UNICEF was named by Fast Company as one of the world’s top 10 most innovative companies in local in 2014 and is becoming recognized worldwide for its pioneering use of technology in developing countries and in humanitarian emergencies contexts globally.

Applying innovative technologies to the largest emergency in the world is a necessary yet tricky challenge.  Leading that challenge in Lebanon is James Cranwell-Ward (JCW) a technology specialist from the UK.  I’ve worked alongside him and his innovations lab for the last three months and have been getting a preview of some inspirational ideas that UNICEF are testing out right here in Lebanon such as Raspberry Pi. Here I ask him more about the exciting upcoming plans.

Three girls at a UNICEF supported settlement in South Lebanon © UNICEF/Lebanon April 2014/Francesca Lemanczyk
Three girls at a UNICEF supported settlement in South Lebanon
© UNICEF/Lebanon April 2014/Francesca Lemanczyk

FL: As the innovation lead for UNICEF Lebanon, can you tell us which upcoming project you are most excited about?
JCW: What I am most excited about going forward is a new project which will see the launch of an e-learning initiative in refugee camps, which will be piloted for 3 months this summer.  It’s untapped ground and it will be really interesting to see what e-learning can do in a context where schools are drastically overrun and there are just not enough school places for children.

FL: In light of the conflict in Syria, what is the context in Lebanon for school children at the moment?
JCW: Right now a huge amount of children do not have access to any sort of education in this country. No access to schools or learning materials.  The sheer number of refugees and the lack of schools is creating a huge problem.  We need to think of some out of the box ways in which to deliver education to these children.

FL: Can you tell us more about the innovative e-learning programme?
JCW: The e-learning programme consists of 3-4 courses delivered on a new cheap computer called a Raspberry Pi. There will be basic literacy, numeracy and science, content based on Khan Academy produced by the Foundation for Learning Equality.  We are also going to run a programme called ‘learning to code and coding to learn’. Children will be able to explore how to make games whilst also learning about their rights as a child. It’s a learning activity and it is also fun.  There will be another course for teachers, so they can support the children as they start using these tools.

In every location the summer school is running – from schools to refugee camps, we are going to leave the lab in place once the summer school is over so it will be a permanent installation.  This will mean that beyond the summer programme children can continue to learn and develop using these tools.

FL: Is this sort of innovation happening anywhere else in the world?
JCW: This is trying to be scaled out in some developed countries such as the UK and USA, but in a developing world context this is pretty much unheard of, particularly within this emergency situation. The technology is readily available, it’s a case of how to package it and how to train people.  The exciting thing about this innovation is that it means children across the globe will be using the same advanced tools to learn, regardless of their situation.  So you have refugee children using the same technology as children from very rich countries.  This tool is designed to give a different aspect to learning about technology.  In this day and age you need to have a more in depth knowledge about how technology works.  But it is also fun, it speaks to the new generation.

By Francesca Lemanczyk

See also another example of the Raspberry Pi in the humanitarian context here


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