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
Bringing Brazil back office innovations into the spotlight
BY Maria Helena Mizuno Moreira | December 6, 2017
At the beginning of 2016, Nesta predicted that back office innovations would take center stage. In the case of the UN in Brazil, this prediction was spot on.
If you work outside the United Nations system you might assume that we consistently pool our resources. But we don't. This is largely due to the fact that the UN organisations were created one by one by the UN Member States over the last 70 years, and the different UN organisations therefore had to set up their own internal management structures - not unlike different ministries in a government. In the past, cost savings have been pursued UN agency by UN agency within their sometimes very different business models. As part of the drive for better services and reduced costs, however, the UN has been reconsidering this model, and are trying out new methods for pooling back office functions to better serve the populations we work for.
The UN in Brazil is one of the four integrated business centers across the UN system that are piloting this new way of working. We named it the Joint Operations Facility, or the JOF (yes, we love acronyms in the UN!). The other integrated business pilots are in Cape Verde, Copenhagen and Viet Nam.
In Brazil, we began 18 months ago with the idea of simplifying business processes and integrating services across UN entities. Out of 22 funds, programmes, and specialized agencies working in Brazil, six agencies endorsed this project: UNDP, UNFPA, UNESCO, UN Women, UNOPS and UN Environment, with UNAIDS as a partner agency.
With the support of the UNDG Business Operations Working Group and the UN High-Level Committee on Management, we conducted a strategic review of business operations in the country. We assessed our procurement, IT and human resources needs and created a business case for pulling these back office functions together. This analysis was the official start of our Joint Operations Facility in Brazil.
What does integrating business operations really mean?
Setting up this facility meant creating a new team to fully address the new needs of these agencies in country. We created new positions for procurement, travel, ICT and a manager that oversees the work of the team. The JOF Manager reports to the UN Resident Coordinator, who shares the governance of the facility with the six agencies participating in the initiative.
For decisions, we follow the General Assembly “one vote one voice” principle, so each agency has an equal say regardless of the size or volume of goods or funds they channel through the facility.
Now 18 months later, we are proud to say that the members of this facility are working together on a single service platform centralizing procedures and business operations in the areas of procurement, travel, information and communications technology. Centralizing services allows for several benefits such a sharing the costs and risks, and allowing staff to specialise and therefore increase the quality of services.
The bumpy parts
As with any new endeavor, the UN in Brazil faced several obstacles including entrenched practices, cultural clashes, and different ways of thinking. Some entities felt that they took an unfair financial hit and perceived a disadvantage in their business services, while smaller entities already counted on the facility to sustain their activities.
Other lessons that we learned during these 18 months of journey are:
Never underestimate transition periods: What we realized during the process is that setting up solid administrative support services requires an investment, and the transition period shouldn’t be underestimated.
Technology to the rescue: The ICT tools that the facility used were initially connected with specific UN entities’ requirement. We soon learned that this was too complex. A second generation of ICT applications and portal will be released soon allowing automated monitoring to improve control, transparency and operational efficiency.
When duplication happens, breathe, and phase it out: Some of the participating agencies preferred to keep parallel internal operational structures. This was redundant to the purpose of the Joint Operations Facility, and agencies quickly realized that it was not sustainable and these structures are being phased out gradually.
The lack of a global UN-wide common procurement manual has been a challenge, and we are trying to identify and adopt already existing operational good practices across the UN system to have a common framework. As a work-around, we are now working on our own common manual for procurement to consolidate practices including the adoption of a harmonized procurement manual. This has been a difficult and time consuming process.
We believe that by expanding and providing additional procurement services, as well as launching the shared human resource services, we will ensure the sustainability and relevance of the facility. We are currently negotiating the provision of services to more agencies through service legal agreements, we will keep you posted in the number of agencies joining us!
The silver lining
It’s safe to say that our hard work ultimately paid off. Since launching the facility in March 2016, we are developing new procedures and tools to streamline our work. By simplifying and revamping our internal business flows, we are reducing our common operation footprint while improving the collective efficiency and saving costs.
In terms of next steps, some already see the opportunity to expand this facility into a regional hub. As the only integrated service center in the Latin America and the Caribbean region, building in the current structure we would have the potential to provide business operations services to multiple countries to increase cost savings and improve quality of office services. So we feel that this is just the beginning of an exciting project.
Despite the hurdles, we trust that we are on the right track and will continue to support the United Nations to think outside the box and construct innovative, efficient and effective mechanisms to achieve the 2030 Agenda.