Innovation in Colombia for humanitarian action and development

In what ways can we innovate to solve social challenges?

Viviana Canon Tamayo
Children looking at the camera holding UNICEF back packs
© UNICEF Colombia

10 March 2020

At UNICEF, the Office of Innovation and the Country Office (CO) in Colombia started asking questions in the same vein, on how we can improve the effectiveness and relevance of our actions, using new technologies and doing things differently.  The exploration so far has produced both, concrete results and lessons learned that today allows UNICEF Colombia to consider new ideas to foster innovation and become more agile and efficient. This blog is about this story.

Innovation concerns everyone and every type of organization. Today in the development and humanitarian world it is more than ever necessary as we have scarce resources to tackle huge and pressing challenges. But what does the word innovation mean?

Innovation at UNICEF means “taking emerging approaches and tools and testing them across different contexts.” If successful, (UNICEF) scales them to positively impact children and young people around the world.”

What are we doing on innovation at UNICEF Colombia?

Although for years UNICEF Colombia has addressed different issues in innovative ways, since 2017 the country office started to do it in a more systematic manner, working first in a specific field: Big Data for Social Good.

Up to date, Colombia’s Country Office has developed three use cases of Big/New Data Analysis on education, health and humanitarian response. Other three projects are also planned to be implemented on child protection, migration and malnutrition. In each of them, public and private data are used, thanks to the partnerships that have involved diverse stakeholders (e. g. private companies, academic researchers and government agencies).

Although we still have a long way to go, we think that our experience and reflection can be useful and perhaps inspiring for other organizations that are considering pursuing innovation as a key element of their mission.

Here is what we have learned about doing cool things through Big Data:

Technology - Magic Box: Innovation is not always about technology, but it can be very useful to tackle big challenges. This is specially the case in the development world, where Big Data can be a powerful but not easy to use technology. With an Open Source Platform as Magic Box – developed by the IO –, UNICEF Colombia and partners have been able to process and combine public and private data to then display real time information for social good. This prodigious tool has provided us with a significant data science capacity that saves time and resources, and produces new insights in strategic issues such as school location or epidemics forecasts. 

Here is the link to the visualization:

Map visualization of Colombia
UNICEF Colombia
Colombia's data visualization displaying real-time school location,epidemics forecasts, mobility, and vulnerabilities.

Talent: It is not possible to innovate without having the right people. As Steve Jobs said “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.” Having the right talent is essential. This is the reason why in every project we undertake, there is always a group of data scientists, software developers, researchers and experts in specific fields (i.e. epidemiology and education), and specialists in development/humanitarian from UNICEF’s programmatic areas. Having multidisciplinary teams has allowed us to move forward in innovative ways.

Policy makers alignment and appropriation: In our Big Data projects we always work with and for the government agencies as they are the main users of the outcomes we develop. This is crucial as our main purpose is to help our stakeholders in the process of decision making, with more and better information. The Ministry of Health (MSPS), the National Health Institute (INS), the Ministry of Education (MEN), the Ministry of ICT, the National Unit of Risk Management (UNGRD) and the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) are some of the Colombian agencies with which we are collaborating.

Work with others: Collaborative and diverse partners are also necessary when you want to innovate. For instance, in the project about forecasting epidemics we built a group of partners who could complement our knowledge and expertise: researchers who lead the modelling part of the project, a company that provides us with experts and its aggregated data, and the government (MSPS and INS) which shares also its expertise, knowledge and aggregated data.

Our partnership for this project looks like this:

Various partners working with UNICEF colombia
UNICEF Colombia
The stakeholders working together in the project about forecasting epidemics

Although we have achieved some promising results, we still have a long way to use the full potential of Big Data for social good.

What can be done to take things even further?

As the UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore says, “to realize the SDGs’ vision of a world in which no one is left behind, we need to go beyond business as usual- investing in innovation and building broader, bolder partnerships that help us reach every child.” To be up to this challenge, UNICEF must foster a corporative culture driven by, and towards to, innovation. More so when the Organization recognizes that: “staff feel that risk-taking and acceptance of failure are largely absent” and not many collaborators feel encouraged to take risks in order to innovate.”

An organization with an innovative culture is one that has taken innovation as one of the pillars of its action. It means to work permanently in the production and development of ideas and comprises at least the following aspects:

(a) Visionary leadership: management must lead the innovation and transmit it to other areas of the organization without this meaning that all its development depends on the leader;

(b) Cultivate new principles. As Micah Solomon explains in in an article in Forbes, it is required to “encourage the search for accidental innovation (inciting people to see the potential to innovate in mistakes), as well as the attitude of dissatisfaction (as a form of self-criticism ), and finally, strive to build a blame-free culture (that is, so if you want employees to experiment, they have to know that their innovative efforts will be free from repercussions).”

(c)  Human Resources Department involvement: this Division should be informed about the initiatives that arise and should promote training or the people needed to support the innovations; and

(d) Collaboration: relations and work between sections and departments needs to be permanent. Collaboration and joint work need to be in the DNA of the staff.

These four aspects all together pursue the flourishment, implementation and continuity of new ideas. To promote this organizational culture, a great will of management is required as well as the design and implementation of methodologies that facilitate innovation and speed in actions. For instance, Agile Methodologies are what many organizations are integrating to take all the advantages that innovation has to offer.

Although Agile Methodologies have been implemented by tech companies for the past 30 years, they are particularly relevant for an organization like UNICEF, which is facing increasing, complex challenges that require out-of-the box solutions. As the UNICEF Colombia has learned, a more systematic approach needs to be implemented to bring together people from different disciplines and backgrounds into self-managed teams, that address specific issues, focusing on “customers’ needs”, either right holders – children – or duty bearers – governments and communities. The use of Agile Methodologies can certainly contribute to achieving critical results for children.

UNICEF Colombia team photo
UNICEF Colombia
(Left to Right) Erica Cruz (INS), Javier Ríos (Ministry of Health- MSPS), Viviana Cañón (UNICEF), Carlos Castañeda (INS), Luz Ángela Artunduaga (UNICEF), Mónica Baracaldo (Ministry of Health- MSPS) and Salua Osorio (UNICEF).

Along with the adoption or adaptation of Agile Methodologies and the firm effort to have an innovative organizational culture, it is important for UNICEF to share, among country offices and teams, all emerging tools and technologies that are already contributing to its mission, including Big Data Analytics, drones, blockchain, artificial intelligence, U-Report, Rapid- Pro, digital tools for health, etc. Systematic access and formative use of these tools will make UNICEF a clever and more innovative, agent of change.


UNICEF Global Innovation Strategy: The ‘ABCs’ of innovation

Matching today’s challenges with tomorrow’s solutions

Fostering innovation in programming and advocacy for children is a key change strategy to achieve the ambitious targets of the UNICEF Strategic Plan to help realize the child-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

This Global Innovation Strategy and Framework 2.0 builds on previous work to maximize our impact by making more deliberate choices that align innovation with UNICEF’s overall strategic goals and focus on solving problems to accelerate progress for children. 

This strategy outlines why innovation with and for children and young people is important; why UNICEF is well-positioned to achieve such innovation; what our strategic focus on innovation should be; and how the organization intends to work with others, strengthen its own capabilities, apply innovation and deliver results for children.