Getting into Gear: Team Gear Shifters of Columbia University Present as Finalists in UNICC Data for Good Hackathon

The UNICC Data for Good: Global Hackathon demonstrated a dedication to the organization’s partnerships with academic institutions, including competitive universities where bright minds of today gather to solve tomorrow’s problems. 

This was true for Columbia University students Archit Matta, Plaksha Kapoor, Saloni Gupta Ajay Kumar, Tushar Agrawal and Yosha Singh Tomar, who are studying for Master’s degrees in Data Science and Business Analytics. The six students knew one another through university courses and had participated in hackathons in the past, including ones geared towards relevant social issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Driven by the prospect of building models from actual data representing the realities of people around the globe – and to develop solutions towards the UN mandate – the students entered the UNICC Global Hackathon, with the team name Gear Shifters.

UNICC’s Global Hackathon: Data for Good took place on Tuesday, 16 February 2021 with an introduction from the organization’s executive leadership, with a global audience of UNICC and other UN organization staff members, university representatives and over 140 students.

Following introductory remarks from UNICC’s Director Sameer Chauhan and Ninna Roco, Chief of Digital Business Solutions, Anusha Dandapani, Chief of Data Analytics, introduced the three challenges of the hackathon: COVID-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualisation Challenge.

Team Gear Shifters opted for Challenge 2: Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement to build a solution for their final presentation. They began by introducing their data sources: World Bank Group and UNHCR quantitative data on factors such as countries’ currency exchange rates, crisis- related deaths, population densities, life expectancies, GDP per capita – as well as news outlets such as the New York Times for qualitative data on the usage of words in articles written in the last 20 years pertaining to forced displacement and refugee crises. 

With their data, the team developed several visualisations to tie key factors into a model for building out challenge solution. As an example, heat maps demonstrated correlations between Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s input factors on forced displacement. As shown below, the team presented several insights, such as a positive correlation between crisis-related deaths, asylum seekers and internally displaced people (IDPs) for Afghanistan as well as a negative correlation between exchange rates with internal displacement, asylum seekers and refugees for Iraq. 

Chart, treemap chart

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Photo: UNICC

For their final model, Gear Shifters presented two different approaches: a multiple time series forecasting using an XGBOOST regressor and a time series model using exponential smoothing. From both modelling approaches, the team compared their performance based on each key factor’s R^2 value, which measures how well the dependent variable variance is accounted for, to discover that their model using exponential smoothing and random forest regressor was the most effective.

To further solidify their findings, the team evaluated their time series forecasting and stock prediction evaluation with favorable results by calculating the Mean Absolute Percentage Error (MAPE).

Photo: UNICC

Gear Shifter solutions determined, based off their sample model using data from Afghanistan and Iraq, that the key characteristics that determine a country’s prediction of forced migration are mortality rate, life expectancy, population density and battle related deaths. 

The team’s findings aligned with UNHCR’s recent report that the current upward trends in violence in Afghanistan is one of the major causes of forced refugee migration. To demonstrate the effectivity of the model, the team conducted a thorough case study of Syria: they began with a timeline of the Syrian conflict that measured the total number of Syrian refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs. 

The team then cross-examined the course of the conflict and the output of their predictive migration model which reiterated the validity and reliability of their final model solution.

Timeline

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Photo: UNICC

The extensive process of posing correct questions, researching data sets, cleaning the data, building the final model and evaluating its effectiveness came paid off when the team’s presentation was selected as one of the six finalist teams to present in front of esteemed UN judges. 

Following the Gear Shifter presentation, many of the judges were impressed at the comprehensive structure and depth of the solution and posed many questions regarding ways to take their research further, such as how to take natural disasters into consideration in the forced displacement predictions.

In an interview after the Hackathon, the team noted that though there were challenges in gathering “real” data to construct a sophisticated model within the limited time frame, the opportunity to participate in contributing a tool that deals with one of the world’s greatest social causes was invaluable. 

“We want to thank the mentors and their feedback as we corrected and refined our presentation. Participating in the Global Hackathon: Data for Good was unique and inspiring on many levels but most significantly because we, both as a team and as a data-backed community for the UN mission, rise by lifting others.”

Team Gear Shifters

Team Gear Shifter involvement in the UNICC Global Hackathon supports the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly SDG 4: Quality Education, and SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

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This article is part of a series of stories from the first UNICC Global Hackathon: Data for Good that took place in February 2021. The hackathon drew registrations from a total of 140 students from 54 universities located in 13 countries around the globe, all of whom came together to tackle three major UN related challenges: COVID-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualisation Challenge. To learn more about this successful event and its wonderful finalists, please refer to this article here.

UNICC interns
Photo: UN

​UNICC Internships: a Call to Action for Young People around the Globe

Over the past several years, UNICC has seen a steady growth in internships – young professionals, recent graduates and even current university students passionate about the United Nations and UNICC’s digital business solutions, contributing to meaningful projects by joining various teams. 

Young people must have a say in the decisions that affect their future.

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

These teams range across the organization, from Data and Analytics to Application Development, Operations, Finance and Procurement to Communications and Human Resources. Since the beginning of the internship programme around 2015, UNICC has been proud to host nearly 50 hardworking interns, many of whom have continued to pursue careers within the field of international humanitarian aid and technology. Some have even joined UNICC!

Internships have continued throughout the pandemic, even when most of the interns haven’t been able to meet with their respective teams during their time at UNICC.

Thanks to all of our interns for their contribution and their efforts during this challenging period of uncertainty while they were able to perform their tasks and responsibilities with an excellent manner of professionalism.

Frederic Laval, Chief, Human Resources Officer, UNICC

UNICC’s internship programme is mutually beneficial for interns and the organization, because it gives the opportunity for bright young minds to contribute to day-to-day functions, allowing UNICC to put into practice two of its core values: involvement and inclusiveness, while supporting youth to enter the aging UN system. The involvement of interns on UNICC teams creates open conversations where team members and interns can share information for more innovation in accomplishing daily tasks.

The involvement of interns displays the organization’s priority to strengthen collaboration across generations and areas of work for the greater UN mandate. Most recently, five interns working out of UNICC’s Valencia duty station, were invited to attend the Secretary-General’s first visit to the UN Support Base in Valencia.

Photo: UNICC, UN, UNICC

Today in Valencia, I met with young people and encouraged them to continue speaking out for their right to peace, justice and equality. 

António Guterres, UN Secretary-General

The internship program also highlights UNICC’s commitment to gender, diversity and inclusiveness in the tech sector. As shown below, of the 14 current interns in UNICC, nearly half identify as women, which according to BuiltIn is 12.6% above than the US national average of female representation in the tech industry.

Additionally, UNICC interns exhibit the international nature of the organization, where they work out of all five of the UNICC duty stations and together speak a total of over 15 different languages.

Benefits to UNICC 

Identified areas of interest and growth to implement innovative services for UNICC Clients and Partner Organizations:

  • Add to the UNICC knowledge base
  • Benefit of high-level skills in specific areas
  • Improve the availability and quality of digital business services
  • Keep up with the latest technologies and their utilisation
  • Keep youth at the centre​ of the 2030 Agenda.

Meet the Interns of UNICC

Banner reflects available interns at the time this article, not of all current interns at UNICC. Credit: UNICC

Given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and geographic borders, there have been limited chances for the interns to congregate outside of their teams and collectively reflect on their experiences at UNICC. To encourage these conversations, several interns set up a virtual call to connect for the first time to introduce themselves to one another and their specific responsibilities, share memorable experiences of UNICC and how working for the organization will shape their future trajectories.

Many UNICC interns applied during the final semester of their university studies with previous experience working for international NGOs and nonprofit organizations. Upon embarking on their internship journey with UNICC, they onboarded with their respective teams and are regarded not just as interns in the conventional sense but as true contributors to the projects and duties of their colleagues.

Laura Reis, Finance and Procurement Intern, shares that she is “glad for the chance to support a team of hard-working and highly-skilled professionals,” reiterating the collaborative team ethic of UNICC for all staff.

Furthermore, interns within the same teams find value in interacting and sharing knowledge with one another on different UNICC standards and procedures to further professional development. For instance, Human Resources interns Giannoula Gkramozi and Diego Arista Vinaixa shared that they hold weekly meetings to catch up and work closely together on all sorts of different projects.

These collaborations between the interns, as Application Development Intern Bruno Pezer says, are especially meaningful during the pandemic. “Because the team is so integrated and my colleague, Gianmarco Ruggiero, fellow Application Development intern, is especially helpful, I have no trouble getting to know everybody, understanding the work environment and various tasks.”

Photo: UNICC

Additionally, several interns briefly shared their most memorable UNICC experiences and reflections. Ha-Young Kwon, Communications Aide Intern, states that her most memorable experience was hosting a conversation with upper-level women managers about how far they’ve progressed in their decades-long careers in IT services. 

Denian Ouyang, Graphic Design Intern, shares that her favorite experience was working with staff across the organization to deliver the UNICC 50th Anniversary video. Vincent Amande, Service Desk intern, seized the opportunity to expand what he learned in the classroom on IT and Business Information Systems and apply his studies to the real world in a cross-cultural team: “It’s a matter of working with harmony towards a common goal”.

The UNICC Experience

Although the interns are involved in different teams working on projects across the spectrum of the organization, many of their answers tied to one specific aspect of UNICC: the people. “The best aspect about working at UNICC,” says Maria Tranchese, Finance and Procurement Intern, “is the working environment and the collaborative atmosphere. Every member of my team is always available if I need help – they are really interested in my growth and learning in the workplace.” Carla Herrero Cantero, also an intern in Finance and Procurement, shares that the positive work environment she has in UNICC “marks you and makes you realize where and with whom you want to work in the future.”

Reflecting upon their UNICC experiences, the interns spoke on the different lessons they will take away following the end of their contract. One lesson Pablo Izquierdo Ayala, Data Science Intern, brought into the conversation was related to his interactions with colleagues in UNRWA during the period of unrest in Palestine in the spring of 2021. He shared that “it was humbling in every sense” and encouraged him to adopt a broader, better informed and interpersonal perspective through working for such an international organization.

UNICC, a proponent of supporting educational and learning endeavors through strategic partners, academic institutions or otherwise, continues to encourage all those who are eligible and interested in applying to the Internship Programme to do so. Young professionals, recent graduates and current students will not only be regarded as valued team members but also find professional and personal growth in each opportunity they face during their experience at UNICC.

UNICC’s commitment to the internship programme is indicative of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, notably in SDG 4: Quality Education, SDG 5: Gender Equality, SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth and SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

Thank you interns! View current openings for Internships and other positions on the UNICC public web site Working With Us page.

ID2020/Holmes

New User Organization: ID2020 – Digital Identity Alliance

UNICC is pleased to announce that ID2020 has been accepted as a UNICC Privileged User Organization. UNICC’s Business Relationship Manager for ID2020 is Elena Sierra. 

ID2020 is coordinating funding for identity and channeling those funds toward high-impact projects, enabling diverse stakeholders – UN Agencies, NGOs, governments and enterprises – to pursue a coordinated approach that creates a pathway for efficient and responsible implementation at scale.

Since 2016, ID2020 has advocated for ethical, privacy-protecting approaches to digital ID. In 2018, ID2020 Alliance Partners, working in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), drafted a formal articulation of our perspective on ethical approaches to digital identity. The landmark ID2020 Alliance Manifesto lays out these shared principles and forms a starting point to guide the future of digital identity globally.

About ID2020

For the one in seven people globally who lacks a means to prove their identity, digital ID offers access to vital social services and enables them to exercise their rights as citizens and voters and participate in the modern economy. But doing digital ID right means protecting civil liberties and putting control over personal data back where it belongs in the hands of the individual.

Every day, we rely on a variety of forms of identification to go about our lives: our driver’s license, passport, work badge and building access cards, debit and credit cards, transit passes, and more.

But technology is evolving at a blinding pace and many of the transactions that require identification are today being conducted digitally. From e-passports to digital wallets, online banking to social media accounts, these new forms of digital ID allow us to travel, conduct business, access financial and health records, stay connected and much more.

While the move to digital ID has had many positive effects, it has been accompanied by countless challenges and setbacks, including large-scale data breaches affecting millions of people. Most of the current tools are archaic, insecure, lack appropriate privacy protections and commoditise our data. But that’s about to change and ID 2020 is leading the charge.

The ID2020 Alliance (UNICC has been a member since 2019) includes businesses, nonprofits, governments and individuals, working in collaboration to ensure that the future of digital identity is, indeed, #goodID. 

UN Innovation Network: TechLearnTalks on RPA with UNICC and ESCWA

On Wednesday, 9 June 2021, Manuel Nunes, Senior Business Analyst at UNICC, spoke about Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in a UN Innovation Network (UNIN) TechLearnTalks segment. Manuel described the functions and benefits of RPA, followed by Carla Ziade and Kamal Al-Khatib of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) who presented a case study and demonstration of RPA in their daily operations as supported by UNICC’s Robotic Process Automation (RPA+) Centre of Excellence.

TechLearnTalks is a series of UNIN webinars dedicated towards demystifying up-and-coming technologies “without the jargon”; this was accurately reflected in the audience when a pre-webinar Zoom poll revealed that only 25% of participants had prior knowledge about RPA. This was no barrier for Manuel, who gave a brief yet comprehensive presentation on the topic, describing RPA as a self-functioning set of rules much like a self-playing piano. He continued to set out the different types of RPA and each of their specific functions: attended, unattended and citizen development. To further clarify the difference the specific RPA types have in their processes, his presentation included a visual diagram of the extent to which human oversight is needed for attended and unattended RPA bots. 

In addition, Manuel dove into the various benefits of RPA; for example, he explained that its developmental origins in the finance sector is the reason for its accuracy in compliance and audit regulations, not to mention the consistency of its precision. Other benefits were the sheer hours the organization can spare with RPA bots delivering otherwise reiterative and repetitive tasks, so employees are available to take on more meaningful duties.

attended and unattended RPA, UN, United Nations, UNICC, RPA, Robotic Process Automation
Photo: UNICC

To conclude his presentation, Manuel touched upon the broad network of organizations for whom UNICC provides RPA services.

RPA is both cross-mandate and cross-function. Since the development of the service, UNICC has built more than 50 automations through RPA bots to over 15 organizations in the UN. This equates to thousands of hours of efficiencies – thousands of hours these organizations can re-allocate towards the greater UN mission.

Manuel Nunes, Senior Business Analyst, UNICC

Following Manuel’s presentation, colleagues from ESCWA delivered a case study of RPA in action. Carla Ziade, Administrative Officer, explained that the RPA bot which UNICC had built primarily worked to automate the process of internal employees to submit travel requests within the Umoja system. She contextualised the benefits of RPA to ESCWA’s operations, stating that it boosted efficiencies, reduced turnaround times, improved accuracy and was straightforward to launch and train users in. 

The entire process of submitting a request from start to finish, when completed by a human, takes approximately 15 minutes; this process is annually completed an estimated 1200 times. Our calculations present that this RPA bot will save approximately 300 hours per year for the ESCWA.

Carla Ziade, Administrative Officer, ESCWA

Kamal Al-Khatib, Finance Innovation Group Project Coordinator, ESCWA, then delivered the technical explanation of the RPA bot, named “Adam,” as well as the specific steps of the automation. To further establish the efficiency of the bot, Kamal prepared a visual live demo of Adam 1 (refer to 46:00 in the webinar recording).


attended and unattended RPA, UN, United Nations, UNICC, RPA, Robotic Process Automation, ESCWA, Travel Request RPA
Photo: UNICC

Anecdotally, Kamal recalled the collaboration between ESCWA and UNICC to build the bot in 2019, which was during the period of social and political unrest in Beirut, Lebanon. Employees in the surrounding ESCWA offices struggled with business continuity due to factors such as lack of Internet, electricity, etc. Though the project experienced difficulties due to these external factors, Kamal stated that colleagues at UNICC, in the process of building, implementing and deploying the bot, went “above and beyond”, successfully completing the assignment. 

Overall, the webinar was well received by the audience, with nearly 30 questions and comments from members of international organizations such as UNICEF, ICAO, UNV and PAHO. Question topics varied from timelines of RPA implementation to the price of the automation service, to which ESCWA colleagues lauded UNICC for its degree of efficiency for its affordability. 

Though the panelists and speakers were not able to address all inquiries, much of the Q&A session evolved around the potential issues that arise in the practical applications of RPA. To address this, Manuel and Carla first explained the greatest obstacle to implementing RPA was not the automation itself but the preparation to implementing the bot. Gaining accessibility to sites and applications, streamlining processes and identifying the boundaries of the administrative tasks that needed automation were all issues that needed to be aptly addressed before building the automation.

As the webinar came to a close and the speakers wrapped up their Q&A session, one participant, in response to the remaining questions on RPA and all of its capabilities, left a comment in the participant thread: “I think a good starting point is contacting UNICC.”

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Data Science Students from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya Forge Path for Future Generations

Digital transformation has grown into the international spotlight in recent years, highlighted with the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020, translating to a push towards educating future generations about the importance and relevance of systems of data – an education to sharpen analytical skills and critically solve modern-day issues. 

This holds true for Cayetana López, Chus Antoñanzas, Cristina Aguilera, Mireia Boneta and Raquel Lucena of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, all university students in their final year of Data Science studies.

Passionate about their studies and looking for a challenge, the students signed up as a team under the name ‘Team bitsbitsbits<3’ for UNICC’s Global Hackathon: Data for Good. 

UNICC’s Global Hackathon: Data for Good launched on Tuesday, 16 February 2021 with an introduction from the organization’s executive leadership to a global audience of UNICC and other UN organizations’ staff members, university representatives and over 140 students. Following introductory remarks from UNICC’s Director Sameer Chauhan and Chief of Digital Business Solutions Ninna Roco, Anusha Dandapani, Chief of Data Analytics, introduced the three challenges of the hackathon: COVID-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualisation Challenge.

Out of the three challenges, Team bitsbitsbits<3 chose to showcase their skill sets in data with Challenge 2: Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement.

In the beginning of the Hackathon, we didn’t know what to expect. We suspected there was going to be a challenge about COVID-19, but we wanted to opt for a different challenge with a broader context. More importantly, we were excited to work with real numbers and to know that behind each statistic and data set, there were people’s stories and lives.

Team bitsbitsbits<3

Though the students had not previously worked with data sets on the UN mission regarding forced displacement of people and refugees, they collaborated and received guidance from mentors to ultimately be chosen as a finalist team.

Titled “Prediction and Interpretation of Forced Displacements,” Team bitsbitsbits<3 focused on addressing the issue of migration within an international context. In the introduction, the students explained their target variables: internally forcibly displaced people, refugees abroad and asylum requests for the year 2025 on a per-country basis. The team introduced their ‘Time Series Forecast Model,’ which included a layer of interpretability and then explained their input variables, which consisted of countries’ rates of fatalities, numbers of forcibly displaced people, information on terrain, the Human Development Index and the overall population count.

The team first optimised data in the data pipeline with a pre-processing procedure before feeding it into a machine learning model of gradient boosted trees; the numbers were then interpreted to predict target variables. All data used in building the model and determining the variables originated from data sets provided by UNICC. 

In the process of building the model, team members adhered to the advice of UNICC mentors during feedback sessions, building a simple yet comprehensive model, given the complexity of the data. In the end, the team’s model presented a correlation most notably between a country’s rate of fatalities and its number of forcibly displaced populations for both local and global interpretability.

Credit: UNICC/Team bitsbitsbits<3

The team’s final result from their data pipeline and machine-learning model was the positive correlation between a country’s rate of fatality over the time frame of six years and number of forcibly displaced populations. The participants concluded their presentation with a message that is it important to notice these trends in data and fight the unmitigated increase of forced mobility through means of policy, backed by data.

Following the Hackathon, the students reflected on their Data Hackathon experience and the value of an education in Data Science.          

We are part of the first generation of students in Barcelona to be taught Data Science in a university setting; before, Data Science was just taught to new hires on the job. So, this finalist position in the Data Hackathon is not only an accomplishment of our team but also the Data Science curriculum and generation of students graduating to enter careers in the field.

Team bitsbitsbits<3

Motivated by the Hackathon experience, the participants were keen to learn more about not just data for social good but also professional opportunities that marry their passion of data science with the UN mandate. 

Team bitsbitsbits<3’s involvement in the UNICC Global Hackathon is indicative of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly SDG #4: Quality Education, and SDG #9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

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This article is part of a series of stories from the first UNICC Global Hackathon: Data for Good that took place in February 2021. The hackathon drew registrations from a total of 140 students from 54 universities located in 13 countries around the globe, all of whom came together to tackle three major UN related challenges: COVID-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualisation Challenge. To learn more about this successful event and its wonderful finalists, please refer to this article here.

Finalists of Firsts: Team Trojan Army for the COVID-19 Open Challenge

2021 so far has held several ‘firsts’ for UNICC, one being the organization’s first Global Hackathon: Data for Good, where international engagement of ambitious students was a rich and valuable experience for all staff, mentors, students, teams and judges involved. 

In the spirit of ‘firsts,’ one participating team for the first challenge of the Hackathon, the COVID-19 Open Challenge, particularly shared in this sentiment: Team Trojan Army of PSG College of Technology, India, who, in their first year of university embarked on their first data analytics study, entered and became a finalist in their first hackathon.

Asvika M., Narini A., Nithiya Shri S. and Shri Vignesh S. of PSG College of Technology, after a few months of attending their first year of their undergraduate studies, received from their professor a link to register for the Global Hackathon. The four students, who knew each other from their university classes, signed up and entered under the name Team Trojan Army. For the next few days, the students successfully developed a solution that got them into the final.

UNICC’s Global Hackathon: Data for Good launched on Tuesday, 16 February 2021 with an introduction from the organization’s executive leadership to a global audience of UNICC and other UN organizations’ staff members, university representatives and over 140 students. Following the introductory remarks from UNICC’s Director Sameer Chauhan and Chief of Digital Business Solutions Ninna Roco, Anusha Dandapani, Chief of Data Analytics, introduced the three challenges of the hackathon: COVID-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualization Challenge.

From the start of the Hackathon, Team Trojan Army faced several obstacles. Notably, though all students were eager to tackle these challenges and learn more about data analytics, none of them had formally studied it; Asvika, Narini and Nithiya are pursuing degrees in Cybersecurity, and Shri in Engineering. 

We split up the work into four different parts, but the first day of the Hackathon was pure learning. We didn’t know how to read the data, how to create the graphs– everything was completely new.

Shri Vignesh S., Team Trojan Army, PSG College of Technology

However, through publicly available instructions on how to effectively navigate data analytics software, the guidance of the mentors and the like-minded tenacity to build the best possible presentation within the fixed time frame, Team Trojan Army delivered and presented as finalists their solution to the COVID Open Challenge.

To build their solution, the students approached the challenge holistically. By using Pandas, Excel and Power BI, they manipulated the data and constructed visualisations of global and national rates of COVID-19 transmission and deaths in the U.S. and in Europe. In addition to data visualisations of trends in the virus itself, the team also provided graphs measuring the economic impact of the international handling of the global pandemic, comprehensively tying in key factors such as a nation’s GDP, unemployment and currency inflation rate. 

Lastly, Team Trojan Army proposed several innovative solutions to the eradication of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these included the construction of an international facility to oversee the global COVID-19 vaccine distribution as encouraged by the World Health Organization and UN Secretary-General António Guterres

The students also included other suggested solutions to the pandemic such as entrepreneurial economic models and an increase in federal spending to jumpstart job markets, in addition to the creation of a mobile app to facilitate location-based vaccine and virus tracking to curb the prolonging of the pandemic. 

Credit: UNICC

In an interview following the Hackathon, the team commented on how much they take away from the experience. “In one of the mentor sessions,” Asvika recalled, “we learned that the data has a narrative, and we need to create that.” 

The students also mentioned how influential the Hackathon has been to their future plans in the field of data science, learning from the solutions of other finalists and winners. The students came to see first-hand in their research more about the UN and the extent of its work through the data sets provided. “We went from a point of knowing little to nothing to presenting our solutions in front of UN representatives. That in itself was a major achievement for us, nothing short of astonishing.” This was their final first… and just the beginning of a learning journey.

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This article is part of a series of stories from the first UNICC Global Hackathon: Data for Good that took place in February 2021. The hackathon drew registrations from a total of 140 students from 54 universities located in 13 countries around the globe, all of whom came together to tackle three major UN related challenges: COVID-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualization Challenge. To learn more about this successful event and its wonderful finalists, please refer to this article here.

Virtual master class
Photo: Unsplash/Sigmund

UNICC Delivers Master Classes in Project Management, Cyber Security and Unified Communications

UNICC staff present digital business master classes to students at Università del Salento, University of Valencia and Universidad Internacional de Valencia.

Università del Salento – Project Management Master Class with Marco Liuzzi

The Università del Salento’s Department of Economics, in collaboration with the Department of Engineering for Innovation, partnered with UNICC for a Business Management seminar on Project Management perspectives, held remotely on 26 April.

Nearly 30 students from various faculties attended the session led by Marco Liuzzi, Chief Operations Officer, UNICC, upon invitation from Professor Roberto Paiano. 

During the master class, Marco explored, compared and contrasted traditional best practices in project management with agile best practices. The session launched with a dive into the two ‘traditional’ best practices (PRINCE2 and PMBoK), highlighting differences and similarities between the two project management methods.

One topic involved specific techniques for scheduling, with an illustration of the level of detail to and efficacy with which these best practices can help get work done. 

For a historical perspective, Marco excavated relevant project management foundations such as the Agile manifesto for software development developed in 2001.

Once the background was set, the class engaged in discussion about other key practices in software development, such as the Scrum framework, the culture that it creates for teams, the roles within a project it requires and the events in a project timeline – ultimately, an overall ‘philosophy of working.’ Some questions addressed as part of the seminar included:

  • Traditional means no longer useful? 
  • Is there still space for a traditional – a.k.a. waterfall – project management approach?
  • What are the pros and cons of traditional vs. agile best practices?   
  • Are agile best practices always the way to go?

Participants brought their insights to Marco’s willingness to engage in these issues, resulting in a dynamic class for everyone on the call. There was a consensus that there was space for both the traditional and agile best practices approaches, depending on scope, scale and context of a given project. 

Photo: Unisalento


University of Valencia, School of Engineering – Zero-day Threats Landscape Class with Gabriella Andriuzzi

Also in April, the University of Valencia School of Engineering, located in Burjassot, Spain, held a conference to bring engineering and data science students across the university to network with professionals in the tech sector. For a session on cyber security, the University reached out to UNICC to deliver a virtual master class presentation. On 21 April, UNICC’s Gabriella Andriuzzi, Informational Security Administrator, with the help of Amadeo Cioffi, Lead, Cyber Security Operations, presented a session on “Zero-day Threats from the Defender’s Perspective.”

The session was well attended, with nearly 200 participants on the call, including strong UNICC representation. Gabriella discussed operational implications of cyber security from the perspective of the Security Operations Centre (CSOC) teams whose main task is to prevent, detect and respond to zero-day attacks to protect their organizations. 

The master class covered zero-day attacks, starting from typical targets of attacks such as government entities, large business and organizations, political targets, etc. While exploring the scope, Gabriella noted timelines of cybersecurity attacks and specific terminology to inform all participants of how and what defines a vulnerability, an exploit or an attack. Then, the conversation shifted to preventative and detection efforts in mitigating such attacks.

Credit: UNICC/Andriuzzi

She included a case study to emphasise the impact of cyber security. The study was on the active exploitation of multiple zero-day Microsoft exchange vulnerabilities in March 2021, with a detailed timeline of the attack, the conceptual understandings of each phase, and ultimately, the steps to take towards a timely and effective response. 

Gabriella touched upon the key points that with the increase in sophisticated methods of cyber-attacks, it is the responsibility of individuals and organizations alike to develop innovative protection and detection technologies that support the use of best practices. 


Universidad Internacional de Valencia – A Day in the Life with UNICC Unified Communications Project Lead Ricardo Pardal

Credit: UNICC/Pardal

To launch the beginning of a new academic semester in September 2020, the Universidad Internacional de Valencia hosted a series of master classes titled “The Day to Day in International Organizations” for Master’s students in legal studies. Presentations were conducted weekly by representatives from international organizations such as UNESCO and NATO. UNICC was invited to present on the daily activities of supporting its 70+ Client and Partner Organizations through ICT solutions.

Ricardo Pardal, Project Lead for the UNICC Unified Communications team delivered a master class to nearly 50 students on the general mandate of UNICC, its strategic position as the leading digital business solutions provider for the UN family, the historical growth and development of the organization, especially regarding the pandemic – and ultimately his role and responsibilities on the Unified Communications team. 

The students’ engagement was great; the questions were on a spectrum from general inquiries about United Nations and how to get involved to specific topics such as the history and importance of UNICC’s Valencia offices. In fact, the Q&A ended up being the same length as the presentation!

Ricardo Pardal, Systems Administrator, Unified Communications, UNICC

The master class first began with an overview of UNICC and then detailed tUNICC offices locations, particularly the Valencia office with its support to the UN Secretariat and its Department of Operational Support (DOS). 

As the master class was a virtual event due to pandemic restrictions, Ricardo spoke about UNICC’s business continuity and teleworking processes during the onset of COVID-19. He elaborated how UNICC was able to successfully adjust to remote working conditions with a significant increase in demand for its services. Tying this to his day-to-day role, Ricardo then spoke about relevant projects on the Unified Communications team of UNICC, such as the provision of enterprise-level telephony services.

UNICC’s involvement with academic institutions through master classes such as these demonstrates the willingness of the organization and its staff to engage with bright minds through insightful presentations and dynamic discussions. Its participation speaks to UNICC’s commitment to SDG 4 Quality Education, SDG 9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure and SDG 17 Partnerships for the Goals.

GGGI Country Offices Embrace Cloud-based Connectivity Support

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic universalised remote working, UNICC was supporting many of its 70+ Partners and Client Organizations in providing remote services on a global scale. 

The Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) was one, with its subscription to UNICC’s Common Secure threat intelligence network services for a stable information security posture. 

GGGI is a relatively new Client of UNICC headquartered in Seoul, South Korea. It is a treaty-based international, inter-governmental organization dedicated to supporting and promoting strong, inclusive and sustainable economic growth in developing countries and emerging economies.

Information security services was just the beginning. GGGI, in over 30 country offices spanning six continents, many in challenging locales, faced the need to ensure its ‘last-mile’ business continuity. The organization was set to upgrade its local office networks with a centralized, secure and reliable connectivity solution. Local office infrastructure was often outdated and unreachable, particularly with the constraints of the pandemic. The bottom line was a state-of-the-art technology refresh to ensure that local network appliances could be managed remotely at any time, from anywhere, by any number of GGGI ICT specialists. 

To meet this need, GGGI approached UNICC in late 2017, looking for solutions to these challenges, as stable connectivity is key to all business in their country offices. UNICC would provide, implement and deploy Meraki cloud managed appliances for up to 30 GGGI country offices. 

The key solution was the Cisco Meraki appliance with cloud-based remote management capabilities; specifically, the MR42 model that opened a world of optimisations for GGGI’s country offices. Apart from the latest hardware features, presence location analytics and extensive options for network infrastructure, all deployed MR42 Meraki Appliances, with the help of UNICC staff, are managed entirely remotely, successfully eliminating the need for on-premise ICT staff support. 

Credit: GGGI Rwanda (left), Cisco (right)

The project began in 2018, with 13 appliances implemented by July. The rest of the deployment was slowed down with significant delays and changing local priorities, with the balance of deployments shifted down to just three offices. With the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding, there were multiple challenges for procurement, delivery, installation and management of the remainder of the Meraki boxes. 

UNICC helped with design, implementation, procurement and follow-up to ensure that the appliances made it to the ground and were properly installed. 

Designated UNICC team members deftly coordinated all aspects of procurement and delivery of these devices to each GGGI focal point in country offices. Then, in coordination with UNICC, each office installed its Meraki appliance device, a process of standard configuration completed remotely without the need for a physical ICT presence. 

Once configuration, network infrastructure and security controls such as firewalls were set in place, UNICC oversaw the capabilities for monitoring and supporting the appliances. In streamlining the procedures, UNICC created a pathway to self-sufficiency for GGGI country offices to take over. 

Finally, the deployment and rollout of the Meraki appliances in each office was signed off with detailed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), should issues arise in the future. 

Despite delays and external impediments, UNICC successfully closed the project with two batches of devices delivery totaling 16 Meraki MR42 cloud appliances installed and functioning in the following GGGI country offices.

Credit: UNICC

In the GGGI office locations with network and connectivity challenges – with critical projects to deliver – UNICC’s services to procure, deliver, configure and deploy the Meraki appliances made all the difference. With reliable connectivity and robust network infrastructure management in place, GGGI’s country offices can continue to fulfill their missions and their mandate.

SDG 5: Gender Equality in Action: Award Winning Data Visualisation by All-Women Team in UNICC’s Global Hackathon

2020 marked the 75-year anniversary of the United Nations as it continues to speak for international peace and security, deliver humanitarian assistance to those in need, protect human rights and uphold international law. The year also marked the 50th anniversary of UNICC and the five-year anniversary of the launch of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a framework for all UN entities and related NGO partner organizations to follow and work collaboratively. 

As a UN organization, UNICC aligns with these goals in its delivery of projects and services to its 70+ Clients and Partner Organizations, particularly in its ability to meld technology with mission. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres aptly explains this necessary occurrence: “For the UN to deliver better on our mandate in the digital age, we need to embrace technologies that can help accelerate the achievement of the SDGs.”

UNICC’s 2021 Global Hackathon: Data for Good provided an excellent use case for technology for good, including the victory of Team QC Data Oriented, winner of the UN75 Visualisation Challenge. Encouraged by professors Dr. Sophia Catsambis and Dr. Yin Zhou, City University of New York, Masters students Rachel Ramphal, Habiba Aziz, Esther Jenaro Rabadan registered for the Hackathon under as an all-woman team, right away supporting SDGs 5 for gender equality.

Credit: UNICC

UNICC’s Global Hackathon: Data for Good launched on Tuesday, 16 February 2021 with an introduction from the organization’s executive leadership to a global audience of UNICC and other UN organizations’ staff members, university representatives and over 140 students. Following the introductory remarks from UNICC’s Director Sameer Chauhan and Chief of Digital Business Solutions Ninna Roco, Anusha Dandapani, Chief of Data Analytics, introduced the three challenges of the hackathon: COVID-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualisation Challenge.

From the beginning of the hackathon, team QC Data Oriented knew that they wanted to specifically create a solution around data visualisation – with this in mind, the all-female team centered their research and graphs around SDG 5 (gender equality). Rachel, Habiba and Esther joined forces to dig through UN data sets related to gender parity, such as data on UN organizations’ monetary expenses and investments by year towards combatting the issue of gender inequality. 

Credit: UNICC

The team also shared a visualisation on the percentage of women in international migration, showing data from 1990 and 2017 and compared the number of female migrants from varying countries with increases or decreases in movement. The visualisation served as a powerful reminder of the interdisciplinary nature of sustainable development and how a single Global Goal, SDG 5 (gender equality), can apply to issues such as international migration.

The panel of esteemed UN judges asked about a specific visualization: the prioritization of gender parity across the UN ecosystem. Qualitative data from surveys reveal the general attitude towards prioritizing issues of gender parity: there is quite a large gap between believing accomplishing SDG 5 today is essential and believing it to become a priority in the next 25 years. 

This discrepancy interested the judges, as it belies an organization’s development in attitude towards discrete SDGs. By presenting this data, the team successfully highlighted the contrast in organizational priorities as to where progress is necessary.

Credit: UNICC

The victory of team QC Data Oriented in the UN75 Visualisation Challenge speaks to a greater message that extends beyond the context of the Data for Good: Global Hackathon. As all-female team winners in a hackathon in a field infamous for the lack of gender parity, Rachel, Habiba and Esther defy the constraints of the very goal on which they successfully presented. 

“My team went into the competition very nervous about our skills measuring up to our peers around the world, but we wanted to participate and try our best. If we had decided to give up, we would not have reached the finals and won our challenge. So, I will take away from this to continue working hard and believing in my capabilities – I hope to take away that no challenge is too big for me.”

Rachel Ramphal, Team QC Data Oriented

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This article is part of a series of stories from the first UNICC Global Hackathon: Data for Good that took place in February 2021. The hackathon drew registrations from a total of 140 students from 54 universities located in 13 countries around the globe, all of whom came together to tackle three major UN related challenges: COVID-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualisation Challenge. To learn more about this successful event and its wonderful finalists, please refer to this article here.

Photo: ADB

Partnerships with IFIs for Sustained Financial Growth

International Financial Institutions Contribute to a Shifting Business Model while Amplifying UNICC’s Digital Transformation Capabilities

UNICC, as a trusted shared service provider for the UN family and its related organizations, has a growing impact on the mission to address humanitarian crises on a global scale. With an increase in influential partnerships – at over 70 Clients and Partner Organizations –  and a 50-year record of effective digital business solutions delivery, UNICC is redefining how it delivers its services in a changing digital international development landscape.

Notably, opportunities lie ahead in UNICC’s growing number of partnerships with a particular group of institutions named International Financial Institutions (IFIs). IFIs are multilateral, regional and national development banks that fund UN-centric operations on an unparalleled scale around the globe. 

The UNICC Business Relationship Management is pleased and proud to see agreements with almost a dozen IFIs: ADBAfDBCEBIDBIFADIMFOECDOPECFUND and World Bank.

Critical to the mission to propel international cooperation and resources towards achieving the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, IFIs are a key component in the funding, implementation and delivery of UN family development projects and programs. From the IFI’s 2013 open letter to then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ approach towards multilateralism to the 2030 SDG Agenda, IFIs and UN entities are expanding their partnerships day by day.

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Credit: IMF/Moore
Funding Relationships from the Source

It’s a welcome shift in UNICC’s business model to work with IFIs, who enter the funding process at early stages of humanitarian programme delivery.

UN Agencies (and through them, UNICC) typically enter the project cycles later, closer to and supporting ‘last-mile’ partnerships with NGOs and civil society organizations. In working with IFIs, UNICC can identify and develop opportunities beyond its traditional partnerships with the IT or business units of UN Agencies.

IFIs are involved in funding projects from the beginning, with a wide and deep perspective on programming, with substantial funds and advanced technology at their fingertips, to make the world a better place. 

Prado Nieto, Chief, Business Relationship Management, UNICC
Asian Development Bank

UNICC’s involvement with IFIs began in 2016 with a partnership with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a global organization dedicated towards providing funding for development projects, $21.5 billion in 2019, to 49 countries in Asia and the Pacific. ADB initially approached UNICC looking for a provider of Disaster Recovery (DR) services, with UNICC providing a resilient backup infrastructure and environmental and security management in UNICC’s Geneva Data Centre. 

Since the original Service Delivery Agreement (SDA) in 2016, UNICC has worked with ADB to provide a number of critical services, granting the bank the title of UNICC’s first IFI ‘Privileged User’ for its influence as one of our top ten Clients.

Expanding the IFI Horizon

Following UNICC’s agreements with ADB, UNICC grew in visibility as I participated in 2019 meeting for IFI CIOs (Chief Information Officer) in Cape Town, South Africa. In the meeting, where more than 12 IFIs were represented by CIOs, we advocated for the potential for collaboration between IFIs and UN Agencies through UNICC’s support. 

We had a very good time, commiserating a little but learning and inspiring each other. I am sure you will all agree that we ought to continue strengthening our collaboration. We all share a similar mission and genuine partnership is what the world needs more. 

Denis Robitaille, the Vice President and Chief Information Officer of the World Bank’s Information and Technology Solution, IFI CIOs Club, Cape Town, September 2019

Even in the two years since the meeting in Cape Town, the progress is palpable. Services that are provided to IFIs include but are not limited to:

  • Disaster Recovery/Resilience
  • AWS Cloud Hosting
  • Data Lake
  • ERP
  • Robotic Process Automation
  • Business Intelligence.

The impact of UNICC’s services for IFIs go beyond the signing of contracts. Since IFIs not only require but also can afford the latest innovative technologies, these partnerships reveal several key areas of growth for the organization. 

Firstly, IFIs have the financial capabilities to outsource solutions from providers in the private sector, leaving UNICC to constantly sharpen and grow in all aspects of service delivery to keep up with competitors. Areas such as cyber security, Big Data, artificial intelligence are several of many solutions required by IFIs that will keep UNICC up to date with cutting-edge technologies. 

Additionally, in providing services and maintaining relationships with IFIs, UNICC will see a vitalization in the internal health of the organization. 

IFIs can help UNICC envision a future of growth and change, whether it’s volume discounts for shared services or an increase in onboarding skilled experts to support new challenges and projects. The partnership with IFIs carries the potential to improve UNICC’s financial health and enhance its digital transformation capabilities to support the missions of its Clients and Partner Organizations.