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At a glance: United States of America

UNICEF hosts fifth annual UN ‘Web4Dev’ conference: ‘Innovation for Access’

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The RapidSMS Child Malnutrition Surveillance project is an effort by UNICEF and a team of students at Columbia University, using mobile technology, to improve nutrition surveillance data for children in Malawi.

By Amy Bennett

NEW YORK, USA, 10 February 2009 – No need to worry if you’re not familiar with terms like ‘SMS’, ‘unconference’ and ‘Java’. The fifth annual United Nations Web4Dev conference aims to tackle the issues presented by the changing media landscape and look at how technological innovation can promote social change in the developing world.

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Hosted by UNICEF this year from 11 through 13 February, ‘Web4Dev: Innovation for Access’ will bring together global thought leaders and innovators from the UN, academia, and the development and private sectors. They will put under their collective microscope the importance of strategic partnerships and new technology in the effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

The conference will feature keynote speakers from cutting-edge communications companies and UN agencies, including UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman. Its format will allow participants to share resources and expertise, laying the foundation for future collaboration.

Changing media environment

“Much cheaper, much easier kinds of group activities online – and the use of mobile phones – are changing the way both organizations and ad hoc groups are getting things done,” said one of Web4Dev’s scheduled speakers, Professor Clay Shirky of New York University’s graduate programme in interactive telecommunications.

“What’s really exciting about this stuff is that it’s such a fundamental change in who can participate in the media environment,” noted Prof. Shirky, who is also the author of ‘Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations’.

“People or goods or services or information can move if only someone knows about the opportunity,” he continued. “For instance, on the coast of East Africa there’s an SMS [text messaging] application where fishermen can actually figure out which market town to land in, depending on which fish they’ve got. And that’s a case where that information is useful for everyone.”

Greater access to information

Finding ways to spread useful information to those who need it most is, in fact, the overarching goal of UN and UNICEF innovators.

At the Web4Dev conference, they will ask each other how new developments in technology can provide access to information in the most extreme circumstances, including emergencies and situations of extreme poverty. They will also analyze the most successful results achieved to date, both inside and outside the UN system.

And finally, the most technically inclined Web4Dev participants will promote initiative through a ‘Geek Meet’ – the web developers’ ‘unconference’ – in hopes that colliding ideas will spark new ways to change the world.




New York University Adjunct Professor Clay Shirky talks about the changing media environment and the rise of social media.
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