Meet our 2018 UNICEF Innovation Fellows
Talented fellows who lend their expertise to support us on current and future projects.
Summer at UNICEF’s Office Innovation is always exciting. We get to welcome talented fellows who lend their expertise to support us on current and future projects. Over the past three months, they’ve enriched our team’s work and culture by sharing their fresh perspectives, unique personalities, and creative ideas.
Instead of keeping them all to ourselves, we’d like to introduce them to the world. For they have all the capabilities to make significant contributions to our work for children and in solutions that could combat global issues we all face.
So, world, watch out for…
Thoa Ngoc Van Ta, UNICEF Software Development Team Intern
Improving UNICEF's Magicbox platform, one code at a time.
Hi, I'm Thoa.
I recently graduated from St. John’s University (Queens, NY) with a bachelor in Computer Science and a minor in Social Justice. I am from Vietnam and have been studying in NYC for the past four years.
On joining the (Office of Innovation) madness: I wanted to use tech for social good and love working with international groups of people. Hence, when I saw the job posting, after making sure I have some interests and/or familiarity with the technical aspect of the position, I was adamant to write a very good cover letter and apply.
My mission: I interned as a software developer for UNICEF Innovation -- working mainly on the code base for MagicBox. However, my experience so far has been way more diverse than a straight coding job. When I don’t write or review code for our React applications, I will attend strategic meetings, research ways to improve the workflow for the Software Dev team, and occasionally help out with tasks of immediate importance to the Ventures team as a whole. You can read about my experience in more details here.
My game plan: Over the course of 12 weeks, I completed three coding tasks - it was my first time writing ReactJS code. These coding tasks fulfilled the software feature requests from our users and partners. Usually, the applications I contributed to are data visualization maps that assist in humanitarian decision-making. For documentation, I wrote two new sections in the MagicBox docs - one on Travis CI (continuous integration) and one on CodeClimate (code health checks
At the end of the first 12 weeks, I got an extension to spend another 12 weeks with Software Dev. During this time, I continued working on the code base for MagicBox, supporting our move to a new platform (kepler.gl). Outside of software development, I improved the process of two team meetings: Monday Standup (see the associated app) and Friday Tech&Science. My contribution/suggestions shaved off unnecessary time and made colleagues more engaged in the meetings, whose purpose is to make team members informed and supportive of each other’s works.
Stand-out memories: UNICEF happened to co-sponsor an event with Fordham University called “Design for Humanity Summit” in June. I have some interest in design so I went there (for free). At the summit, I made friend with a UX Design student and told her about the UX Specialist position that the Innovation Office was hiring. Lo and behold, when my Software Dev joined the last-round interviews to support the Design team, guess who were there? My new friend! She made it to that last round, which made me very happy!
On working with the team: I like it. I got to be in a culturally and professionally diverse space, which is a joy coming to work every day. (Working with an international/multicultural group of people is actually one of my childhood dreams.) People in my office are both smart and kind, and are all intrinsically motivated for the work that we do, so we take good care of our work ethics and teamwork. The intern managers care about their interns a lot - they and other team members wholeheartedly support the learning of interns, and enthusiastically recognize interns’ contributions. I don’t know how internships in other Division are but in the Office of Innovation, things are quite fluid and have many moving parts, so the experience is not rigidly structured, thereby encouraging creativity and initiative from interns.
We also have an open office plan with plenty of sunlight :-)
Eri Kimura Meguro, UNICEF Innovation Fund Intern
Mapping innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems in Mexico.
Hola! I’m Eri.
A 4th-year undergraduate student from the University of Toronto pursuing a Bachelor in Commerce, a Major in International Relations, and a Minor in Economics. I am a 3rd generation Japanese-descendant Mexican, and have had the luck to live in Mexico, China, France, Australia, and Canada throughout my life. I am passionate about social justice, development, and reducing inequalities -- and have worked with and for children in several organizations before arriving at UNICEF.
On joining the (Office of Innovation) madness: From a young age, I have been a huge enthusiast of UNICEF’s international work for children around the world. As a matter of fact, I was familiar with UNICEF Innovation, because I analyzed the company Khushi Baby (winner of the UNICEF Innovation Wearables for Good Challenge) in a paper for my Economic Development class, and I thought it was amazing that UNICEF was innovating for children. When I was close to coming back to Mexico for the summer and was looking for an exciting experience, I was thrilled to see that the Innovation Fund internship opportunity would be offered in UNICEF’s Mexico City Office. Additionally, as I had gained experience in corporate relations and the non-for-profit sector in the past, I felt like this internship was the perfect match with the skills I had developed so far, as well as a unique and amazing opportunity in my life.
My mission: As an Innovation Fund intern in Mexico, I worked on mapping key stakeholders, actors, and startups in the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems in Mexico. I spent most of my time 1)meeting with different people in these ecosystems 2) positioning and raising awareness of the Innovation Fund at a country level, 3) developing resources and tools in Spanish for this purpose, and 4) establishing strategic alliances to continue the impact and presence of the Innovation Fund in the long-term.
My game plan: To utilize my experience working in Corporate Relations with an international student organization AIESEC. This taught me a lot about how the startup ecosystem works, and made me feel more comfortable (and confident) to talk with CEOs, or big corporations. Also, I was determined to learn quickly, the country context, language, and ecosystem.
A challenge I’ve encountered: Prior to the internship, I’d never had experience in the tech industry, and especially in the disruptive technologies area. During the first couple of weeks, I remember encountering a lot of unfamiliar and tech-sounding words. Open-source? Github? Blockchain? (or should I say distributed ledger technology? ;) I would write the unfamiliar terms down in a notebook and come back home from the office to watch videos, read, and get as much information as I could. Today, I am extremely happy that I got to learn, better understand, and explore the potential that these technologies have to impact the lives of millions of people in the world. (To the point of seriously considering subscribing to an online course in “Software development for beginners”.
The bigger picture: The mapping of the relevant stakeholders from the technological and entrepreneurship ecosystem in Mexico can be used as a sourcing tool for future calls for application, or opportunities of collaboration. Moreover, some of the relationships that were established with actors could lead to interesting future collaborations, to continue to position the Innovation Fund as an amazing opportunity within the environment in Mexico.
Stand-out memories: Burger-Wednesdays, meeting the UNICEF Innovation team in New York, getting to hear the life stories and advice of so many inspiring people I met, and, of course, the Blockchain Hackathon!
On working with the team: I was the only person in Innovation at the Mexico Country Office for most of the duration of my internship. Regardless of this, I never felt like I was alone, as I continued to receive infinite support, mentorship, and guidance from my 2 brilliant and inspiring supervisors, Julia and Cecilia. Also, I realized how willing the people at UNICEF (be it in-person at the Mexico CO or through Skype meetings with people in New York, Cairo, Finland, etc.) were to solve-out doubts, explain how things worked, and offer their support.
Five words to describe my experience: Unforgettable, exciting and life-changing opportunity.
What’s next:As soon as the hackathon is finished (literally a few hours later), I’m flying back to Toronto for two more years to finish my undergraduate studies. I will definitely keep an eye on the new companies that join the Innovation Fund portfolio, and the new projects that the team will work on. I’m not quite sure of what’s next, but I’m sure that it’ll be full of new faces, new places, new lessons, and new experiences. I’m super excited!
Rachel Oidtman, UNICEF Data Science team’s digital epidemiology intern
Developing a real-time forecasting model for Zika virus transmission.
A PhD Candidate at the University of Notre Dame where I work on inferring and forecasting pathogen transmission dynamics by confronting models with epidemiological time series data. I’m particularly interested in incorporating novel data sources, such as mobility data, into epidemiological models. I was born and raised in Delaware, USA, but moved to Ithaca, New York in 2011 to pursue my bachelor’s of science in Natural Resources and Statistics at Cornell University.
On joining the (Office of Innovation) madness: I applied for my internship with UNICEF because my PhD advisor was collaborating with the team and I was interested in working with them too. This opportunity allowed me to work closely with individuals on the science team at the NYC HQ that are much more familiar with mobility data.
My mission: This summer I worked with the science team as a digital epidemiology intern.
My game plan: Specifically, I was developing a real-time forecasting model for Zika virus transmission in Colombia. This internship was part of a bigger collaboration between the Office of Innovation and academic partners at University of Notre Dame and Boston Children’s Hospital. We hope to eventually implement this model into Magic Box, such that it can be used as a tool to make real-time forecasts for Zika transmission in Colombia. We plan to extend this model to dengue, as well.
Stand-out memories: Participating in calls with UNICEF country offices, telecom companies, and ministries of health was something that I don’t usually get to do as a graduate student. Also, the frequent ice cream breaks, desserts, and other yummy snacks in addition to the fun, youthful, and spirited colleagues made for a truly enjoyable work environment. Can’t imagine a more friendly team!
On working with the team: My time with UNICEF was amazing--working with people from so many different backgrounds both academically and culturally was a truly rewarding experience. As an intern with Office of Innovation at UNICEF, I felt like a valued member of a larger team. My impression was wholly positive and I recommend any individual who has the opportunity to work with the Office of Innovation to dive in!
What’s next: I’m heading back to Notre Dame to finish up my PhD.
Hari Kabra, UNICEF Innovation Fund Intern
Mapping open source emerging tech startups in Indonesia.
Hi, I am Hari.
I was born in India and grew up in Indonesia, and have spent 9 years in each country. Prior to joining UNICEF, I majored in Industrial Engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and worked at an investment firm in Boston for 5 years. Currently, I’m pursuing my MBA at INSEAD business school, in France and Singapore.
On joining the (Office of Innovation) madness: I chose to intern with the UNICEF Office of Innovation for three main reasons:
1. It was a unique opportunity, over the summer break, to use business as a force for good, and help connect the non-profit public sector with the private sector.
2. It gave me the chance to learn about innovative use-cases of technology in startups leveraging artificial intelligence, the blockchain, and other frontier technologies.
3. It allowed me to return to Indonesia, where I grew up, research the vibrant startup ecosystem and meet with the founders of some exciting tech startups, all while practicing my Bahasa 😊
My mission: I helped source and screen potential investments for UNICEF’s venture fund. This included: (1) formulating a deal-sourcing strategy (2) researching the market and investment landscape (3) meeting with tech startup founders, VCs, co-working spaces, accelerators and incubators (4) negotiating partnership deals with stakeholders to establish a continuous deal-flow for the fund.
My game plan: To put into practice all my knowledge and experience in market research, industry analysis, negotiation, client relationship, business development, and due diligence.
A challenge I’ve encountered: Although Indonesia has a vibrant and growing startup ecosystem, it was challenging to find quality tech startups that meet the Innovation Fund’s mandates. There were many tech startups with a social impact but were very few of them leveraged frontier technology and had an open-source solution, key requirements for the Innovation Fund.
On working with the team: Amazing! The team was very young, diverse, smart and helpful. As the only Innovation Fund team member in Indonesia, perhaps in all of Asia, the team made sure I had support when needed. For example, my colleagues from Egypt and Finland jumped on a call with me when I was negotiating a partnership deal with a local organization. Additionally, I was also impressed by the number of training opportunities available, for personal and professional development.
Five words to describe my experience:Fun, unique, memorable, dynamic, rewarding
What’s next: I’m returning to business school to complete the last 4 months of my MBA, and excited to see what’s in store next!
Katrina Cohen Cosentino, CIREHA x UNICEF Innovation Fund Intern
Applying User testing methodologies on the field.
I am a sociology student at the University of Edinburgh and am from the United States and Argentina. During summer breaks, I have previously worked at different non-governmental organizations in Argentina, among them Techo and América Solidaria.
On joining the (Office of Innovation) madness: I applied for an internship with UNICEF for two main reasons. I liked how specific the internship was, working with Cireha on Cboard. With such a specific project, I imagined I would learn a lot about project development and implementation. I also liked the goals of the project, which align well with my desire to work helping underserved and disadvantaged populations.
My mission:During my internship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I have been working with the Cboard team and conducting usability testing for the Cboard application in two rehabilitation centers located in Buenos Aires, namely, Ciren and Eipan. These centers provide speech rehabilitation, among other things, for children and young adults. I was responsible for going to these centers to introduce patients and staff (speech therapists) to Cboard, which included explaining the goal of the application, demonstrating how it works, and most importantly asking for feedback to improve it. I recorded all feedback received to provide suggested changes to the programmers.
My game plan: Be organized, communicate as often, and have patience.
I was given a lot of freedom to complete the tasks, which required being very organized. I began scheduling the patient visits to the rehabilitation centers as soon as possible, and following the visits uploading the feedback to an online platform facilitation data analysis (Qtrial). Being organized allowed me to anticipate any delays and complications.
Communication is key. Following every week’s visits, I wrote blog posts about the experience, including the challenges, observed feedback so far, and the plan for the next week, this was regularly shared with the CIREHA team and letting them know about my progress each step of the way.
Finally, patience was essential to the work, because when working with children it is inevitable things may not go as planned, and they may be having a bad day and not want to cooperate. Remaining patient and calm during testing, no matter how it was going during that session, was, in my opinion, the most important part of my work. The testing was ultimately seeking to better a web application to help patients like themselves, something I always kept in mind when working in the rehabilitation center.
A challenge I’ve encountered: The biggest challenge of the internship was probably organizing and conducting the user testing for the first time, in a field I did not know too much about (assistive technology). I had learned about user testing in theory, during courses on research methods in University, but applying a known theory with children within rehabilitation centers can be daunting, to say the least. I received help from the Cboard team, who gave me background on assistive technology and feedback on my user test plan before beginning. Once I began, the testing went very well, especially thanks to the cooperation from the speech therapists at the rehabilitation centers.
Stand-out memories:One of the things I most enjoyed was working with the kids at the different centers. Working on Cboard, I knew the goal of the app was to provide a tool to facilitate communication, but watching the kids play and recognize the pictograms and get so excited about understanding what the images in front of them meant was incredibly gratifying.
On working with the team:
I predominantly worked with the Cboard team based in Argentina, so my work with the team at UNICEF’s Office of Innovation was mainly through e-mail and video chat. They were always willing to help when I had any questions, answered me quickly, and if they could not help, would immediately put me in contact with whoever could. They were communicative and present throughout the whole internship. I am incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to work with the Cboard team through the UNICEF Office of Innovation.
Five words to describe my experience: Challenging, exciting, gratifying, fun, inspiring.
What’s next:After completing the internship, I will return to Edinburgh to finish my degree in Sociology. I expect to graduate in July 2019, and hope to move to Argentina to work for a year or two before applying for postgraduate studies.
Pragati Prasad, UNICEF Data Science Team Machine Learning Intern
Studying the differences in movement through mobile data across socioeconomic groups.
Hello! My name is Pragati.
I am currently a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology candidate at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. I received a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin in 2015. I worked as a computational biologist for two years for a company called Macromoltek before becoming inspired to pursue public health by a Zika Virus Hackathon.
On joining the (Office of Innovation) madness: Ever since I began my Master of Public Health degree, I have been very interested in international development efforts. UNICEF’s jobs with the Office of Innovation were of particular interest because they offered an opportunity to work on an innovative project and develop my public health and statistical expertise.
My mission: This summer, I was a Machine Learning Intern for the Debiasing Human Mobility project for UNICEF’s Office of Innovation. It was an amazing learning experience, and everyone on the Innovation team is awesome.
My game plan: In order to get a better understanding of how humans move, I studied the differences in movement according to cell phone data records across socioeconomic groups. Cell phones are the one technology that has penetrated down to the poorest communities throughout the globe, so call data can provide valuable insight for international development organizations. Quantifying the bias in data available for different socioeconomic groups is important in understanding those who are most vulnerable (in the lowest socioeconomic group) so that they are targeted during disease outbreak control and natural disaster relief efforts.
Stand-out memories: Presenting my work to the team
On working with the team: I was a remote intern, but I got to spend two days in the office in New York City in the middle of my internship. I got to spend some time talking to several people on the Innovation team about how I might develop my career as I continue my master’s program. Everyone was even cooler in person!
What’s next: I hope to start working in international development after I graduate in May 2019.
Stefan Ernst, UNICEF Data Science Team Satellite Imagery Intern
Analyzing crop production and crop productivity using satellite data
A graduate student in the final stages of my Master’s degree in Geography at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. I look at the interactions between human societies and earth systems, focusing specifically on land use and its change over time. I’ve been working at the Geomatics lab at the Geographical Institute of Humboldt University for the past three years and spent several months working in Australia for a research stay earlier this year.
On joining the (Office of Innovation) madness: I was looking for a challenging environment, where my skills could make a valuable contribution to solving real-world problems. The description of this internship was a perfect fit for my skills and research focus, so the decision to apply was a no-brainer.
My mission: At UNICEF, I’ve been working with the Data Science Team in the Office of Innovation. I used satellite data to create a crop extent map for Malawi. Food production is the foundation of food security, and identifying areas where the availability of staple crops is limited is a valuable tool in assessing the food security situation. Crop production and crop productivity can be important indicators for malnutrition and poverty - especially in places where large parts of the population depend on subsistence farming. The results of this internship contribute to UNICEF’s efforts in securing proper child nutrition in Malawi.
My game plan: Use of satellite and drone data in combination with innovative analytical tools, such as machine learning. This work is based on data and processing tools that are freely available to anyone.
Stand-out memories: Being able to meet everyone in person during my stay in New York was definitely the best part of the internship. Working remote in a welcoming team is great – but nothing beats working side by side. I involuntarily made the week at the office even more exciting by heading there during the UN General Assembly. It was the first time I had to pass roadblocks and armed forces to get to work in the morning!
On working with the team: I really enjoyed being part of a team doing cutting-edge research in cooperation with a large variety of partners from the public and private sector. Next to being able to focus on my own project, I had the unique opportunity to get a glimpse of numerous research projects that fueled my motivation to do more multi-disciplinary research. Everyone single person I have met during my time at UNICEF was very welcoming and supportive of my work so I felt like I’m in the right place from day one.
Charles Yen, UNICEF Innovation Fund Portfolio Support Intern.
Analyzing the business plan, partnerships, team capabilities, the robustness of prototype, and potential for growth of the Fund.
Hi, I’m Charles.
I am currently an MBA student at the Dartmouth Tuck School of Business Prior to UNICEF and MBA, I was a management consultant at PwC focused on mergers and acquisitions. I performed financial and commercial due diligence on F500 mergers and divestitures and advised clients on the post-integration processes related to finance and operations. Academically, I studied mathematics and economics at Northwestern University.
On joining the (Office of Innovation) madness: During the Spring Semester of my MBA, one of the requirements at Dartmouth Tuck is to work on a real-world project with a client. With my interest in venture capital and investing, I worked with a Venture Capital firm focused on creating a social impact mandate for their new impact investing-focused fund. I spoke with investors and limited partners to understand the social impact investing landscape, trajectory, and outlook. This piqued my interest in social impact investing. When I saw the opportunity on the school recruiting website to work with UNICEF in their Innovation Ventures Fund, it was the perfect role to further explore my interests.
My mission:Over the summer, I was an Innovation Fund Portfolio Support Intern. My main responsibility within the Innovation fund was to assist in the investment selection process for technology start-ups from developing markets that are working on open source solutions to improve children’s lives.
My game plan: With the focus on frontier technologies, I quickly had to get smart on concepts related to the blockchain, drones, data science, artificial intelligence, and virtual /augmented reality. Responsibilities included performing due diligence on start-ups by analyzing their business plan, partnerships, team capabilities, the robustness of prototype and potential for growth. The goal is to defend the merits of high potential start-ups in front of the broader fund team so that the Innovation Fund would then perform a formal start-up analysis and diligence.
Stand-out memories: Aside from the professional experience, a stand-out memory was getting to know the fund team colleagues on a more personal level outside of the office. For an excursion, part of the team who were mostly first time surfers went to Rockaway Beach to learn how to surf! While getting battered by the waves and drinking an unhealthy amount of seawater was humbling, walking the pier and lounging on the beach with the team was a great time!
On working with the team:To be surrounded by such diversity in professional and cultural backgrounds has been deeply rewarding. From the founder and head of the ventures fund, a lifelong technologist focused on providing solutions to societal problems facing children to the data scientists, software developers and experts in learning and education, drones, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain, and artificial intelligence, the team is as accomplished as it is diverse. Working within a United Nations program, the team not only had such a diverse set of professional and academic backgrounds but also was composed of 10+ different nationalities.
What’s next: I will return to my second year of MBA at Dartmouth and complete my degree. I will look for full-time opportunities within the venture capital and accelerator space. Social impact and impact investing will be strong considerations in my search. If UNICEF Innovation Fund has open opportunities when I graduate I would love to come back!
Rebekah Mercer, UNICEF Data Science Team Intern
Mapping Poverty through Machine Learning
Hello! My name is Rebekah.
I’m currently a PhD student at Aarhus University (it’s in Denmark), studying cryptography and more specifically the ways it can help enable the development of systems with guaranteed privacy. Before that, I worked at a fintech startup in London for a year, and before that, I got an MSc in Information Security from University College, London, after getting my BSc in Maths from the University of Manchester.
On joining the (Office of Innovation) madness: Machine learning is extremely interesting for me not so much because of the theory but because we live in a world full of huge amounts of data and I think that benefits can be teased from this data if people put in the work to extract it, which is exactly what one of the UNICEF Innovation project’s goal was.
My mission: This summer I was a Machine Learning intern in UNICEF’s Office of Innovation, and the title of my internship was ‘Mapping Poverty’. The purpose of my project this summer was to try to see how best to predict the Human Development Index (HDI, one of several numbers commonly used to distinguish between higher and lower income areas within a country).
My game plan: The way we approached this was to predict the HDIs of each area as determined by its nearest cellphone tower using various different datasets, and see which of the datasets or combinations produced the most accurate predictions. This might be used by UNICEF in the future to get up to date predictions of HDI to work from, rather than e.g. allocating resources based on HDIs that were produced via surveys, which may not be so up to date.
Stand-out memories: Visiting UNICEF in New York was the best! UNICEF’s offices are great and everyone there is even greater :).
What I thought about the experience: UNICEF’s internship program is great. My internship was remote meaning it was very independent (which I loved!) but I assume a very different experience to being onsite everyday. Which is just to say that it is what you make it! The internship was really well structured and well organised.