Female data scientist, Suad Al Darra shares her personal reflections working with UNICEF’s Office of Innovation data research team where she’s tasked in analyzing heterogeneous sources of data and applying data science methodologies (e.g: network analysis, natural language processing,and image processing) to incubate and develop data-driven prototypes – helping in emergency response, infectious disease modeling, quantifying access to information and real-time monitoring of displaced persons.
Welcome to the Office of Innovation Madness
It was time to face my new realm. I got dressed up, packed my things and left the place quietly. It was hot and humid outside. It took me only 5 steps to start sweating. The mix of the heavy laptop backpack I was carrying plus the feeling of anxiety of starting a new job and of course NYC’s weather in July all seemed to increase the heat.
I arrived to work already exhausted and dehydrated. I was welcomed by a nice security guy who told me what to do and how to call my unit’s extension. I sat down on a couch and waited for someone to pick me up. It was Alex, the friendly face from Skype. We finally met in person, in NY, at the UNICEF Headquarters. And I don’t get time to absorb all that because things are still to get more real.
We took the elevator to the 6th floor, where all the magic happens, where all our virtual discussions, job interviews, paper work took place and where the innovators shared a space smaller than their ideas. I met Manuel, who took us around for a tour that stopped at the cafe on the ground floor. He talked about UNICEF Innovation Unit, explained the ongoing projects and showcased a few examples from previous work. Between modeling Zika Virus and mobility patterns to help to manage its spread, creating collaborations with data giants, analyzing satellite images, I was trying so hard to keep my inner voice calm while listening to all the interesting humanitarian lines of work they have started already.
I wanted to work on all of that, right now, and never leave this place until all tasks are done, the world is safe from viruses, the war has ended, and the refugees are back home! I was THAT excited. I never felt in the right place as much as that moment.
Later on, I was directed to my office, where on top of it laid a brochure titled “Welcome to Madness”. I wasn’t sure why would a unit in a serious organization use this expression but later on that day I realized that this is not like anywhere else. This nest of nerds who truly love their jobs believe in making the world a better place by creating innovative open source technologies each in their own special way and harmoniously together. No suits. No long meetings. No bureaucracy. And because crazy ideas are more than welcome there and because this team screams diversity, this formula equals to only one thing, innovation, or in other words, madness!
It was also interesting (and refreshing), to see more females than males at that office. I definitely have not worked along with that many successful and inspiring women before. I am used to be surrounded by men at work; colleagues, leads and project managers. Everything at work was shaped based on their ideas and their point of view, and it was always challenging to have a heard voice among them. It is for sure promising to be surrounded by other females, leads in particular who are involved in the decision-making process.
By the end of the day, I met almost everyone in this unique team who made NY less lonely over the next weeks. They all tried to make me feel at home in their own way either by designing a welcome post with my name on it, giving me NY survival tips, inviting me to lunch or coffee, planning a weekend with me, introducing me to some of their family members, supporting my first NY Subway ride, or simply by just answering my newbie questions with a big smile. I remember not wanting this day to end.
But it was followed by a lot of more exciting days in that busy corner on the 6th floor bursting with creativity and madness, of which I am proud to be part of.
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