UNICEF correspondent Priyanka Pruthi interviews Erica Kochi & Christopher Fabian, Co-leads of UNICEF's Innovation Unit featured in Time Magazine's ' World's 100 most influential people' list.
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By Priyanka Pruthi
The UNICEF family extends it congratulations to all of the 2013 TIME 100 and, in particular, to Malala Yousafzai for her inspiring and unflagging support of girls' education.
NEW YORK, United States of America, 18 April 2013 – They are driving new technologies and strategies at UNICEF that are reshaping the development discourse. They have been pushing the envelope and bringing innovative solutions to some of the toughest problems we face.
RapidSMS, developed by the UNICEF Innovation Unit, is open source technology that uses cell phones and text messages to deliver and track information on a national scale. Here, a community health worker sends a message for an ambulance from the house of a pregnant woman in Rwanda.
Today, TIME Magazine honored the contributions of the co-leads of UNICEF’s Innovations Unit, Christopher Fabian and Erica Kochi, by featuring them in their annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. The prestigious list is a selection of transformative leaders, media moguls and cultural titans – ‘icons who are defining the world’.
“It's an honor for my team's work to be publicly recognized for influencing the world. This selection is a fantastic recognition for our work in harnessing technology, design thinking and innovation to strengthen UNICEF programmes on the ground and transform international development practice. For UNICEF, this public recognition shows that we can develop and support solutions that are transformative – at scale – for the world's most vulnerable children,” says Ms. Kochi.
Real results in real time
Projects that Mr. Fabian and Ms. Kochi have led include the development of the path-breaking RapidSMS system, an open source technology that uses cell phones and text messages to deliver and track information on a national scale. In Malawi, for example, health workers enter the data they collect from the field as text messages on their phones that are sent to the local RapidSMS number. The data are then mapped and graphed by trained staff, giving the government real-time information that can be used immediately.
“So, if one district has a lot of community workers texting questions about how to make oral rehydration salts, we can make a pretty good guess that something is wrong and send a team to investigate,” explains Mr. Fabian. “You can’t do that with paper data or something that takes a year or two to get to your office.
UNICEF Innovation Advisers Erica Kochi and Christopher Fabian have been selected for TIME Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In front of them (left) is a prototype of the Digital Drum.
“Suddenly, we can have a two-way conversation with the people we serve," says Ms. Kochi. "We can find out in real time: Who are we not reaching? Who is not using essential services? Why is this the case? And, what can we do about it? The challenge today is not about what happened after the fact, but knowing what is happening now and being able to do something about it now."
UNICEF’s Innovation Unit has had an impact on millions of lives. The use of RapidSMS has helped deliver prenatal care to thousands of pregnant women in Rwanda, tracked the distribution of some 63 million mosquito nets and created a direct feedback loop for more than 190,000 young Ugandans to engage with their government and change national policy.
Young Ugandans use the Digital Drum at Bosco Youth Centre in Gulu, Uganda. The Digital Drum is a solar-powered computer made of locally available materials. Its preloaded content deals with health and education. The Digital Drum was chosen as one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions of 2011.
“Erica and Chris are working with partners across the world to test ideas, push decisions and help scale up innovations," says UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “Thanks to this work, we’re doing more to reach the hardest-to-reach children with life-saving and life-changing programmes.”
UNICEF is working with academia, universities and dynamic private sector partners. “The problems that are confronting our generation are not going to be solved by one country working on things alone, and they are not going to be solved by a huge amount of technology in the global north,” says Mr. Fabian. “But they will be solved when people can collaborate together, and when people see how important the systems behind those problems are and how unimportant the technology itself is.
“When Hurricane Sandy happened here [in New York], FEMA’s* innovation unit called us and said: ‘Can you guys help us take some of the innovations we hear you are working on in Burundi and South Sudan and in East Africa?’ And to me, that signals a total change. The issues that people had…lack of power, communication and lack of access to transportation – are the same problems that we have in South Sudan. And the fact that we have a team there in Juba who is looking at exactly those issues gives FEMA an ability to jump ahead and leapfrog over this traditional approach to emergency response,” he explains.
For Mr. Fabian and Ms. Kochi, who have worked with UNICEF for over six years now, introducing new ideas and technologies and implementing them on the ground hasn’t been easy. They’ve met with a lot of failures, but they only know one way of dealing with them – by celebrating every fall.
“We have a failure Friday, every Friday!” says Mr. Fabian. “We fail a lot. Rapid SMS failed 50 times before it worked. We fail quickly, we fail cheaply and we share that failure. Across the board, what we have learned from them is that we have to design programs with people who are using them. We have to build things with open sources so that they can be adapted and reused by anybody. We have to make sure that what we are building has local support,” he elaborates.
For UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, sometimes taking an idea forward isn’t the most important task, but being able to build a community around a problem is what leads them to real solutions.
*Federal Emergency Management Agency, United States of America