UNICEF Innovation Content Manager Panthea Lee was very helpful in explaining the Unit’s partnership with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Inspired by the UN Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS) initiative that is currently in development, “New Methods for Data Collection, Analysis, and Use” was SIPA’s third collaboration with UNICEF Innovation. The course was developed with and taught by Professor Elisabeth Lindenmayer, former Deputy Chef de Cabinet under Kofi Annan and the director of the UN Studies Program at SIPA.

As the UN develops a real-time vulnerability monitoring system, it also needs a policy framework for bringing the system to global scale. Although GIVAS will be responsive to widely varied regional parameters, indicators, and priorities, in order to focus this discussion, SIPA was tasked with analyzing two current real-time data collection projects the Innovation Unit was working on, one in Iraq and one in Uganda. The goal was to have the students analyze the projects – their processes and their progress – then abstract lessons for extending similar systems to other UN member states.

While UNICEF and contracted partners were wrestling with the technology behind for real-time data systems, SIPA supported project development with political and operational analysis. Also helpful for UNICEF, Panthea felt, was the safe space academia provides to ask questions and penetrate issues at depths seldom possible in the professional setting.

The projects in Uganda and Iraq were entirely different in aim, focus, set-up, and stage of development. Each presented unique challenges, thus demonstrating the flexibility necessary in a global system.

UNICEF endeavored for complete transparency in the project processes. As soon as classes began, students were brought into the discussions for the two country projects and were granted full access to project documentation and conversations as they happened. Panthea and Chris Fabian attended the weekly classes at Columbia – or hosted the students at UNICEF – and made themselves available to answer all questions as they arose, as well as put students in touch with relevant members of the project team at the country offices. Representatives from UNICEF’s Division of Governance, UN, and Multilateral Affairs, and from the UN’s GIVAS initiative also attended as guest advisors.

The terms of reference for the class were modified as the class progressed. UNICEF began by presenting an intentionally large – and overwhelming – set of deliverables when the semester began, and then asked the students to whittle it down once they had been immersed in the projects’ backgrounds. Panthea and Chris provided guidance and specificity as required. Thus, the onus was on the students to decide what should and could be done in the time they had; the only requirement was a final report and presentation. Documentation of their process and travel was important to UNICEF, but the team wanted the students to have a voice in determining their coursework, so that they felt confident in meeting the deliverables.

Research trips were arranged to Jordan (where the Iraq country office is currently located) and to Uganda halfway through the course. By the time students left on the field trips, they had already read and engaged with a substantial amount of background material. Two students had previously traveled to Amman in December 2009, before the course officially began, to observe a UNICEF workshop to explain process to the Government of Iraq and to secure buy-in for the project.

For the trips, the students put together lists of people and organizations they wanted to meet with and, with UNICEF’s input, decided upon the questions they would ask. The country offices then tried to accommodate their schedules to maximize productivity on the trips.

The diversity of their respective experiences reflected the diversity of both nation’s preoccupations and situations. In addition to different project aims, Iraq and Uganda also varied widely in their character, including technical infrastructure, level of poverty, dependency on foreign aid, and political sensitivity.

The SIPA teams met with UNICEF country office staff, field implementation partners, and end-users, as well as local NGOs and subject matter experts to understand context. The students had established a common framework to analyze the two projects, and the field interviews began using a common set of questions.

Once the student teams returned to New York, they began processing all their information under the guidance of Professor Lindenmayer and UNICEF. The final report went through several versions. The class presented their recommendations at UNICEF’s New York headquarters; the audience (both in-person and via webcast) was made up of UN and UNICEF staff – including Robert Kirkpatrick, the director of GIVAS – as well as interested external parties from the technology and development space. The response was largely positive, and the resulting discussion was lively and productive.

Overall, for Panthea, the lessons learned from this experience were:

  • Having a ‘safe space’ to ask questions can be highly beneficial for projects in progress.
  • The open, collaborative approach to refining the TOR consumed too much time at the outset; it may have been better to have UNICEF collect student/professor input and dictate the deliverables – rather than the other way around – so that the students could have focused more time on research and learning, rather than on weighing out their options.
  • There can be the tendency to give lower priority to academic collaborations because they are non-critical (SIPA referenced a few other partnerships that had turned out this way); but don’t underestimate the value of student work. As with any other project, you get as much as you put in. The more transparent you are in sharing project details – warts and all – the more relevant and valuable the students’ recommendations/output will be.
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