UN Travel Cube Plane Delivering Vaccines to Barbados
Photo: PMO Barbados

The Travel Data Cube: an Inter-Agency Project to Drive Savings in UN Travel Costs

UN Agencies Share Aggregated, Clean and Consolidated Air Travel Data to Improve Efficiencies

The United Nations has committed to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, including affordable clean energy (SDG 7), climate action (SDG 13) and improved life on land (SDG 15). In addition, UN Reform has mandated costs savings and more efficiency in operations across the UN family.

The UN Environment Programme has also called through its Greening the Blue programme for a carbon-neutral UN system measuring its environmental performance, reducing its environmental impacts and offsetting unavoidable greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the 2017 Review of Air Travel Policies in the United Nations System by the UN Joint Inspection Unit, travel expenses are one of the largest budget components of the United Nations system after staff costs. The study looked at ways of enhancing efficiency and effectiveness of travel management; increasing accountability and transparency among managers who approve travel, taking into account travelers’ productivity, safety and security; promoting and increasing coordination and cooperation among organizations; and identifying good practices and lessons learned in order to promote, where possible, the harmonization of practices across the United Nations system. 

As a result, the UN family has been driving down travel costs over the years through improved systems, more stringent policies, inter-Agency collaboration to collectively renegotiate fares and provide better overall management. Although much has already been done, there are still opportunities for further improvement. 

A group of UN Agencies has recently come together on a voluntary basis through the UN Digital Solutions Centre to build the Travel Data Cube, a consolidated data cube to compare and contrast travel spending, including reviewing average travel cost rates on top routes.

The Travel Cube, built by the firm Areka Consulting with the coordination of the United Nations International Computing Centre (UNICC), contains travel information of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), UN Copenhagen, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The Travel Cube, utilizing the Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) ‘cube’ technique for analyzing multidimensional data to find insights, includes consolidated data from approximately 70 travel management companies (TMCs), who often have complex and detailed information on fares, class, restrictions, etc. 

In the cube, data is aggregated, cleaned, consolidated and shown in a visual and interactive web-based dashboard that allows users to perform data-driven fares negotiation with airlines, ultimately driving savings. The dashboard includes a mapping tool through which users can see which UN Agencies are covered by which UN airline contracts and the savings they deliver. 

The project team is now analysing the Travel Cube’s output data to understand which innovative, inter-Agency technology solutions could help drive further savings and optimized travel related policies.

About the UN Digital Solutions Centre

The  United Nations Digital Solutions Centre is operated in partnership by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and is supported by the UN International Computing Centre (UNICC). By leveraging new technologies and UN expertise, the UN Digital Solutions  Centre aims to create a suite of digital solutions that can be shared among UN agencies to transform common business operations and streamline time-consuming transactional tasks. Solutions developed by WFP and UNHCR are made available to the entire UN system.  

Photo: UN Photo/Cia Pak

UNICC Partner Representatives Discuss the Organization’s Strategic Direction at 108th Management Committee Meeting

Partners Approve New Cyber Security Resilience Maturity Assessment Service

UNICC’s Management Committee (MC), the organization’s governance body comprised of representatives from 41 Partner Organizations, met fully virtually 13 and 14 October for the 108th MC meeting, the second of 2021. Fabrice Boudou, new MC Chair and Director of IT Solutions Division at WTO, chaired the meeting together with Vice Chair Anthony O’Mullane, Director, Information and Communications Technology Division (ICTD), Department of Field Support, United Nations.

On the first day, the sessions covered statutory business. UNICC Director Sameer Chauhan presented the Director’s Update with news on UNICC’s ongoing digital transformation as well as updates on a range of areas, including operations, network and cybersecurity, business, finance and more.

Three new Clients were presented: the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), UNDP India and UNDP Nigeria; as well as two new user organizations: the Commonwealth Secretariat and ID2020.

Statutory business covered updates on audits and compliance. Since the 107th MC meeting, UNICC has received the ISO/IEC 22301:2019 certification for Security and Resilience – Business Continuity Management Systems – Requirements.

UNICC’s Director informed attendees about the progress on the following professional services areas:

  • Digital solutions such as Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI) services for hybrid and virtual conferences
  • Data and Analytics with a focus on Data Hub as a Service and Data Governance Framework efforts
  • Hyperautomation
  • UNICC adopting Agile methodologies for project and programme management
  • Shared digital solutions including the UN Digital ID, the Joint Sanctions Screening Solution, the UN Partner Portal, etc.

The RSI team is doing a great job! We are using their services regularly and are very happy with the professional support.

Christopher O’Connor, Chief, Information Management and Technology, OHCHR

The Management Committee received an update on how the organization is dealing with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, including working from home regulations and office staff thresholds, the continued use of the UNICC Crisis Communications App to manage staff location and the resources made available to the organization’s workforce to improve their wellbeing.

Sameer Chauhan followed with updates on the topics of greening UNICC, where indicators are being identified; gender balance efforts with the implementation of a Gender Parity Strategy to reach gender balance by the end of 2028; outreach opportunities including the visit of the Secretary-General to Valencia in July and the publication of the 2020 Director’s Report.

UNICC is launching its collaboration with UN Environment Programme’s Greening the Blue. We make a commitment to measure and improve our carbon footprint. We expect to be carbon neutral as of 2020 and will continue our aim to becoming greener. Green IT does not have to be an oxymoron.

Sameer Chauhan, Director, UNICC

After the Director’s Update, UNICC’s Head of Business Control Unit Yannis Arfaras shared updates on the financial state of the organization. His presentation was followed by the first report of the UNICC MC Audit Sub-Group represented by three Partner Organization representatives.

Chief of Cyber Security Section Tima Soni concluded the first day by presenting a new service: Cyber Security Resilience Maturity Assessment, which was well received and which rate was approved by MC representatives. Partners noted that this new service will enable the development of a UN-only benchmark for Cyber Security Resilience Maturity, especially valuable to smaller Clients and Partner Organizations.

Photos: UNICC

On the second day, MC representatives participated in a discussion around three topics. First, a ‘mezzanine view’ from the UNICC Director: a review of current technology trends, shared concerns and collective digital business opportunities for the UN system with his engagement with UNICC’s 70+ Clients and Partner Organizations.

Secondly, Chauhan presented the prospective ‘UN Community Cloud,’ a container-based cloud solution that will run UNICC’s flagship products. The UN Community Cloud is a logical and natural progression of the current hosting services offered by UNICC. It will offer a mission-critical, sensitive and scalable solution that may benefit the entire UN system in their scale-up and efforts to go digital securely and effectively.

The meeting ended with a discussion on how there is now clear guidance available from the UN Secretariat that ­UNICC is a full partner and not a vendor. These details were much appreciated by other Partner Organizations, who had explicitly asked for this to be discussed.

The Agenda had included a presentation by Chief of Data and Analytics Anusha Dandapani and a follow-up discussion on data and analytics. Due to lack of time, this item was tabled to be addressed either at an ad-hoc Management Committee meeting or at the 109th MC in Spring 2022.

Mia PAHO bot RPA
Photo: PAHO

PAHO Welcomes Mia and Max, Their First ‘Digital Workers’

The New Bots Developed by UNICC and PAHO Support the Procurement Process of Covid-19 Vaccines 

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has added two Acquisitions Technician to their Procurement and Supply Management team, two new members that can work 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, year-round. Mia and Max are PAHO’s first ever bots, and they have been developed by UNICC’s Robotic Process Automation (RPA) team alongside PAHO’s Procurement and IT teams.

The robots execute repetitive and time-consuming tasks, allowing the human team to forget about the paperwork and focus on strategic aspects of the procurement function, such as establishing the needs of the countries served by PAHO and enhancing relationships with suppliers. 

Mia – Assisting the Purchase of Strategic Products 

Mia automates the purchase order requisition process. The bot downloads data from a spreadsheet report and uses it to fill in specific details in the ERP software Workday. A unique feature of this solution is that it is able to detect if a memo is written in Spanish and translate it into English.

A single purchase order requisition takes a human buyer an average processing time of 20 minutes, while Mia is able to do the same work in approximately 5 to 8 minutes, thanks to automating redundant and time consuming steps.

Mia and Max are helping other team members with transactional tasks, so they can focus on better serving our countries. These bots are a great example of what UNICC can do to support the UN Family.

Daniel Rodrigues, Director, Procurement and Supply Management, PAHO

Since Mia’s first day at work, the bot has been helping buyers with the purchase of strategic products, including Covid-19 vaccines for the American countries.

Mia is an unattended bot, which means that it is programmed to start at a specific time and keep working until there are no more purchase order requisitions in the to-do list. Then it waits until the next scheduled run to complete a new list. Mia is easily scalable – as seen with the push for Covid-19 vaccine distribution, the bot is able to process planned and unplanned increases in volume, helping to expedite the purchase of the much needed vaccine.

Max – More than a Software, a Key Member of the Team

Max is a robotic solution that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to automatically create Advance Shipment Notifications (ASN). The bot reads shipping documents, extracts relevant data points and adds them into Workday.

The creation of ASN is not only a time-consuming process, but it is prone to human error, due to the many data points that must be transferred from documents to the ERP software. With the new solution the PAHO team saves time and reduces the risk of errors in the documentation.

The bot is currently being trained. After it completes the task, it sends the document to a validation station where a human team member reviews and confirms the data has been correctly extracted. With each validation, Max increases its confidence level, and as time progresses its precision will be high enough for PAHO to allow ‘Straight Pass Through’ extraction. After validation, the bot enters the confirmed data into the system, after which the ASN is created.

The bot works on automatically completing the documentation on vaccine lots and batch numbers, as well as manufacture and expiration dates, a process that was not included in the previous manual system.

Beyond Mia and Max, the Potential of RPA

PAHO’s RPA journey with UNICC started on April 2020 with an initial analysis of automating opportunities.

PAHO’s IT team initially experimented with setting up its own infrastructure for RPA using Automation Anywhere and setting up its own MS Azure environments. However, PAHO decided to switch to UNICC’s “Bot as a Service” to leverage their RPA expertise and since that was more cost effective.

Patrick Hinderdael, Director, Information Technology Services, PAHO

With the experience of having delivered multiple automation solutions to over 15 UN Clients across various domains such as travel, finance, procurement, HR, IT and healthcare, the UNICC’s RPA team started developing Mia and Max in October 2020.

We at UNICC are proud to help launch Mia and Max, and do our little bit to support the life-saving work of PAHO.

Sameer Chauhan, Director, UNICC

The joint team is now exploring which other repetitive functions within the Procurement and Supply Management unit in PAHO could be automated, and hope to add more digital workers that will allow their human team mates to increase their efficiency and productivity.

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UNICC RPA Solutions