Five ways the UN is experimenting together in 2018
BY Maria Blanco Lora | May 3, 2018
Here at silo-fighting HQ, for a fourth year in a row, we are trying to incentivize the UN to innovate together. This is our annual moment to listen to how UN country teams plan to go beyond business as usual and model next generation practices to meet the demands of Agenda 2030. We love this time of year, as the proposals themselves are great intelligence on the front line, and we get to know the problems teams want to solve and what tools they have at their disposal to solve them.
We were looking for joint efforts across UN agencies to innovate in the areas of data, behavioural insights, finance, collective intelligence and foresight. With thanks to our donors, these are investments in innovations which can either be scaled from one agency to the rest of the system efforts, from one sector or field to another, from one country to another, or from one geographic area to country-wide applicability. We are also funding UN teams that want to break new ground and test hypotheses for more proof-of-concept type innovations. The competition among country teams for the funding was tough, but thanks to our review team, after 100 proposals, we finally decided on 34 experiments and scaling efforts that we are thrilled to present in this blog.
Data for preparedness, prevention and prediction
Innovations in data was the most popular area in the proposals this year. A good chunk of winning pitches focus on new ways of gathering and analysing data to allow countries better prepare and respond to natural disasters along with citizen-generated data for predictive analytics.
In the Pacific, the UN country team in Samoa, will use new technologies to analyse households preparedness to cyclones, while Fiji will be scaling VAMPIRE to measure the impact of cyclones through data mining and build predictive analytics. In Viet Nam, the UN team will develop digital tools to link baseline data on vulnerability and resilience to preparedness to long-term planning disaster recovery planning.
To prevent food insecurity, the UN in Malawi will be using geospatial information to assist farmers and, in Ghana, the team will use remote sensing and drones to provide the government with timely data to respond to food security threats. In Iraq, crop productivity mapping through the use of mobile data collection and satellite imagery will explore new ways of measuring poverty beyond traditional surveys.
Sudan, PNG and Jordan will use participatory methodologies, based on mobile phone data, to test water and sanitation projects in camps for internally displaced persons to predict development investments and to look for future development trends.
The UN team in Dominican Republic will build on their previous experience to develop a national SDG data lab to integrate sustainable development into the development planning in the country. Also, Serbia will be developing an algorithm to assess the alignment of the national development plan and sectoral strategies to the SDGs. Last but not least, Uzbekistan will be using blockchain to improve public services testing whether this will reduce transaction costs and increase transparency.
Ramping up participatory programming with collective Intelligence
Lots of UN teams are trying to tap into the best collective minds in the countries they serve, with an increase in the use of new methods and technologies to engage the general public in policy development, budget allocation and monitoring. Based on what we got for our call for proposals, UN country teams feel comfortable using mobile tech to tap into collective intelligence to triangulate data or test their hypothesis while undertaking planning processes.
Albania and Mexico are using mobile technologies and social media to gather perceptions on the progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Digital tools, such as Rapid Pro, will be used by Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Somalia to enhance the dialogue with local authorities and, in the case of T&T and Suriname, to engage young people in policy monitoring and development. Colombia, through automatic speech recognition, and Lesotho, through open challenges, will also use collective intelligence for participatory planning and accountable governance respectively.
In Senegal, the UN country team will be supporting community health workers with a real-time monitoring tool, SMS-based, to prevent health emergencies. Monitoring will be also the scope of the project in Honduras, where women will be able to share and identify safe zones in the city of Choloma through crowdsourced audits facilitated by a real-time data collection app.
The UN country team in Iraq will engage youth IT developers and activists to harness the power of new technologies to oversee public investments in the documentation, conservation, rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country's cultural heritage.
In China, the UN team will link up farmers with tech companies to find solutions to connectivity gaps among poor farmers and decision makers using mobile technologies, e-platforms and drones.
The Pulse Lab Kampala in Uganda will advance their machine learning driven radio tools to develop an open software platform for the UN country team to enable open access to existing software applications developed by the Lab that will allow programme colleagues harness collective intelligence for their work. The UN team in Moldova will be on a quest to experiment, test and fine-tune a platform-based organizational model to explore if this type of platform would be feasible in the case of the UN global mandate.
Behavioural insights to meet people where they are
2018 was the first year we opened up to proposals in the area of Behavioural Insights. We will be funding initiatives to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse (Nigeria), to learn from devients to halt male violent behaviour towards women (Palestine) and to eliminate female genital mutilation/cutting (Mauritania). In Costa Rica, the UN country team will use behavioural insights to understand and tackle structural development gaps among the most excluded communities. Popular technologies in these proposals are social media, SMS polling, big data and the use of radio.
Innovative finance to channel private funds to development
UN teams in three countries will be experimenting with new forms of financing in 2018: Colombia, Somalia, and Armenia. Team Colombia will develop innovative blending finance solutions to support enterprises with peacebuilding impact in remote locations in the country. The UN in Somalia will set up open innovation challenges and crowdfunding platforms and the UN and the government in Armenia will be leveraging private finance for SDG-related objectives through social impact bonds as part of their SDG innovation Lab.
Imagining possible futures and seeing the future that is already here
To begin to use the future as a tool for development work today. Two UN teams will be using foresight and alternative futures as part of their sustainable development work.
In Egypt, the idea is to build scenarios to encourage foresight dialogues as a tool to increase civic engagement to define Egypt's future. The team will make use of forecasting tools such as Three Horizon Framework and Verge Foresight Framework. In the same region, Lebanon will apply a participatory approach to foresight, asking citizens to contribute to a foresight exercise using a mapping tool.
Pinky swear: we promise to work out loud….
This work will be led by a growing community of innovators within the UN. We are proud to have colleagues from almost every agency working in the field leading these innovations and we are aware that there are many more out there. The idea is to connect and learn from each other, so we are looking for mentors to help us (data scientists, human-centered design, machine-learning among others. Webinars and our One UN Knowledge Exchange group will be our main channels to support our innovators. We will also tap into the UN Innovation Network.
This was just a taste of the innovations that are coming up this year, for more, keep showing up to our Silo Fighters Blog. The UN innovators will be sharing their own stories in this space. And while you are at it, follow us on Twitter.
Photo: Trevor Samson / World Bank
Using mobile phone surveys to fight hunger
BY Marie Enlund, Jean-Martin Bauer | September 15, 2015
Surveys carried out over mobile phones are capturing timely data on food supply and access. The mVAM project of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is piloting mobile voice technology for household food security.
Remote data collection on food security
The mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) project is collecting food security data through short mobile phone surveys, using text messages, live telephone interviews and ‘robocalls’ through an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system. The mVAM project is the first project to use mobile phone surveys at scale in humanitarian settings, as shown in this video from a refugee camp in Goma, ‘WFP calling: What did you eat today?’ As readers of our blog know, the project has now been scaled up to 11 countries in Africa and in the Middle East.
Advantages of monitoring with mobile technologies
Mobile surveys provide a valuable complement to the face-to-face survey approaches that are commonly used.
We use the data to help track changes in food security in near real-time, increasing our ability to understand needs more quickly and efficiently.
mVAM provides information we can use to drill down on a specific theme, area or group.
Turnaround is estimated at one to two weeks compared to six weeks for face-to-face surveys.
Costs range from $3 to $9 per questionnaire compared to $20 to $40 for face-to-face surveys.
mVAM enables data collection in hard-to-access, remote or dangerous locations without putting enumerators at risk.
Mobile surveys are feasible and affordable
In the past, advanced computer coding skills were needed to design and run a polling survey using text messaging or IVR (interactive voice response). Today, it can be done using a drag and drop interface – which is great news if you are less-technologically inclined. Advances in technology make real-time monitoring a feasible and affordable option for agencies. In particular, free and open source technologies offer user-friendly SMS and IVR packages. If you want to do mobile surveys at a large scale, private companies also offer SMS and IVR services at affordable rates.
Before you take the plunge, do remember that real-time monitoring is no ‘silver bullet’: large analytical capacities are required to churn through the data and make it speak to decision makers.
Determine exactly what questions to ask in your phone surveys, as you want to keep them as short as possible.
How we avoided the ‘data silo’ trap
From the start of the mVAM project, we have tried to ensure that our data is being made available outside the confines of WFP. We think that the mVAM-HDX collaboration around Ebola data is a great example of how two UN agencies have helped each other out for the greater good: WFP and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Interactive visuals on WFP food price data
At the peak of the Ebola emergency last year, we teamed up with OCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) in order to help share our data with the wider humanitarian community. When we put our data on HDX, we saw a surge in traffic on our website, a clear indication that having an open access policy was the best way to share our information. Soon, we saw partner organizations – donors and NGOs – publish reports using the data that had been shared in this way. In addition, HDX has helped us develop cool visuals that we have embedded into our website. Interactive visuals on WFP food price data are already up and visuals of mVAM data are coming soon.
WFP looks forward to expanding its partnership network and working with others on remote data collection. We see potential for collaboration with UNHCR in camp settings, for example. Working with community-based organizations at the grassroots level has promoted continued engagement of communities with our surveys, and we will continue doing this. We also plan to conduct a series of webinars this autumn, which you are invited join.
For more information and updates on mVAM, please visit MVAM: THE BLOG and the VAM Resource Center, where we offer guidelines, training materials, sample survey forms and related articles and news.