that. In collaboration with Tableau, we launched the contest and invited data scientists and anyone interested in data visualization to use our data from the UNSDG portal, which pulls UN specific data, published by several agencies, using the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standards to report how the UN is contributing to the global development agenda. Data is powerful but we don’t always know how to tell a story with it After launching the contest, we realized there were blind spots that we failed to see. For example, some of the submissions did make use of the IATI data sets, while others did not. The guidelines we provided were clear, however the research questions were a little unclear. We ended up receiving several stunning visualizations, but they were not exactly what we were looking for. We learned that when it comes to data, it’s best to be specific. Another learning was that data scientists wanted the option to work with other data visualization tools and not be limited to Tableau; so we had to broaden the scope of tools for the contest. We brought a selection panel together to assess the submissions, and we selected two winners. The first winner crafted “Visualizing Malaria: The Killer Disease Killing Africa,” an impactful visualization that analyses malaria deaths in the world, how they have changed, and how funding has evolved over the years, particularly in Africa. The contestant explained that she had been inspired by the experience of a dear friend who had been infected with malaria. We also liked this visualization on malaria because it focused on both the positive and negative aspects of the fight against this diseases. Whilst lives are been saved through the use of mosquito nets, there’s also a downward trend in other aspects, which means more still needs to be done. [caption id="attachment_10399" align="alignnone" width="542"] Visualization by Rosebud Anwuri[/caption] The second data visualization titled “Leave no one Behind”, included the UN’s spending on each Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) per country, looking at the financial distribution among the SDGs. The underlying calculations were just as impressive as the visualization itself! We liked this visual and we were interested in how the participant highlighted the leaving no one behind aspect, which is the central promise of the 2030 Agenda; and an overarching programming principle. Looking at how we are doing from a financial expenditure perspective is key to assessing the UN’s contribution to the SDGs. Behind the scenes, our team in Headquarters was tinkering with developing UN Info, a tool that integrates the UN contributions to the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. This is an important aspect because it keeps us accountable and helps UN Country Teams with programme management. From this contest, it was clear to us that data is obviously powerful but we don’t always know how to tell a story out of it. We were very impressed with the contestants’ interpretations and the visualizations. As a bonus, we also gained unexpected and useful insights that helped us refine our UN IATI data set.   [caption id="attachment_10400" align="alignnone" width="570"] Visualization by Pedro Fontoura[/caption] One of the things that we also discovered, is that data scientists like to get involved. Chloe Tseng, founder of Viz for Social Good contacted us to find out how she could collaborate with us. Although she didn’t participate in the contest, we were keen to work with Chloe and her team of volunteers just as she was to work with us. Goal 17 of the SDGs relates to partnerships and we know how important it is work with others to realize our goals. We gave Viz for Social Good a particular set of data related to the partnerships that the Country Teams have beyond the UN. If you haven’t read Viz for Social Good’s journey working with us, and the beautiful visualizations that came out of our partnership, check it out here. Our data was too fat! The contest was a great learning opportunity for us. From our collaboration with Chloe and the Viz For Social Good network of over 2000 data visualization experts, we learned that our data is good but we need to look at ways of improving the way data is parsed through our systems and ensure that it is formatted in a manageable and easy way for data scientists to work with it. Chloe also gave us feedback on moving from larger chunks of data to smaller chunks. We took these recommendations very seriously and have made significant changes in our data systems for optimum use by data scientists. We trimmed down our data in smaller chunks that requires little time for data cleaning which allows for quicker analysis. This experience was definitely an eye opener in terms of telling a more powerful and compelling story than we will ever be able to do if we stick to large sets of data in an excel format. The campfire is still with us Collaborating with Viz For Social Good and with the contest participants inspired our team to adapt our digital strategy work.  Seeing the way these artists take data and communicate with it opened our eyes. Our taste has changed and boy have our standards gotten higher. We are designing dashboards for future projects and seeing the artistry has upped our game for the long run.   Photo: Wenni Zhou

Silo Fighters Blog

The ripple effect of UN transparency: the case of procurement in Ukraine

BY Sandra Cavallo, Anastas Boiko | March 7, 2018

Times have never been easy for small businesses in Ukraine. Since the conflict broke out  in east Ukraine, the Ukrainian GDP plunged by over 10 percent in 2015 alone. Since then, welfare, livelihoods and social cohesion have been directly affected by the consequences of the conflict. Many entrepreneurs have moved away from the conflict zones due to the disruption of basic services and the risk of shelling. Thankfully, things are starting to get on better footing. As the country’s economy steadily began to recover in 2016 and 2017, with a GDP growth slightly above 2 percent, new opportunities for Ukrainian businesses began to emerge. This included the introduction of a free-trade zone with the European Union. This is good news, but success stories of local businesses making their way to EU markets are still scarce. Small local businesses, we hear you The UN’s operations in Ukraine have grown since the events of 2014 and the subsequent armed conflict. More UN projects mean more procurement needs, and it is no secret that some businesses stand to gain from an increased international presence in conflict-affected areas. At the UN, we deal with mostly medium and small-sized Ukrainian businesses on a daily basis.  When we issue procurement notices, we know from experience how difficult it can be for a local company to successfully fulfill the criteria of a transparent, international tender. In some cases, we have to reject up to 30 percent of tender proposals due to errors in their submissions. To become a provider for a UN agency, businesses need to meet high standards, including accountability and transparency. Is there something we can do to turn this situation into a stable positive effect for local businesses? A new way of doing business: Increased transparency The local companies that we work with get the message: to seize new opportunities, they need to step up their organizational standards and increase transparency, no matter how big or small the business. Transparency is on the rise in Ulkraine, and in some ways is even seen as a way to attract customers. For example, a searchable e-declarations database, launched among international fanfare in 2016, is now where all Ukrainian public servants declare their assets. Also, some anti-corruption organizations are developing tools to verify conflict of interests and cross-check public contract award decisions with a list of companies owned by city council representatives and their family members. And Ukraine’s ProZorro system won international awards for making all public tendering transparent and verifiable by any citizen online. A core principle for the UN, transparency, is essential for high-quality public procurement. An open and transparent procurement process improves competition, increases efficiency and reduces the threat of unfairness or corruption. With this core principle in mind, we asked ourselves: How can we be more transparent? Demystifying UN procurement Our solution to this big question was: let’s take the streets! And we (kind of) literally did… Instead of using the usual communication channels to disseminate our tenders, we adopted a more proactive approach and reached out to the wider private sector with a series of public meetings where we talked about the ins and outs of procurement as practiced in the UN. We talked about how all bidders are evaluated equally from the solicitation stage, throughout the evaluation process and until the contract is signed. Apart from making the organization more transparent, our second goal was to support local bidders to improve their working practices and be able to meet the high demands of our tenders. The hope is that this will increase competition helping to ensure that we, the UN, receive the best value for money in our procurement processes. In our effort to take procurement out on the road, we went beyond the capital city of Kiev and travelled to key cities across the country: Lviv, Kharkiv and Odessa in the west, east and south of Ukraine. We made special efforts to connect with those companies that were internally displaced by the ongoing conflict. In one year, we met face-to-face with over 400 representatives of local businesses from many different industries: food production, construction, pharmaceuticals and advertising. This gave us the opportunity to engage with local businesses, hear their concerns, and answer their questions. At these public meetings, companies that previously worked for the UN spoke about their experiences sharing why they had failed several times before succeeding. They talked about the importance of needing to rely on quality, transparency and demonstrated results, instead of personal contacts, unofficial payments, or other non-transparent practices, were some of the issues highlighted. This is still a mindset change from the still widespread practices of the old times! And we got ambitious… All these interactions with local vendors raised another  question: can our initiative have a ripple effect so local businesses will be prepare to compete beyond the UN market? It may still be too early to tell but we are eager to see the results. We can always hope that this will be only the first step on a thousand-mile journey: the journey towards conquering world markets, rephrasing the idea of the Chinese philosopher Laozi. Meanwhile, we are getting great signs of success: one of the agencies working in Ukraine, UNDP, is already seeing an ever-growing number of new bidders. Having more companies to choose from will always help us ensuring best value for money, a sacred principle in our procurement processes. The end result: helping the organization spending taxpayers’ money in the most effective way. Come back to learn how we are doing!

UNSDG Guidance Notes and Policies on Business Operations

Other stuff we like on Business Operations

Innovating on Business Operations

Many UN country teams take innovative approaches to support the design and implementation of the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) through business operations strategies.

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Common Premises

Premises shared by UN organizations are an important component of the Secretary-General’s UN Reform Programme. The objective of common premises is to build closer ties among United Nations staff and promote a more unified presence at country level in a cost-effective manner.

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Facts on Business Operations

Based on UNDG real-time IMS data, this global snapshot shows the latest progress by countries, towards implementation of the “Operating as One” Standard Operating Procedure: (1. Business Operations Strategy endorsed by the UN country team; 2. Empowered Operations Management Team and 3. Operations costs and budgets integrated in the overall medium-term Common Budgetary Framework).

Note: The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on the maps do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.

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Anders Voigt