New York, January 2014. I gave Chris and Erica a cumulative score of B+ for their predictions for 2013. Photo credit: Zhiyao Ma
New York, January 2014. I gave Chris and Erica a cumulative score of B+ for their predictions for 2013. Photo credit: Zhiyao Ma

I gave Chris and Erica a cumulative score of B+ for their predictions for 2013.

In February 2013, Chris and Erica published a blog post predicting trends that would be important for the organization. At the end of 2013, the team sees fit to revisit and examine how accurate the predictions have been and what it means to our work in 2014. As the team’s analyst I was asked to independently “audit” the original post.

It’s worth noting that the original article set out to predict trends 3 to 5 years into the future, and today is only 10 months after when the original predictions were made so some trends are not yet obvious. Many of these predictions are looking at the right trajectory; however, their locations on the trajectory are quite close to the origin. In other words, seeds have just broken out the ground. This is fine for innovations work (literally ground breaking) at early stages, but what will make them truly transformative is their ability to scale. Thus my scores may be otherwise adjusted if it were not for this consideration.

Overall score: B+

Large-scale commitment from governments and donors to go beyond pilots to invest in real-time information systems in logistics and mobile health.

Score: B+

Our team has a few great examples. RapidSMS Rwanda helps community health workers track safe pregnancy and delivery; the Mwana Initiative improves HIV test results turn around time by over 50%; mTrac monitors health service delivery performance; DevTrac monitors development investment; EduTrac collects real-time data on school attendance and enrolment etc.

Why does it only get a B+ with so much evidence mentioned above? Let’s face it; the world has been seeing deep cuts in international aid. There are more pilots than we can name almost anywhere. We’ve had quite a few discussions around pilots and prototypes on the team recently. A quick takeaway is that we need rapid prototypes, embrace cheap/quick fails and learned from experience (pilots are inflexible and expensive), and build things that work. We need to take successful prototypes to scale through advocacy among governments and donors and innovative funding methods. Our team 2014 resolution: launching the first ever Innovation Fund, designed specifically to help successful prototypes to scale.

The development sector will introduce metrics to measure innovation.

Score: B-

This was an easy one for Chris and Erica because of their “insider information”. Time to reveal the secret. In the UNICEF strategic plan 2014, one of the seven implementation strategies is the identification and implementation of innovations. Inclusive, collaborative, agile and open innovation has been embedded as a key strategy for the organization. The metrics was geared more towards evaluating the general programming of UNICEF’s work in a country, rather than the performance of an individual project. It is therefore of less value for the innovations sector in general.

The OECD metrics cited in the original post seem to remain the most cited and publicly available metrics used in the development sector. Of the other metrics I was able to find in the development sector (such as the UNESCO metrics), none was developed after 2013.

UGANDA, 2012. A short birth certificate that was printed with Mobile Vital Registration System (MobileVRS) is stamped at Post Natal Clinic at Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala, Uganda on April 2 2012. © UNICEF/UGDA2012-00057/TADEJ ZNIDARCIC
UGANDA, 2012. A short birth certificate that was printed with Mobile Vital Registration System (MobileVRS) is stamped at Post Natal Clinic at Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala, Uganda on April 2 2012. © UNICEF/UGDA2012-00057/TADEJ ZNIDARCIC

The private sector – particularly mobile and Internet service providers – engage in the area of personal identity and birth registration.

Score: A-

We see personal identity and birth registration having distinctive yet similarly fundamental roles among different cultures and societies. Where e-business and social media are prosperous, having personal identity and relevant information means customized service, targeted marketing and more business (with the downside of identity theft risks). Examples abound in the private sector from social media to retail businesses (http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/). Where public service systems lack personal identification and census information, the ability of having birth registered means access to national ID card, education, health and other basic public services. (Our team has been working on birth registration in a number of countries http://unicefstories.org/2013/12/11/mobile-phones-can-report-unregistered-births-in-a-matter-of-minutes/). The trend in the private sector has not yet spread to the development sector. I think it’s fair to say that the first part of the prediction on personal identity is pretty accurate and the second part on birth registration less so.

Scaled, open education innovations provide solutions for even the most difficult to reach children.

Score: B+

Quality education materials, including content, tools, systems and platforms can be (and often are) free and open source. A number of open education innovations have gained increasing public recognition. They provide a unique solution to even the most hard-to-reach children based on many intrinsic advantages: free to use and adapt, customizable, crowd sourced and constantly peer reviewed, to name just a few. We have established collaboration with content providers (CK12, SMEX), CMS builders (FLE), hardware innovators (Honghe Technology Group), and are continuing to explore collaboration opportunities with the global open source community.

This statement didn’t get a straight A because we haven’t seen proof of these open education innovations being scaled and having a lasting impact yet. Indeed, we developed a set of hypothesis and we’re constantly attentive to the testing and feedback of these innovations.

The statement does go beyond the education sphere. All of our team’s work in health, nutrition, child protection etc. is open source. Our annual report provides a glimpse into our innovations, which are entirely open source. It is indeed the Innovation Unit’s principle to “Make knowledge around the innovation publicly accessible and prioritize openness as an approach to solving problems” (http://unicefstories.org/principles/).

UGANDA, 2013. Kyle Spencer, Technology for Development specialist showcases UNICEF's most recent models of digital development tools, including the 'school in a box' Innovative at the launch of their report 'The Adolescent Girls Vulnerability Index' 11th October 2013. Kampala, Uganda. © UNICEF/UGDA201300712/REBECCA VASSIE
UGANDA, 2013. Kyle Spencer, Technology for Development specialist showcases UNICEF’s most recent models of digital development tools, including the ‘school in a box’ Innovative at the launch of their report ‘The Adolescent Girls Vulnerability Index’ 11th October 2013. Kampala, Uganda. © UNICEF/UGDA201300712/REBECCA VASSIE

Open-source technology as a driver of south-south collaboration – and find technologies being created in one region and adapted and scaled in others (including south to north transfer).

Score: B

Open source innovations help developing countries learn, leap and compete globally. We have seen powerful examples for both south-south collaboration (China’s Honghe Technology Group to design and produce of MobiStations in rural Uganda), and south-to-north transfers (FEMA learns from RapidSMS experience in northern Uganda to build emergency response). That being said, how much of a global trend is it for open-source technology as a driver of south-south collaboration? I’m not entirely sure, partly due to a lack of adequate public documentation and complexity of the issue. Other “contenders” of drivers of south-south collaboration include facilitating international protocols, domestic systems, political will, leadership, development agenda and so on.

We see open platforms and challenges for generating and surfacing solutions begin to be used for addressing development challenges.

Score: A

We’ve got some good examples for models for global problem solving and partnership. We’re starting to see a shift in the organization to bring in external thinkers to lend their expertise, resources and influence to surface new and better solutions for world’s most difficult problems. The Design for UNICEF Challenge is an academic competition that engages students in developing innovative solutions to pressing development problems. The 2013 competition is conducted in collaboration with the City University of New York (CUNY). It’s currently being scaled to include academic institutions in the global south. The global innovations challenge for 72 hours is an international contest to find the best ideas around emergency and disaster relief. It’s open to anyone globally and it’s focused on the first 72 hours after disaster takes place. Hackathon has been a popular open and crowd sourcing way among programmers. In celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child, UNICEF co-organized a Hackathon with Intel for girls’ education.

The prediction is valid in the sense that solutions are being surfaced in innovative manners and they are beginning to be prototyped and tested in the field. This, however, has largely been a learning experience for the creators. We haven’t (had sufficient time to) seen these solutions actually work and address development challenges. For this reason we remain anticipatorily attentive to the how the prediction plays out in the near future.

Big data and real-time data as drivers of more efficient programme and policy decision-making.

Score: B

Almost all sectors and aspects of life (big and small) are seeing the benefit of big data and real-time data in efficient programme management and decision-making. This is especially evident in the private sectors. For companies, data on customer preference is key to retention and reduction of operational expenses. For investors, data on global market (by providers such as Bloomberg) advices where and how much to invest for maximum return.

In the development sector, big and real-time data has not been picked up (with a few exceptions like the NSA PRISM program). UNICEF’s Monitoring Results for Equity Systems (MoRES) was designed to monitor programming and enhances information flow. The World Bank also has a good data bank.

At UNICEF, we see real-time data as an essential tool for informed emergency response; we see data as an integral part to background research of project planning; and we see baseline data as a foundational step to measure innovations (and practically all programmes) reliably. So hopefully, we will soon step in an era of big and real-time data for the public sector.

… …

My suggestions for predictions going forward: make predictions more closely time-bound (2) more quantifiable and (3) include external thinkers in the predictions, which could be fun.

Welcome your thoughts and comments. Expect new predictions for 2014 in the next few days.

Zhiyao Ma
Analyst, Innovation Unit, NYHQ
zma(at)unicef.org

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