Accelerating Development through Innovation – Snapshots from University of Khartoum and Sudan University of Science and Technology
13 January 2013 - Last week witnessed seminars delivered by Innovation teams at Khartoum and Sudan Universities on their work to develop real-time data monitoring systems that utilise mobile technology to support national programmes led by the Ministries of Education and Health, and supported by their UNICEF partner. The team at Khartoum University is developing a system to monitor the distribution of school kits to elementary schools nationwide, while the system being developed by the team at Sudan University of Science and Technology will support national efforts to improve coverage of routine vaccination.
The formation of these teams is part of a pilot project that is investigating the efficacy of the Innovation Lab model, developed and established by UNICEF in countries worldwide, at our Sudanese universities. Simply put, an innovation lab is a physical space that allows for collaboration among academia, government and non-governmental organisations, and the private sector. Once established, they become national facilities for building local technological capacities to support humanitarian development efforts. The project involves setting up two innovation lab pilots for a period of 4 months to (1) prototype software solutions for selected priorities at UNICEF Sudan Country Office; and (2) use pilots as capacity building mechanisms for innovation teams at participating universities and discussion tools on future innovation possibilities at UNICEF and R & D (Research and Development) facilities at Universities.
The benefits from this project are situated in the core goal of an innovation lab in that it provides a collaborative space for engaging young people, technologists, and those in government, private sector, and civil society in problem-solving.
In collaboration with colleagues at the Faculty of Mathematical Sciences (University of Khartoum) and the Computer Centre (Sudan University of Science and Technology), the Innovation Labs pilot project started in October 2012. Notwithstanding, the project would not be possible without the support of Dr. Hisham Abushama and Dr. Mohamed Awad, from the aforementioned universities respectively. The project is based on UNICEF’s Innovation Lab model and their approach to “Technology for Development” which is situated within the growing worldwide momentum and enthusiasm to capitalize on improvements in telecommunications and the rapid uptake of mobile technologies to support development work. The project teams are utilising RapidSMS which is an open source software that provides real-time data collection and analysis capabilities using mobile phones and have been implemented in a number of countries to improve information flows and access in different problem domains, for example vital records registration (birth and death), anti natal care, child nutrition, etc. In Uganda, children enter the birth registration national database as soon as they are born via a mobile-based application developed by the Uganda Innovation Lab and scaled nationwide, while in Kosovo that has the youngest population in Europe, their Innovation Lab is providing skills training to thousands of youth to improve their employability and entrepreneurship opportunity. In each country with an innovation lab, partners from the private sector, NGOs, academia, government ministries, civil society, and youth co-create solutions for the most pressing challenges facing young people. The uniqueness of the approach of the innovation labs in Sudan is that they are proposed to be established inside a university campus that allows for sustainable local technical support (to augment that provided by the Innovation Lab Network) as well as benefit from the steady flow of young innovators of fresh graduates and minds.
The seminar on Tuesday, 8th of January 2013, was held at the Faculty of Mathematical Sciences and attended by Mr. Mohamed Ahmed Abdalla, the Director of the Department of Basic Education and Mr. Algale Alzein Hamdoon from the Department of Nomadic Education, at the Directorate of Planning, Ministry of General Education. Also, in attendance was the Deputy Director of UNICEF Sudan CO, Mr. Ray Virgilio Torres, Ms. Louise Mvono, who is the Chief of the Education Section, Mr. Daniel Baheta and Dr. Abdel Rahman El Rehiema El Dood, who are Education Specialists at UNICEF, as well as a large congregation of students from different year levels. The Innovation Lab team that is composed of twenty five members of fresh graduates from information technology and computer science departments, gave a two hour presentation on their progress in building a School Kits Distribution Monitoring mobile-based application that allows personnel at the Federal Ministry of General Education and UNICEF to keep track of the distribution of kits supplies until it reaches the designated school and utilised by children at that school.
The seminar on Wednesday, 9th of January 2013, was held at the College of Computer Science and Information Technology and was attended by the Dean of the Computer Centre, Dr. Mohamed Awad and a number of College staff, as well as by Mr. Khatab Obaid from the Health Section at UNICEF who works closely with the National Extended Programme of Immunisation, and Mr. Michael Bociurkiw and Ms. Nahla Abuissa, the head and communication officer, of the Media and Public Relations Office at UNICEF respectively. The Innovation Lab team which is composed of eighteen members presented their work on a mobile application that reminds mothers of scheduled appointments on their immunisation card. This system is expected to improve rates and monitor coverage of children immunisation against the six major disease threats that include BCG, Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis and Measles.
If implemented on national scale, these aforementioned systems can help advance the knowledge and decision making processes of partners and stakeholders by collecting and disseminating actionable data and information. Both teams have made considerable progress in the development of the software applications and are due to produce the completed versions and its documentation in February 2013. Upon the pilot’s evaluation by the consultant and with agreement among stakeholders, the project can move into actual implementation phase of the innovation lab at participating universities. As once lamented by a colleague from Sudan University of Science and Technology at an earlier seminar, this project is a “form of worship” to use his own words. Indeed it is in terms of its focus on delivering public services to the furthest-to-reach among our population by utilising appropriate technologies such as low-end mobile phones. Dr. Mohamed Awad, the pilot’s host at Sudan University who is following closely the team’s development was most impressed by the harmony and task coordination among team members. Team building and collaboration by and large were as important in this pilot as software development skills, because they are crucial to solve today’s complex development problems. As a teacher, I am particularly impressed with how these young people managed to learn new programming tools and environment in a very short time, their resilience in solving problems they faced and how they shared their knowledge across teams in the two universities, but also how professionally they put their learned theories, methods and standards that make up the software engineering discipline, as well as project and knowledge management areas, into practice to solve real problems.
The benefits from this project are situated in the core goal of an innovation lab in that it provides a collaborative space for engaging young people, technologists, and those in government, private sector, and civil society in problem-solving. The lab can be useful for stimulating research and development at Universities, providing skill training for the job market, and for developing local responses to pressing needs. Through cultivating an innovation culture that is bound by the principles of equity and inclusiveness, a lab can be a vehicle to find new ways of alleviating tough problems as well as new ways of working together. The UNICEF and its partners has a history of developing sustainable innovative solutions to challenges faced in the field that dates back to the 1950’s and the first midwifery kit. The young people who make up the innovation teams at Khartoum and Sudan Universities are following in the footsteps of their ancestors who thousands of years ago developed irrigation systems and iron making. With steady leadership, support from stakeholders, good planning, and flexibility in the face of adversity, a lab can accelerate Innovation for Development efforts, and tune our collective mind to solving our problems, starting with the most deprived.
Dr. Gada Kadoda
Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author may not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the UNICEF.