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At a glance: United States of America

At NYU, 'Design for UNICEF' students tackle information management for emergencies

© Lauren Serota/2010
Students participate in the 'Design for UNICEF' class offered at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Programme, a Master's degree programme focused on creative new applications of communications technologies.

By Panthea Lee

NEW YORK, USA, 5 January 2011 – Information management in emergencies is a complex task. Whether the challenge is getting accurate map files, understanding where vulnerable populations are located or assessing supply inventories, data management is critical in any humanitarian response.

In response to these challenges, New York University’s third ‘Design for UNICEF’ class recently tackled a variety of problems with a focus on using open-source technology to save lives. Over the course of the fall semester, students from diverse academic disciplines – including engineering, software development and industrial design – learned about the obstacles UNICEF faces in its work and then developed possible solutions to help overcome them.

To better understand the realities of humanitarian relief, the students participated in an emergency simulation, which was based on existing UNICEF simulations but repackaged and redesigned by a group of game designers. This experience highlighted the lack of clarity and confusion – and the need for accurate, reliable information – in the aftermath of a sudden-onset disaster.

Incorporating field experience

UNICEF staff from various divisions, and guests from UN Global Pulse (a monitoring system that tracks the impact of compound crises on vulnerable populations), joined the class on a series of Monday evenings. They shared their field experiences and answered questions about the challenges and constraints posed by some of the world’s most difficult operating environments.

Access to expert staff gave the students a window into some of the unique roles that UNICEF plays and grounded their project work in substantive needs. These exchanges also provided UNICEF with the chance to see iterative, user-centred design practices in action and to connect design thinking to development challenges.

“Facilitating conversations between future design practitioners and UNICEF staff with valuable stories from the field has proved fruitful,” said John Dimatos, the NYU adjunct professor teaching ‘Design for UNICEF’ – a post he took over from lecturer and author Clay Shirky.

“Within 14 weeks,” added Prof. Dimatos, “the students were able to interpret the constraints UNICEF faces in the field during disasters, combine it with their familiarity of current technology practices and provide a valuable outsider perspective.”

Four prototypes

The students’ work resulted in four prototypes, presented below. (Click on each project name to see the full presentation. The project groups welcome opportunities to discuss these approaches further; contact information for each group is listed.)

  • Phase: A website allowing relief workers on the ground to outsource tasks that require specialized technology skills, Phase expedites the flow of information and increases aid workers’ capacity to work efficiently. Contact phaseforchange@gmail.com.
  • Code MAMA: Mobile Assistance for Medical Aid, or Code MAMA, is a quick-recovery hotline for aid workers to contact and coordinate staff post-disaster. It uses mobile phones, simple paper cards and an interactive voice response system to bring health workers back into contact with their organizations. Contact codemama.itp@gmail.com.
  • Track M+E: A logistics tracking system for supplies in emergency situations, Track M+E consists of two components – a web application for UNICEF to monitor supply locations and progress, and a mobile application for field use. In short, it is a simplified, more flexible version of the tracking systems used by companies such as FedEx and UPS. Contact zischwartz@gmail.com.
  • Story Spaces: Through this platform, diaspora communities can provide recordings of children’s stories for distribution to emergency relief workers. UNICEF officers can leverage the organization’s radio partnerships to locally broadcast the stories collected and distributed via Story Spaces, or they can use the stories to help create safe spaces for children in times of distress. Contact itp.storyspaces@gmail.com.

Design and development

“Linking the fields of design and development allows for professionals in both areas to learn and grow,” said Christopher Fabian, co-leader of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, which has guided the collaboration with NYU. “We were really excited that so many staff from UNICEF, both from New York and the field, were able to give their time and work with the class. We look forward to working closely with NYU, as well as other premiere design universities, in the future.”

‘Design for UNICEF’ is part of a series of academic engagements focused on the confluence of design and development between UNICEF and its partners and collaborators – including NYU, Aalto University, Columbia University, MIT’s D-Lab, the Art Centre College of Design and the Technical University of Denmark. At NYU, it is offered by the Interactive Telecommunications Programme, a Master’s degree programme focused on creative new applications of communications technologies, in collaboration with UNICEF.

Andrew Styer designed and led the NYU emergency simulation. A discussion of the teaching methodology used in the class can be found here.



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