UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Brian Cotter
UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Terra Weikel

Eva_Kaplan_team_profileEva Kaplan, Innovation Specialist, Jordan

Tell us a bit about your background.
I am an economist by training, and my first job was doing research on how people in rural Western Kenya manage crisis. While I was in Kenya, I started working with a CBO that was trying to set up a library in town, and a friend and I ended up starting an NGO that worked with the national network of libraries in Kenya to promote new ways of accessing information.  That is all still running, but I’m not involved now. I had my “day job” throughout, and later worked at a think tank run by Joseph Stiglitz that promoted alternative policy dialogue. That think tank and managing a start-up NGO in Kenya taught me a great deal about how the world works.

What do you do?
I work with teams to help them approach their work differently.  I try to incorporate data in new ways into how teams programme, plan, and communicate.  I am also setting up a network of innovation labs across Jordan through Makani Centres.

What’s your working day like?
It’s different every day.  Today I spent the day dealing with bureaucracy.  Tomorrow I will go to a town north of Amman with our pilot mobile innovation lab.  I’ll take notes as the facilitators teach refugee kids first to build things with circuit scribe and a 3D doodler, and then how to identify and prototype solutions to problems they see in their community.  This is the fun stuff.

How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
What do you want to do?  What do you need to do it?  It’s my job to help you get it.  That’s the labs.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a documentary photographer.  My parents had a poster of “migrant woman” on their wall and I basically wanted to be Dorthea Lange, the photographer.

How/when did you join UNICEF?
I first joined in 2010.  After the financial crisis, UNICEF was starting to think through how to use real time data to understand how the most vulnerable were being impacted by crisis.  I joined to manage some research on real time data and to support UNICEF’s role in an inter-agency initiative doing the same.  I ended up being seconded to the UN Global Pulse, one of the Secretary General’s big data initiatives.  That’s how I got into innovations, and I loved the vibe and forward looking nature of it.

What are the most satisfying parts of your job?
I love to see things that started with a concept note come to life.  When the pieces start to click into place and I realize that a project is actually going to work, I am very happy.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
I don’t have time to read or do research.  For me, that makes it hard to have space for new ideas.

What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?
I broke my foot when I was working at headquarters, and my team had a retreat planned right before my surgery.  They shifted gears and had the retreat at my apartment.  We were forming a brand new unit, and we were figuring out what the unit would do, so it was a serious day of work. But it was also a hot summer day, so we spent plenty of time on the stoop chatting.  It meant an enormous amount that they were so supportive.

What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?
Starting an NGO.

What are your passions?
I like hosting dinner parties with people who do not know each other.  I like the cooking and the social engineering.

What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?
Don’t play it safe at the beginning of your career.  Take risk/ do what you want even if it’s not financially wise (your student loans can wait).

Who do you look towards for inspiration?
Mostly talented women who don’t care what people think of them but are still very compassionate.  Cyndi Lauper, etc.

My colleagues don’t know that…
Well they probably don’t know that I look towards Cyndi Lauper for inspiration.

UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Brian Cotter
UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Terra Weikel