Original article: A chat with Dr. Sharad Sapra on how UNICEF is using technology to provide rapid solutions to local problems
Published in Citizen Global on August 12, 2014.
Citizen Global sat down with Dr. Sharad Sapra, Principal Adviser and Director of the UNICEF Innovation Center in Nairobi, to discuss his attendance at the Boston Activate Talk at Harvard University, and how UNICEF is innovating for children at the local level using technology:
UNICEF works to prevent child deaths and improve children’s lives, providing health care and immunizations, clean water and sanitation, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more. How does innovation fit within this framework?SS: The assumptions on which various child survival strategies were designed have changed because of the success of these strategies. We started with the assumptions that health services were not available, availability of vaccines was limited, health workers were not trained, communities were not aware etc. Addressing these issues allowed us to move from reaching few to reaching many. However the same strategies have not succeeded in reaching all. Hence innovative approaches are needed to reach all, especially those marginalized or living in very remote areas
UNICEF now has a network of 15 Innovation Labs around the world (from Armenia to Zambia). What takes place in a UNICEF innovation lab?
SS: UNICEF Innovation Labs work to find solutions to stumbling block found in their country in delivering services and achieving results for children. Through a network of partners locally and labs globally, these solutions, when successful, are adopted and adapted by other labs for use in their area of work.
What are the key trends in technology for Children? Can you give our readers a country case example?
SS: The key trends on innovations for children range from applying new and emerging technologies like remote diagnosis and new cures for children’s diseases to improving crowd sourcing information, youth engagement, increasing awareness and cutting delays in moving information for action at various levels. To give a country example, in Uganda, over 280,000 young people are engaged twice a week in sharing their opinion on various issues that affect them. This information is then aggregated and amplified so that it finds a place on platforms where major policy, legislative and budget allocation decisions are being made. These young people are also investing their social capital in becoming the first reporters and responders to emergencies. In Zambia, similar innovations has allowed to cut down the time needed to move HIV testing information by two-thirds.
UNICEF’s RapidSMS in Nigeria, a text-based data-collection program, has enabled local health workers to register more than 13 million births with the national government through text messages, making it one of the world’s largest mobile health projects. We also know that in Zambia, health workers use RapidSMS, developed in UNICEF’s innovation unit, to text HIV test results, facilitating life-altering interventions. However your team has recently developed a newer mobile app, called RapidFTR, Can you tell us about this new project?
SS: Rapid FTR stands for Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification. During emergencies like conflict and natural disasters, very often children get separated from their parents and caretakers. Rapid FTR is a mobile phone based tool designed to allow registration of separated and unaccompanied minor children, digitally share that information with various refugee or displaced people’s camps to help unite children with their families and caretakers as quickly as possible. In Uganda, South Sudan, Haiti, Philippines, RapidFTR has cut down the time for tracing and reunification from months to days. This quick reunification also allows children to be protected against trafficking and abuse.
Recently, you took part in Boston Activate Talk called “Innovating to Connect the Unconnected” at Harvard University. What was this meeting about? Any new ideas?
SS: Activate Talks is an attempt of UNICEF to identify and share information around range of innovations and innovative approaches that are being undertaken in the development world. It is an attempt to also identify innovations and innovative ideas that need to be tested for scalability, robustness, relevance, and effectiveness so that they can be scaled in many countries to deliver results for children. Activate talks are also being used to crowd source information around such innovations and create a network of such innovators. The Talks in Boston focused around connectivity issues – how to use existing connectivity solutions and also how to create new solutions that can provide connectivity in remote areas. Many ongoing small-scale ideas were shared and we are currently in the process of assessing them for scalability.
How does UNICEF innovation works with the corporate world, particularly the technology sector, in support of its global initiatives?
SS: UNICEF through its partnerships at the global, regional and country level is engaged with a range of private sector companies to leverage their infrastructure and expertise in creating, testing and rolling out proven technologies to go to scale. UNICEF is also working with private sector companies and their networks to develop new products and solutions that help achieve results for children. Partnerships with private sector companies range from leveraging their research, product design, product marketing, packaging, transportation, and other technical capabilities to develop better solutions for children.
Anything else that you would like our readers to know?
SS: Each year millions of dollars are being spent by thousands of NGOs, donors, private sector, and governments to deliver quality services for children and achieve results for children. Many of these efforts are being done in isolation and often the outcomes or processes are not being shared. As a result, significant effort and resources are being duplicated and not optimally utilized. My hope and effort is directed towards creating an open source platform (digital and physical) where various partners could come together, share information and experiences and adopt, adapt tools that are already tested and proven, for scaling up thus accelerating the achievement of results for children and significantly improving the effectiveness of investments being made.