Reflections by Clara Palau Montava, Technology Lead, UNICEF’s Magicbox team.
Last March, the Magicbox team visited Colombia to work with our country office colleagues in exploring how big data can be used to make better-informed decisions and improve services for children.
Magicbox team: So who are we? And what’s our mission? We are a group of data scientists, developers, and technologists at UNICEF Innovation exploring how to use Big Data for humanitarian and development purposes. We believe that new technologies such as data science can help us understand better the needs and gaps affecting the most vulnerable children. We see the opportunity, and where we can contribute (now more than ever) — as technological advancements are becoming more integrated in our daily lives (66% of the population owns a mobile phone, according to GSMA), and are leading us to consume and collect more data about the world we live in (i.e. the earth is photographed every day from space).
To harness this, we’ve been building a data platform called MagicBox – which enables us to combine, in real-time, different data sources and extract new insights for social good.
Over the past few months, and thanks to the UNICEF Innovation Fund, we’ve been working with our UNICEF colleagues at the Country Office and partners including the government in Colombia to help us better shape and understand how Magicbox can be used in addressing the growing challenges of the vulnerable communities we work in.
Crucial to all these efforts is the UNICEF Colombia Country Office who are continuously approaching, (both at the technical and political level) major institutional actors as well as sister agencies from the United Nations Systems, civil society organizations, and private sector partners. These engagement have been encouraging — to see that all potential stakeholders believe in the huge potential of Magicbox to improve informed decision-making for the wellbeing of children and their communities and that we are able to identify ways in which big data can contribute to better understand how children live; for instance, what they have access to in their schools, or how vulnerable their communities are to natural hazards.
Thought we’d share some of our highlights during our visit to Colombia and the promising data-driven initiatives that they are working on.
Some of the key impressions we saw in Colombia…
Colombia pioneers in open data policies.
The country is ranked No. 24 in the world in using open data, by open data barometer. The National statistics office (DANE), for instance, has already developed an open data portal — where you can browse through numerous files of interesting data about the population in Colombia, like census or the school database SICOLE. In addition, the government has also started developing a big data strategy, to optimize the use of public funds and generate a greater impact in society through public policies. What does it mean for a country to be actively utilizing open data? By opening the data, governments encourage transparency and cross-collaboration amongst organizations. In addition, if data is open and accessible for all — private sector, academia, civil society, and non-profit organizations are able to understand the needs of the community, leading to improving the services in Colombia. It also increases trust in institutions, more equal and fair society, and increased opportunities for all. We see an opportunity to use data science to create insights and add value out of the combination of these available data sources.
Using real-time data management for emergencies.
In Colombia, the UN Agency for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in particular, UMAIC (their Data Management Group) has built monitor, a real-time monitoring tool for emergencies, to capture and make available information about natural disasters and conflicts around the country. And it works in real-time! With monitor, you can see actual cases as well as statistics, you can connect to it via an API (application programming interface) and you can be reassured since the information that goes into the portal gets verified -within few hours- to avoid false alarms. We see the opportunity to learn from built systems like monitor — so that during emergencies (as an example) we are able to optimize how, where, and what resources to allocate.
Colombian public organizations investing to strengthen technical capacity (in-house).
Public organizations such as the Ministry of Health and Social Protection, the National Institute of Health (INS), the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (UNGRD), the Ministry of Education (MEN) and the National Planning Department (DNP) have been building great technical capacity. For instance, they’ve been working on sophisticated epidemic modeling, building in-house information management tools to manage risk and respond to natural disasters, and in integrating cutting-edge machine learning techniques like NLP (Natural Language Processing). We see an extraordinary potential to develop Big Data use cases together with these organizations — shaping and ensuring that these data-driven solutions built are inclusive and equitable.
We are back in New York, enthusiastic about being able to prototype our work in this country full of opportunities and talent, and conscient about the importance of integrating our work in the existing ecosystem, for sustainability and greater impact.
Integrate, reuse and understand the existing ecosystem — is what we believe can make a solution sustainable over time. It is very important that the information systems are made interoperable, following our innovation principles – promoting open-source, Application Programming Interfaces (API), and open data. These principles provide transparency and enable cooperation between agencies and institutions, that share the same goal – improve the services to the most vulnerable citizens. We can fulfill our mission faster and better if we can use the information collected from sister agencies or from the government institutions. We can support each other goals by sharing data and analyses, and allowing others to reuse and grow, instead of building again. It may sound obvious but it is not always the case – so we are very excited to be working with Colombia.
Stay tuned! We’ll be sharing more updates on our work in Colombia soon.
About MagicBox: UNICEF’s Office of Innovation is developing, together with partners, an open-source platform to collect, combine, analyze, and display real-time information based on contributions from private sector data stores and other sources. This platform – working name is Magic Box – will allow UNICEF and partners to obtain insights and create new research from data-sets that have not previously been combined. Magic Box was first trialed during and after the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa, and a second version developed with Google and other partners as part of the response to the Zika virus.
**More information and pathways to collaborate here.