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At a glance: United States of America

‘Design for UNICEF’ harnesses innovative thinking from graduate students at New York University

© UNICEF/2009/Markisz
Left to right: Students from New York University's graduate-level ‘Design for UNICEF’ class – Nisma Zaman, Michael Zick Doherty, Bryan Lence, and Andrew Styer, during their presentation at UNICEF Headquarters.

By Shushan Mebrahtu

NEW YORK, USA, 4 December 2009 –  ‘Design for UNICEF’ is an interdisciplinary design programme where graduate students examine some of the challenges UNICEF faces and work in groups to research and prototype solutions. The graduate class is taught by Professor Clay Shirky and is a collaboration between UNICEF and the Interactive Telecommunication Programme at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City.

As the end of the second semester approaches, 16 New York University students presented their projects at UNICEF Headquarters yesterday.

UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman thanked the students for their hard work and underlined the importance of working with interdisciplinary groups in academia to extend the reach and effectiveness of UNICEF's work by bringing in new ways and thinking to the organization’s programmes.

“This fits into a larger context of UNICEF engaging the next generation of thinkers around issues that pertain to children,” Veneman said.

Real solutions in the field

The students presented the following four projects to UNICEF staff and attendees:

  1. Rapid – Family Tracing and Reunion (Rapid – FTR) A project designed to improve field collection of information necessary to aid in family tracing and reunification programs. The group is approaching the data collection piece of FTR, on the assumption that improvements in the breadth and accuracy of the data, in the ability to keep photos and other data sets together, and in the ability to transmit collected data in minutes or hours instead of days, will benefit all subsequent users of that data.
  2. Personal Power explores various ways of generating power in the field, using a minimum of delivered parts and a maximum of locally available scrap and kinetic energy. The group is looking at various ways to cross the ‘science fair gap’, where the generation of trickle voltage using alternators assembled from scrap wire and cheap magnets is adequate to demonstrate principles of power generation, but not to perform useful tasks, while the cost of generators to perform useful tasks is too high to make significant distribution feasible.
  3. Inphone is a front-end to RapidSMS application. RapidSMS is UNICEF's open-source platform for data collection, logistics coordination and communication, allowing any mobile phone to interact with the web. Inphone is designed to collect valuable but dispersed information from target populations via SMS and phone calls. InPhone links basic interface design for the creation and maintenance of participating users (e.g. truck drivers who could be queried about the passibility of roads; citizens in low-lying areas who could be queried about the presence or absence of standing water), with an incentive program (each participant gets an SMS credit for participating) to make these "human sensor networks" viable.
  4. ElectriSeed is an attempt to improve the educational background for simple engineering projects, concentrating on power generation, whether by the creation of heat-generating parabolic reflectors, or batteries and other forms of power generation. The output of ElectriSeed is not the projects, but rather their documentation. An ElectriSeed project culminates in the creation of the graphic instructions necessary to recreate the project using locally recovered parts (everything from sticks and string to soda cans and bottles to scratched but still reflective CDs.)

A continuous learning platform

The collaboration provided UNICEF staff with useful insights on how to pursue effective engagement with the academia. 

“Our experience with ‘Design for UNICEF’ class this semester, showed us that we cannot engage academia with a specific solution in mind – but that it has to be a learning platform for all involved,” said UNICEF’s Division of Communication Innovation team leader Erica Kochi.

UNICEF will look into ways to further engage with the students by arranging field trips to country offices to work on specific projects and connect the students with other partners and private sector thinkers.



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