On Tuesday, April 21, 2015, The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in partnership with the Skoll Global Threats Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development hosted the Ebola Innovation Summit in San Francisco.  Below, the transcript of the speech given by Sharad Sapra, Principal Advisor & Director of the UNICEF Global Innovation Centre.  To read the original transcript, click here.


Sharad Sapra
Overview of the Innovation Challenges

Good morning everybody. I am standing in for Afshan [Khan]; as Larry said, she had to deal with a major crisis we are growing through right now. And I’ll focus on social mobilization and community engagement as the challenge part of it. I’m not going to go through all these numbers; you’re all aware of it, but I think the important thing here is that there was a delay in acknowledging and responding to the crisis and as Larry Brilliant said, if the period is shortened even by one week or two weeks, the number of cases can dramatically be less. So the movement of information is critical in the situation. Now here is how people are using their phones. This is a large technology group. The red is U.S., but the other colors are Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. As you will see, most of them are actually using the cell phones for basically texting and other purposes because 3G and broadband is almost nonexistent over there. Any solution that we’re going to create or work on that actually involves cell phone technology or mobile phone technology, needs to keep that in mind.

We need to build on what people already have and are used to rather than introducing something that requires a lot of maintenance, training, infrastructure, etc. So that is something one has to keep in mind. There is a recent study that came out: “How Africa uses cell phones.” 80% use them for talking and texting regardless of the kind of phone they have, less than 20% use for internet and that is largely because either the phones are too expensive or the data package is very expensive.

One of the other ways that information is shared and we’ve forgotten the old poor, technology of radio, universal coverage, and television, how do these people find out when the next premiere league match is happening? And they all show up there to watch that match. How can we tap into those networks that already exist over there?

So over the past 8-10 years we’ve been working with some of these grass root level technologies, simple technologies like Larry was saying, the lancet was the most important, innovative breakthrough in small pox eradication. And so I think the SMS is the biggest breakthrough and biggest game changer that you can actually find in many of these situations, especially when you are involving coming at these at the grass root level. So what we’ve learned is that we need to build on what exists; what are the existing human networks, existing technologies, tools and ecosystems.

What we’ve also found is things that are given actually have a tendency to get lost. I worked in one country where all the parliamentarians were given iPads. Two weeks later the price of iPads went down in the market. We’ve seen that again and again. We are working on something with “you-report” but this is not the platform for propaganda, so I’ll skip that. But what these slides show is that change is possible and there has been a change that has happened in the behavior, in the perception of people in these countries. And so it is not that it is an impossible thing; it is possible, it can be done as a result of collective work that all of us are doing in the field with the local communities.

The challenge: can we link the two most used technologies, radio and cell phone, we’ve always treated them as separate. Can we bring them together, link them up so that the two most pervasive and most used technologies actually become interactive and can reach every single corner of the world. How can we use the existing bandwidth that is left between different TV channels, the white noise, and how can we actually use that to share information, etc., and save the cost of all the broadband packages, etc. How do we create digital communities that are constantly talking – behavior change, community engagement, is not an on/off switch. It doesn’t happen because today something has happened and suddenly everyone comes together. Communities are constantly talking. How can we actually tap into those networks and create platforms where that communication can actually be facilitated. How do we ensure access to information and quality learning even in the remotest areas? Because informed communities make strong communities, and more responsive communities.

If we want to bring in the whole concept of democracy to humanitarian response, democracy is of the people by the people for the people. 90% of our humanitarian response is for the people. If you have to look at long term, sustainable response, not a need to really create such capacities, especially at the community level, then we need to turn it around. We need to get the communities to become the first informants and first respondents of these emergencies. And so the challenge is – how do we create that? How do we bring these people together using very simple things that they already use, as simple as that small pen that actually helped give small pox vaccine. Over to you.