When “UNICEF” is mentioned, one may hardly associate the name with innovative tech solutions to the problems children (or a poor country like Burundi) face. Yet, as I recently learned, they are in fact putting in place very interesting technologies that you and I can enhance to make this world a better place to live. Welcome to my experience with UNICEF!
Coming from an environment where hardly 4% of the Burundian population has access to electricity, I can assure you that every young person who is interested in Computer Science faces many challenges in getting enough skills to be able to produce a tangible result. Despite my interest, it was impossible for me to even practice on the field the little knowledge I’ve gained reading books, toying with open-source software. Internet access is expensive and difficult to come by and few peoples own a computer.
Then I was selected to join the UNICEF Innovation Lab, where I worked with real tech people. The first project I worked on is UReport, a free SMS-based system that allows young people to speak out about what’s happening in their communities across the country, and work together with other community leaders for positive change.
Through this project, I had the chance to work in a never-before-seen IT environment in Bujumbura, where you learn at least those minimum skills a good programmer needs and get first-hand experience on how to think and problem-solve in a new, innovative way.
It was my first insight into how open-source technologies can be used to help solve social issues. For example, in addition to making it possible for young people to share their opinions through mobile phone, all UReport software is open-source and available to every one who’d like to improve it.
I was also involved in installing a UNICEF-developed computer kiosk in Cibitoke, a rural quarter of Bujumbura. This “digital drum” aims to provide digital information access to isolated communities.
Seeing those joyfully bright faces of children working on a computer and learning how to type on a keyboard or click with a mouse on the screen for the first time, you get the feeling that something important has reached their lives. And you had the opportunity to be a part of it!
That experience prompted in me the desire to continue the movement of “open thinking” here. In December 2013, with the help of my fellow co-interns at the UNICEF Innovation Lab, we started the first open-source software community in Burundi so that we could share our experiences with other young people interested in programming, and do our best to spread the Innovations Lab atmosphere outside the Lab. The idea has gained a very enthusiastic welcoming by young Burundians seeking to know more about how to build web sites, web applications, SMS-based apps, etc., because unemployment is so high in Burundi. More than 44% of the Burundian population is under 15, leaving us with a lot of eager young people looking for employment.
One of our first projects – one that we particularly cherish – is building with the Raspberry Pi, a small $35 computer-board designed for learning how to program. Using simple hardware components, we are learning to make web server, along with a thorough French-language tutorial on how to build projects with the Raspberry Pi.
The broad horizon of thinking and experience gained at the UNICEF Innovation Lab has helped me not only work confidently on my side programming projects, but, more importantly, it has helped me to identify where Burundian programmers can focus their attention – on producing locally-adapted innovative technologies in order to solve problems they face.
That’s about as exciting as it gets.
Allan Stockman Rugano is a freelance programmer and open-source enthusiast who studied Mathematics at the University of Burundi. He is currently a Junior Programmer within the UNICEF Innovations Lab Burundi and likes tinkering with new technologies. He can be found on Twitter at @iMitwe