Shortly after Jonathan Rivers arrived in Cambodia in 2014 to work as a technical officer for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), he noticed how much time he and his colleagues spent retrieving data from different departments for their food security analysis work.
Rivers knew there had to be a better way to collect the information on the WFP’s program for providing food to students at 4,500-5,000 Cambodian schools, so technical officers could perform the work, commonly known as vulnerability assessment and mapping, more efficiently.
“It was the bulk of WFP’s activities, and I noticed immediately that a lot of the various units worked in silos which meant that the information was basically siloed as well,” he told RFA.
Rivers developed a real-time monitoring and evaluation system that lets field monitors enter data on logistics and supply chains via their mobile phones—all of which is displayed on an interactive map based on Google Maps. The system sends program managers text-message alerts when problems in food distribution arise, allowing for quicker response times.
The digital map “shows all of our programs and is a one-stop shop for all our program information,” he said.
It is innovative tech-based solutions like this that U.N. humanitarian, development, and relief agencies have taken measures to develop in recent years to streamline their work and improve service delivery in developing countries, including those in East and Southeast Asia.
They have set up dedicated innovation units, hubs, and labs to attract internal staff and external entrepreneurs with projects and help them mold them into shape.
“WFP believes that we need to harness the energy of new approaches and technologies that are out there and put them to use in the fight against hunger,” said Robert Opp, director of the U.N.’s World Food Programme’s innovation division, in an email.
WFP formed the division for Innovation and Change Management in 2015 to coordinate global efforts for innovation.
“Twenty-first century developments in mobile technology, big data as well as deep learning and artificial intelligence have the potential for a paradigm shift in how we help vulnerable populations across the world,” he said.
In March 2016, Rivers received an award for developing the system to improve the agency’s operations in Cambodia under an internal WFP innovation challenge program started in 2014 to source ideas for change from staff members within the organization.
Four months after Rivers received his award, WFP introduced a global innovation accelerator based in Munich, Germany, and funded in part by the German government to tap internal staff as well as experts and entrepreneurs in the private and civil society sectors for new technologies and business models to help it reach its goal of ending hunger by 2030.
“WFP’s accelerator is a creative, collaborative environment that invites the private sector, civil society and WFP entrepreneurs to tackle humanitarian and development challenges together,” Opp said.
“It brings in hands-on innovation expertise and links up teams with experts from across the nonprofit and private sectors as well as academia to develop high-impact innovations for a world without hunger,” he said.
Solving tough problems
Though innovation has been a buzzword and key business concept in the private sector for decades, it has been adopted and put into practice by U.N. agencies only in the last decade.
Innovation “spaces” — broadly defined as dedicated units, centers, and labs where new ideas, technologies, and tools can be developed — are transforming humanitarian practice in the U.N., according to a March 2015 working paper issued by the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University.
“The driving force behind innovation labs is to create change by testing and applying new approaches, products, and services,” the paper said. “There is hope that the innovation process may help to find creative solutions to a range of existing problems in the humanitarian and development sectors.”
The paper cites two imperatives for innovation spaces in U.N. agencies — to make organizations more flexible so as to better provide services to their target population, and to support ideas and projects that enable affected communities to lead their own change.
The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF set up a dedicated innovation unit in 2007 at its headquarters in New York and supports technology-based innovation programs in developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
“UNICEF knows that investing in new interventions and initiatives helps solve tough problems and yields both short- and long-term benefits for the communities in which we work,” she said.
In Cambodia, where registering births can be difficult because of slow reporting and an inefficient requisition system for civil registration supplies, the agency is working with the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Identification to roll out an interactive voice response system that lets clerks in commune offices monitor civil registration supplies to prevent service disruptions.
The initiative is being implemented in the 146 communes of Siem Reap and Kratie provinces with the potential for expansion to the country’s 23 other provinces, UNICEF says.
Registering children gives them established legal identities that can protect them against exploitation, trafficking, and violence, according to the agency.
Last year, UNICEF also rolled out a pilot program in Laos that provided mobile-phone SD cards to health-care workers so they could deliver health-related information to remote communities.
The cards contained health-related information, including a drama and documentary on breastfeeding, a song about the benefits of immunization, an animation about deworming, and a video advocating an end to violence against children.
The program also had an interactive voice response component to help improve monitoring of outreach services in which village chiefs and health-care facility employees make short phone calls to a toll-free number to report on the number of children who will receive immunizations in certain villages on particular dates.
“The information villagers received in the past was not enough,” Nong Thamavong, a Lao Women’s Union representative from a village in Sing District in Luang Namtha Province in the northwestern corner of the country, told UNICEF’s Laos office at the time.
“We’ve received some information from posters, but not very much,” she was quoted as saying. “This will help provide us with more in-depth knowledge. The videos will help everyone understand more and better.”
In addition to its own work in innovation, UNICEF in February 2016 rolled out an innovation fund to finance technology startups in emerging markets that can improve children’s lives. So far, the fund has made 32 investments in 26 countries, and is looking to invest in 20 to 40 more projects this year.
Last November, the agency announced that the first five start-ups to receive investment through its U.S. $9 million innovation fund would include two in South and Southeast Asia.
Chatterbox Dating Mobile in Cambodia, is creating software tools for UNICEF’s RapidPro open-source software platform for international development to send data via basic mobile phones to help less literate populations inexpensively access content without having to read text messages.
MPower Social Enterprises Ltd. In Bangladesh has an open-source mobile health platform that operates on health workers’ tablets and lets them collect data around maternity and child care in a bid to improve child vaccination rates and prenatal care services for women.
“Innovation has helped foster more effective ways to reach the hardest to reach children and communities,” said Cynthia McCaffrey, director of the Office of Innovation at UNICEF, the U.N. children’s fund, in an email.
“New technology, the digital revolution, innovative ways to finance critical interventions, and citizen-led movements are all helping drive change for the most disadvantaged,” she said.
Joint lab, big data
Other U.N. development agencies have provided support for similar tech innovation projects.
In China, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has partnered with internet giant Baidu and China’s environmental ministry to host a joint laboratory to develop ideas using big data that support development goals.
Its first project, a mobile application designed to streamline the recycling process of e-waste, lets users snap pictures of their old TVs, computers and refrigerators, gives them the approximate scrap value of items, and lets them order pickup service. The app is now available in 22 cities in China.
In the first quarter of 2016, UNDP introduced another mobile phone app called iWomen in Myanmar, which provides a support network for rural women to become leaders in their communities. Trainers are dispatched across the country to show the women how to use mobile technology and share the app via phone with others.
By July 2016, there were 3,500 active users of the app in hundreds of villages in 31 townships in eight of the country’s states and regions, according to the agency.
Not all U.N. agencies have been successful in achieving the desired outcome of tech innovation projects they have supported in Southeast Asia.
In 2013, for example, UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, ran a pilot program in Malaysia to provide access to books and learning material via computer tablets to ethnic Kachin refugee children from Myanmar.
The project, carried out in partnership with BrainPOP, a New York-based company that provides digitized educational content and programs, got off to a good start in two Malaysian learning centers for Kachin refugees where the tablets were introduced.
Though both students and teachers enthusiastically used the tablets during the first half of 2014, they became frustrated by limited internet access and slow speeds, and student performance on standardized tests showed mixed results, UNHCR reported.
From July of that year onwards, participation in the program dropped and other plans to involve refugees in tablet-based, after-school programs did not come about. The UNHCR said the two Kachin refugee camps could not spare extra internet access for the programs given their limited internet quotas or afford internet-related expenses for the project on their own.
UNHCR’s innovation division, which was set up in 2012, did not respond to email requests for information about their current and future tech-related innovation projects in East and Southeast Asia.
WFP, meanwhile, has issued a call for applications from entrepreneurs, technologists, scientists, and students worldwide to design moderate-cost solutions that let vulnerable families support their household food needs when a crisis occurs. The application period ends on March 14.
The winners will attend a bootcamp at the innovation accelerator in Munich to work with WFP experts on their projects. One team will be chosen to do further work on their solution in Silicon Valley where it will have access to experts at the think tank Singularity University and technology labs and can collaborate with others.
“For the U.N. agencies, many of these innovations are coming because people see a direct need for something, and they then look at how they can do it, how they can create a system that addresses it, how they can create a tool that helps them to get over a hurdle,” Rivers said.
Research for this story was supported by a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists and the United Nations Foundation.