Capacity Building Within the UN

UN Innovation Network (UNIN) Course Teaches UN Employees the Technical Fundamentals of Blockchain

The UNICEF Blockchain Team (Mehran Hydary, Ariana Fowler, Christina Lomazzo)
Context shot of someone writing on a big piece of paper
UNICEF Kazakhstan

05 September 2019

Collaborative Education

UNICEF Ventures’ Blockchain Team helps raise awareness of the applications of blockchain technology both within UNICEF and the broader UN. With this mission, the team has developed blockchain learning opportunities -- first, with the SURGE learning series and, most recently, the UN Innovation Network’s (UNIN) Blockchain Course.

Given that blockchain technology is quite new, there are a variety of considerations and/or skills required that are unique to the technology -- and can create a barrier for those who want to experiment. For example, some blockchains require new programming languages to begin developing apps; one of the most popular blockchain languages being Solidity, the language used for smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain. In an effort to reduce such barriers and share what the UNICEF team has been learning, a simple blockchain course was developed and delivered in Spring 2019.

The mission of the UN Innovation Network (UNIN) is to create an “informal, collaborative community of UN innovators interested in sharing their expertise and experience with others to promote and advance innovation within the UN System”, making UNIN a perfect place to pilot UNICEF Ventures’ newly developed course. 

Course Overview 

Over the span of five weeks, participants from multiple UN agencies gathered at UNICEF Headquarters in New York for one hour each week to learn the basics of blockchain and write their first smart contract in Solidity. The class size was small enough to fit around a conference table, allowing participants a chance to ask questions, debate, and offer their insights. The intent of the course was to introduce a technical perspective of blockchain for UN staff who were tech-curious or tech-savvy. 

Over the five weeks, the course covered what it means to build a blockchain application, including examining the technical stack of both mobile and web blockchain applications and the various developer tools available. Participants then learned what setting up a smart contract entailed, and deployed their first smart contracts on an Ethereum test blockchain. The course introduced processes to determine if blockchain can be used to solve various challenges, and also went over some examples both within the international development space and other industries.

Mehran standing and sharing blockchain info with participants
UNICEF Innovation
Kicking off the first session at UNICEF in New York

Takeaways

It is important to remember that before starting any type of project, you need to understand if the technology is the right fit. Blockchain is not a panacea. There is real value in discussing how to assess if a use case is right for blockchain. Blockchain may not be the right answer to address the problem.

In regards to the contents of the course, the technical know-how of blockchain is important, but explaining and emphasizing the why of blockchain is just as important. In this iteration of the course, addressing the “why” meant including questions such as “why is blockchain an impactful and important tool?”, but also “why may blockchain not fix every issue?”. Looking forward, the continuing goal is that participants will continue to engage and investigate blockchain further, both within their respective teams and with other UN agencies.

Understanding that blockchains themselves are meant to be set up as a network demonstrates the strength in learning and training as a group. Another strength of blockchain technology is its open-source nature, which means that code is made available for anyone to review and contribute to. However, access to a code repository alone is not enough to get various groups of individuals excited and interested in learning more and engaging with this technology. An “Introduction to Blockchain” course should include technical aspects, practical applications and much more.

Interested in Learning Yourself?

The next learning sessions will kick off late Fall 2019 for interested UN staff with an exciting line-up of content. If you’re interested in learning about blockchain, how it applies to your UN agency and writing your first lines of smart contracts, you can sign up for the waitlist here. In the meantime, you can visit a curated list of resources we’ve collected here