UNICEF's Open Source Approach to Innovation

Explore UNICEF's various tools and platforms that operationalise its commitment to open source

Sanna Bedi, Justin Flory, and Steven Sadi, UNICEF Innovation
UNICEF's Open Source Approach to Innovation
26 October 2020

UNICEF has a 70-year history of innovating for children and believes that new approaches, partnerships and technologies that support the realization of children’s rights are critical to improving their lives.

As recognised in the UN Secretary-General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation Report in June 2020,  digital public goods - defined as “open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content” have a critical role in accelerating achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

UNICEF along with the Governments of Norway and Sierra Leone, and the India-based think tank iSPIRT have jointly established the Digital Public Goods Alliance, a multi-stakeholder initiative to accelerate the attainment of the sustainable development goals in low- and middle-income countries by facilitating the discovery, development, use of, and investment in digital public goods. The DPGA is an effort to convene a network of partners from different sectors that will contribute to the identification, support, scale-up, and use of software, data, and algorithms that can advance humanity.

UNICEF child-friendly tablets
Twelve-year-old Waibai Buka, holding a UNICEF tablet, speaks about the human digestive system in front of her class at a school in Bagai, northern Cameroon.

As partners explore and scale efforts on digital public goods, UNICEF is sharing its experience in setting up operational processes and tools to support and build open source across all of its work.

Commitment in Principle

Early on, UNICEF established the guiding principles for innovation and technology in development, which influenced the Principles for Digital Development in 2014. UNICEF has publicly endorsed the nine Principles (see long list of endorsers, including other UN agencies), which represent a concerted effort by donors to capture the most important lessons learned by the development community in the implementation of technology-enabled programmes.

One of the Principles, Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation, explicitly advocates for the licensing of open source software to enable greater impact in international development and cooperation. This Principle has guided UNICEF’s approach in creating, investing in and supporting innovations.

Sucumbíos, Ecuador-  Raiza, 11 years old, stopped going to school since it was closed in mid-March due to COVID-19 emergency.
Raiza, 11, Sucumbíos, Ecuador

Turning Principle into Practice

Over the past six years, UNICEF has developed various tools and platforms to operationalise its commitment to open source, including tools to foster open source collaboration, agreements to develop new solutions with vendors, and collaborate in the open with UNICEF’s partners. 

Tools to foster open source collaboration:

UNICEF has worked to progressively operationalize this embracement of open source — an example of which is the UNICEF GitHub organization that currently hosts more than 160 public repositories. Since first launching open source repositories on GitHub in 2007, UNICEF repositories now feature work from 350 contributors . In the last year, UNICEF has accepted code contributions from 83 people, feedback from developers in 37 bug reports, and 46 new formal code change proposals.

in Jordan, two adolescent girls use cellphones outside a solar kiosk in the Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees

An example of an active open source UNICEF project is projectconnect-app, the repository for the Project Connect application developed by UNICEF’s Office of Innovation. Project Connect collects crowdsourced contributions to identify schools from satellite imagery from around the world. This accelerates the identification of school locations and subsequently connectivity status. The platform is an important component of Giga, to assess demand and monitor connectivity in real time.

Developing and piloting new open source solutions:

UNICEF’s Innovation Fund provides funding to start-ups developing new open source solutions leveraging frontier technology solutions for the benefits of children. The Fund is the first financial vehicle of its kind in the UN. To facilitate such investments, in 2015, UNICEF's Office of Innovation, Division of Financial and Administrative Management (DFAM), Supply Division and our legal team developed new clauses that allow for institutional contracts with vendors to keep or place the developed intellectual property (IP) on open source licenses. These vendor contracts (also known as institutional contracts) provide an annex that complements UNICEF’s contracts and general terms and conditions. The IP clauses currently specify the following licenses (or their equivalents):

  1. For software: GNU General Public License, MIT License, or BSD Licenses (2-Clause or 3-Clause);
  2. For hardware: CERN-OHL, MIT License, or TAPR Open Hardware License;
  3. For design or content: a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Incorporating open source licenses in vendor contracts is a key step in enabling the adoption of open source software and platforms. Open source licenses, particularly copyleft licenses like the GNU General Public License, provide the legal foundation for other interested parties to collaborate on open source projects while avoiding long procedural processes.

Making open source solutions accessible to the UN system through Long-Term Arrangements

To expedite access for UNICEF Country Offices to promising solutions, the Office of Innovation and Supply Division streamlined procurement processes to facilitate and improve the efficiency of collaborations between the Fund’s portfolio startups and UNICEF (through Long Term Arrangements). This will not only have the potential to increase revenue for companies but also result in sustained growth as companies continue to adapt and build their solutions to meet the needs of users across different UNICEF programme countries.

Long Term Arrangement templates have been developed to reflect the aforementioned licenses and allow for any new features and data generated to be placed on open licenses.


U-Reporters in Man, in the West of Côte d'Ivoire.
UNICEF/UNI321770/Frank Dejongh
U-Reporters in Man, in the West of Côte d'Ivoire.

Shared value partnerships generating open source solutions and insights

UNICEF relies on partnerships with corporate and other open source communities to jointly develop open source platforms. 

UNICEF has successfully encouraged partners to support and leverage their funding for open source solutions. By encouraging our partners to also embrace open source and creative commons licenses, we believe we can generate exponential impact from the solutions we deliver.

Our longstanding partner, Arm, the leading semiconductor IP company, provided significant investment in RapidPro, UNICEF’s free and open source framework designed to send and receive data using mobile phones (including basic phones), manage complex workflows, automate analysis and present data in real-time. This investment increased the ability of users to access tools like U-Report, the youth messaging service that provides vital information in emergencies, amongst other use cases.

With ING, the global financing institution, we have invested in a cohort of fintech startups with a specific emphasis on open source. These startups, ranging from agricultural marketplace platforms to specialised education content, will benefit from twelve months of mentorship to allow the successful implementation of open source approaches. Our ambition is to ensure the businesses are successful and the open source solutions are able to reach as many people as possible.

Partners have also joined UNICEF to join technical forces and expertise to generate new open source solutions, data and insights . As a result, UNICEF has structured partnership collaboration agreements - guiding financial and non-financial partnerships with corporate and other partners - to include specific clauses that aim to make intellectual property generated through partnership activities available to the public on appropriate open source or creative commons terms.

Jessica Marques, 20, holds her mobile phone on a street in Taiobeiras municipality in the Southeastern state of Minas Gerais, Brazil.
UNICEF/UN017605/Ueslei Marcelino
Jessica Marques, 20, holds her mobile phone on a street in Taiobeiras municipality in the Southeastern state of Minas Gerais, Brazil.

With Nic.br, the Brazilian non-profit Network Information Center, we are utilising their data sources to analyse the connectivity status of every public school in Brazil. This will result in open data sets that highlight schools in need of connectivity solutions.

Recently, we also launched a significant new partnership with Ericsson in support of school connectivity mapping on a global scale. In particular, we are collaborating to leverage their data and artificial intelligence (AI) expertise for Giga’s mapping work. A critical element of this collaboration will be making the outputs of our work public and available on open source licenses, and encouraging other contributors to embrace open source.

Making sense of open source

We have shared all approved institutional tools and frameworks with members of the UN Innovation Network to support easy implementation of these agreements across other UN agencies. UNICEF has also developed knowledge materials and interactive tools to provide an understanding of open source. The Open Source Guide published in 2016, documents sustainable business cases for open source technologies. This guide informed UNICEF’s current course on Open Source Business Models and marketing strategies, and is made available to any startups exploring sustainable open source. In addition, you can also browse the knowledge base of topics about open source community building used in the Innovation Fund Mentorship programme.



Interested in learning more?

You can reach out to the UNICEF Innovation Fund at venturefund@unicef.org

Join the Fund’s mailing list to receive the Investor Newsletter.


Subscribe to the Digital Public Goods Alliance mailing list.

Nominate digital public goods through this form.