Photo: UNDP

UNDP Data Strategy – Microsoft and UNICC Help Accelerate Delivery

Microsoft Azure Power Hour Features UNDP‘s Data Futures Platform and NextGen Data Hub

Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact group hosted UNDP and UNICC for its 9 September 2021 Azure Power Hour to discuss UNDP’s new, integrated data platforms that aim to forge novel data capabilities and drive results in delivering on the Agenda 2030.

With an audience of some 100 participants from a number of UN Agencies, the event was an excellent opportunity to showcase the collaboration between Microsoft, UNDP and UNICC and share a roadmap of opportunities for other organizations to embrace a unified data strategy.

UNICC works as an extension of our technology team. If you look at UNDP tech portfolios you will see that for many services UNICC provides support and advanced solutions in order to complete a project or service.

Diwen Xu, Application Delivery and Data Warehousing Lead, UNDP

The Azure Power Hour focused on UNDP’s data strategy, aligned to the UN Secretary-General’s Data Strategy, with its vision to building a UNDP ecosystem that unlocks full data potential for better decisions and stronger support to people and the planet. Presenters shared the fostering enablers of the UNDP Data Strategy, from people and culture to data governance, partnerships and technology to deliver a transformative environment for better insights and quality decision-making.

UNDP’s Gayan Peiris, Data and Technology Strategist, together with Diwen Xu, Application Delivery and Data Warehousing Lead, discussed UNDP‘s data governance model and the current UNDP data platform landscape (with multitudes of unconnected data platforms and data sources). They also presented the organization’s plan for a unified data environment, with a central data architecture, data lake, optimised data catalogue and dashboards, all hosted in Microsoft Azure.

Effective and ethical use of data rests on the three pillars of data governance, people and technology.  Data governance is the process of managing availability, usability, integrity and security of data in UNDP’s enterprise systems, based on internal data standards and policies that control data usage.

An effective data governance model ensures that data is consistent and trustworthy and doesn’t get misused. It’s increasingly critical as UNDP, like other UN Agencies, rely more on data analytics to help optimize operations and drive business decision-making across the organization. UNDP’s data governance program works to create standards and policies for governing data, as well as data implementation and enforcement procedures.

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UNDP Data Strategy governance. Credit: UNDP

Gayan Peiris detailed how UNDP is harnessing data to create a strategic asset for the organization, with two use cases in particular: the Data Futures Platform, an open access, interactive platform that aggregates multiple sources of information to assist with COVID-19 response and recovery efforts; and the NextGen Data Hub, a dedicated data and tools repository.  According to Gayan, these assets are helping streamline siloed initiatives across UNDP for a long-term, action-focused data strategy.

UNDP’s partnership with Microsoft started a year ago, with Microsoft sharing some of its AI and machine learning capabilities to support sustainble development practices. UNDP and UNICC are long standing partners working on technology projects and tools that enable swifter operations. The new Data and Analytics team at UNICC brought its expertise to bear on this new data roadmap path.

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Credit: UNDP (Data Futures Platform (https://data.undp.org/)

The UNDP Data Futures Platform

Drawing on data from across the UN System and its partners, the Data Futures Platform provides cutting-edge analyses, visualisations and simulations that focus on the most critical COVID-19 recovery challenges in an interactive way, for rapid decision making. The platform provides a global dashboard for vaccine equity, an assessment tool on the impact of COVID-19 on the SDGs, data and insights from UN75 and a Global Recovery Observatory that brings transparency to government spending during the pandemic.

Diwen Xu presented the technical aspects of the unified data hub architecture, which has a dedicated repository of data for operational and programme use, self-service capabilities, and an integration hub for UN-wide and external data sharing capabiilties.

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Credit: UNDP

He went on to discuss how UNDP is going to intake data sets, perform analytics and visualise the data.

Diwen added that UNICC has been working as an extension of UNDP”s technology team, with the added benefits of a first rate Data and Analytics team now in place. UNICC provides support and advanced services to UNDP technology portfolios, including data and analytics innovations.

NextGen Data Hub

Together with Anusha Dandapani, Chief, Data and Analytics Unit, UNICC, Gayan and Diwen talked about UNDP’s NextGen Data Hub, a unified data architecture which UNICC and UNDP are working on. UNICC is helping design and implement a new generation of improved cloud data to be included in the architecture.

Gartner (2019) provides an interesting perspective on an integrated data hub: “it’s not technology, but an approach to effectively determine where, when and for whom data needs to be mediated, shared and then linked and/or persisted. A data hub is a logical architecture which enables data sharing by connecting producers of data (applications, processes, and teams) with consumers of data (other applications, process, and teams). Endpoints interact with the data hub, provisioning data or receiving data and the hub provides a point of governance, mediation, and visibility as to how data is flowing within the enterprise.“

The NextGen Data Hub, which is based on Microsoft Azure cloud services, will be able to ingest, store, analyze, model, structure, catalogue and share all kind of data sets in a modern, privacy-protecting, and cost-effective way. It will interact and inter-operate with other cloud data providers. This new cloud data platform will allow UNDP to become a more predictive and advanced, data-driven organization. The existing data components, hosted at a UNICC data centre, will be migrated into this new data platform.

We are building a system to collect and analyse data transparently, responsibly and effectively, ensuring adequate workforce capacity and expertise, with the right investments in green technology, architecture, infrastructure and tools to make UNDP a data-centered organization.

Francisco Alcázar, UNICC data focal point for the UNDP NextGen Data Hub

The NextGen data platform will integrate some new capabilities and services, such as data governance and catalogue services implemented using Azure Purview, some advanced analytics components for AI and machine learning, cognitive services and text document analysis using Azure Synapse, a new data hub portal and an API management gateway for internal and external/public users. The platform will also support integration of third-party services for legacy applications.

UNICC improved and implemented the analysis and first steps by Microsoft to deliver the full, cloud-based data platform solution using Azure data services.

The NextGen data platform leverages the best expertise and support from Microsoft and UNICC. Future plans for the platform include integration with other cloud-based services.


Photo: UNRWA

UNICC’s IATI Publishing Solution Helps Clients with IATI Transparency Compliance


In the digital transformation of the United Nations, UNICC’s Application Development team is paving the path towards UN organizational transparency with its provisioning support for the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) publishing solution: a composite application for assembling, formatting and reporting organizational data following the IATI standard.

Coordinating humanitarian response with good data solutions is critical to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Transparency is essential. Organizations that have joined the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) have committed to publishing information according to rules and guidance that experts in international development have honed and tested over time.

Launched in 2008, the IATI standard was developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to ensure transparent reporting and presentation of both organizational and activity-related information and data. It allows participating organizations to provide stakeholders access to aid, development and humanitarian information in a common format.

UN Agency information subject to IATI standards, such as finance, locations, sectors, results and conditions, is vital to planning and progress. Yet it takes considerable time, effort and expertise to structure the data properly and then activate the process for gathering, formatting and vetting it for publication.

That’s the difficult and complex work that UNICC does to understand the situation as it is before and then define what it should be after. UNICC, with its IATI publishing solution, analyses an organization’s data, maps it to the IATI schema, identifies the gaps and gives this mapping tool and information to the organization’s IATI team.

The IATI publishing solution makes it easy to extract the right data from an organization’s databases, format it to the IATI standard and publish it to the IATI Registry. On top of that the solution includes a versatile dashboard that can be branded and structured to give a comprehensive reporting view on the published data.

Financial transparency in humanitarian delivery requires effective tools for data experts to share the right, real-time data for success.

Venkat Venkateswaran, Head, Application Delivery team, CPD, UNICC

IATI has since expanded to over 1,200 organizations, all of which use its standards of transparency. However, its growth as an established measure of reporting translates to many Agencies having to spend valuable time and resources to gather, organize, consolidate and format data for IATI publication. For this purpose, organizations have been seeking a solution from UNICC to vet and organise data and subsequently prepare it for public viewership and use.

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Credit: UNRWA

Multiple organizations are using UNICC’s IATI publishing solution, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN International Trade Centre (ITC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and others. Services for differing organizations vary from management of existing IATI-compliant dashboards to consolidating data and information across databases and ERPs from scratch.

Transparency is today a fundamental element to have the trust of your donors. Our Clients urgently need tools that can offer stakeholders clear and detailed information on the use of resources and how activities carried out correspond to their Sustainable Development Goals. Thanks to its knowledge of the IATI standard and the capabilities of its agile teams, UNICC has the ability to rapidly assist with IATI publishing readiness to transform all that data into information.

Andrés Abad Rodríguez, Project Manager, UNICC

IATI Publishing Solution
UNICC adopts a staged approach where we first analyze the organization’s data landscape, assessing sources of data and data quality. Upon completion, the team uses the official tested guidance, standards and tools of IATI to assess the Agency’s readiness for IATI publication of data.
UNICC helps map Agency data schema to the IATI framework by properly identifying the gaps and requirements for provision, helping the organization to review the internal data collection and correct identification of the published information.

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Credit: ITC

UNICC developed a two-component solution to address the requests of Clients and Partner Organizations looking for a solution to creating an IATI-compliant formatting output:

  • The IATI Generator to create, validate and publish reports: The IATI Generator pulls data on an organization’s project activities, budgets and expenses from its ERP and financial databases. It then consolidates and configures these data in XML according to the IATI XML Schema and Rulesets with an added IATI Validator engine to check whether its compliance is met.
  • The IATI Dashboard to support the organization’s communications and visual representation of the data published on IATI: The dashboard is created to meet the organization’s branding specifications and to deliver a summary of the information that is published to the IATI Registry. Upon approval of the published data and complementing information, the IATI Dashboard is automatically refreshed.

UNICC’s IATI solution of gathering, organising, compiling and formatting information and data for complying organizations revolutionises the necessary operations for business transparency. For each client, UNICC teams invest the necessary effort to deliver a solution compliant to IATI regulations yet tailored towards the organization’s respective demands.

One example of a successful delivery of the IATI solution is for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). IUCN’s IATI Open Project Portal, designed and hosted by UNICC, went live in March 2021 and shows financial information, performance against the IUCN programme goals and contributions towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Viewers are granted insights into annual data on budgets, expenditure, countries, projects and donors, all encapsulated into a user-friendly and intuitive interface. In addition to granular data, donors and stakeholders can visualise where each IUCN initiative, project and programme contributes to key aspects of their mandate, such as business and biodiversity, climate change, ecosystem management and environmental law.

Credit: IUCN

In addition to this public dashboard, UNICC’s solution publishes fully-formatted data and information on IUCN onto the IATI public registry as the prerequisite to adopt IATI standards. Upon publication, this information is displayed alongside that of over 1,200 international humanitarian organizations and NGOs, all in efforts to practice and uphold the standardisation of business transparency.

As a greater number of Client and Partner Organizations sign on for the IATI solution, UNICC amplifies the push towards transparency and digital diplomacy within the international sphere.
The IATI solution is indicative of UNICC’s commitments of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, most notably Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. Significant services such as the IATI solution ensures progress of the path towards digital transformation of the UN and its universal mandate.

Photo: UNICC

Girls and Women Talking Tech – 100 Interviews – Over 20 from UNICC

As we move further into the information age, women and men need to be equally represented as shapers of our increasingly digital world. One way to inspire and empower girls and young women is to showcase success stories.

UNICC is proud to be working with ITU, the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth and EQUALS to present the Girls and Women Talking Tech series, which grew out of ITU’s Girls in ICT Day in 2018-2019 with conferences at Microsoft and Cornell Tech in New York and at UNOG in Geneva. UNICC is supporting with this effort SDG 5: Gender equality and women’s empowermentSDG 4: Quality Education as well as UNICC’s own gender parity initiatives.

For 2020, it wasn’t possible to have physical meetings anymore, so the group started to host dialogues online – and by now this has been a big success and radically transformed the scope of the initial project. UNICC continues to include more and more UNICC women in interviews, often with the assistance of Break Through Tech Winterns and Communications team interns. Across the inter-Agency team, the goal is to engage women in 196 countries!

Also a blog post marking the 100th interview milestone has been published at ITU News, where 200 girls and women in ICT share their stories on digital transformation, diversity and inclusion.

We could not be prouder of this community of over 200 women committed to supporting one another. Envisioning how many more minds have been inspired and growth opportunities have been triggered by the project is deeply gratifying and shows how digital initiatives and partnerships can make a tangible, positive difference in people’s lives.

Anastasia Bektimirova, Talking Tech team at ITU

UNICC women were able to share lessons they learned along the way, advice about careers in technology and stories that inspired and help many young girls. Check out our playlist that includes all the interviews UNICC women have participated in.

Despite the growing demand for information and communication technology (ICT) professionals, women still trail male counterparts in terms of pay, leadership roles, and representation in the digital sector. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 suggests that only 14 per cent of those working in cloud computing, 20 per cent of engineers, and 32 per cent of data and artificial intelligence professionals are women.

These disparities are concerning, not least because technology-related careers arguably dominate today’s job market. Moreover, the underrepresentation of women means their voices are absent from decision-making when it comes to designing our digital society.

As we move further into the information age, women and men need to be equally represented as shapers of our increasingly digital world. One way to inspire and empower girls and young women is to showcase success stories. Of course we need men to be active supporters and collaborators of this direction and perspective.

The Talking Tech: Girls and Women in ICT interview series promotes girls and women in the sector. Today, there is nothing they cannot achieve in this fast-evolving field.

Participants range from experts in artificial Intelligence (AI) to electronic sports (esports), astronauts to leaders of UN Agencies, and ambassadors to corporate executives. In the interviews, women and girls from around the world share achievements and challenges, exchange advice and network with one another – all to inspire others with evidence that every girl can fulfil great potential in the ICT sector.

UN Women - UNICC Design Thinking Event
Photo: UN Women and UNICC

UN Women – UNICC Workshop for Safer Public Spaces

Incorporating the voices of women and girls in Guadalajara for innovative urban solutions

On 25 and 26 August, over 25 women from the city of Guadalajara and its metropolitan area, in Jalisco, Mexico, engaged in a design thinking exercise to ideate and prototype solutions to make their city safer for women and girls. This event followed up on the Safe Cities for Women Thinkathon organized in November of 2020 by UN Women and UNICC, an event that aspired to amplify women’s and girl’s voices and need for access to safe and inclusive public spaces during the pandemic and beyond, within the framework of the Safe Cities Programme.

The goal of the two-day design thinking workshop was to develop and test solution prototypes, taking the best of the ideas to create a viable product created by UNICC for use in the field.

UN Women recognises the importance of incorporating the voices of all women and girls in their diversity to not leave anyone behind, as well as generating multisectoral alliances through initiatives like this one. Now, we intend to make this innovative proposal into a reality so that it is replicable and scalable in order to guarantee that women and girls from Guadalajara and its metropolitan area can exercise their right to the city free from all forms of violence.

Andrea Cházaro, Coordinadora del Programa Ciudades Seguras en México

The design thinking workshop was a collaborative problem-solving activity leveraging the results of a cycle of interviews with local key actors in innovation and public policy, as well as a survey applied to a variety of women and girls who use public spaces in Guadalajara and its metropolitan area.

Members of civil society organizations, academia, private sector, local government and technologists were invited to the event to learn more about this area of concern – safety for women and girls in public spaces by observing, engaging with women and girl protagonists and to better understand their experiences and motivations.

According to the scoping study carried out in 2018 by UN Women on the situation of sexual violence against women and girls in public spaces in Guadalajara:

  • 81% of the women surveyed admitted to having suffered some form of sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence at some time in their life while walking at downtown
  • Around 64.5% of women feel unsafe or very unsafe in the public space of Guadalajara
  • For fear of being sexually assaulted or harassed, 82.8% try to walk with someone; and 57.9% have stopped going out at night or very early and a significant percentage (7.6%) claim to have stopped working or studying due to insecurity
  • Only 7.9% of women who were victims of some form of sexual violence reported it. Which means that more than 90% did not report to a public institution. The reasons for not reporting are multiple: 22.6% did not know that they could report; 17% did not report because it was something unimportant and 16.8% responded that they do not trust the authorities.

Brainstorm, prototype, test. Repeat.

On the first day, 24 participants were assigned into four groups, representing four different personas: refugee women, persons with disabilities, indigenous women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, many of them vulnerable in public spaces.

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Credit: UN Women and UNICC

The starting point for the groups were the creative solutions proposed at last year’s thinkathon. The groups worked with a design thinking coach who stimulated and guided the participants through the definition of the problem and ideation process, with two rounds of brainstorming and idea selection, using an innovative and collaborative technological platform known as Miro.

Experimenting fast and cheap is one of the pillars of design thinking. The prototypes resulting from this experience are a first approach to solving a real and important need in terms of safe cities for women.

Isabella Stranger Stranger, Design Thinking Coach

The only constraint was that solutions had to be either web-based or mobile apps. Stakeholders such as members of the local government, policy experts or technologists were present to clarify assumptions, and members of UNICC’s Data and Analytics team based in Valencia, Spain, offered support throughout the event.

The second day revolved around prototyping and testing. The returning participants designed low-fidelity prototyping using basic models of examples of the product. Each group was then joined by two real user test volunteers, who identified as the specific persona of each group.

After the testers provided feedback, each group moved from the breakout rooms to the main room for a final team presentation, where all participants were able to learn about each other’s solutions and engage in a fruitful conversation.

Credit: UN Women and UNICC

From a prototype to the app store

While the main goal of last year’s thinkathon and this year’s design thinking workshop was to inform investment in public safety and infrastructure with a gender perspective at the local level, UNICC has committed to developing one of the solutions for UN Women.

The UNICC Data and Analytics team will work together with the organization’s Applications Delivery team to design and deliver a mobile application that includes the most prioritised, applicable and common features that all women mentioned in their proposed prototypes such as emergency calling and alerting.

Guadalajara is home to 1.3 million people with 51.9% being women. As we hold a mirror in front of us today, we give chance to women who are not here with us and to make their voice louder as their champion. Let us open our minds so we could talk about our relationship with public spaces.
The most useful part of our thought process today will be how our design elicits empathy and compassion and will force us to look at technology solutions differently. The experiential and qualitative data along with the prototype we will envision today can change the way women perceive safety issues. Data can play a positive role in changing the way we interact with public spaces. Let us design one Guadalajara at a time
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Anusha Dandapani, Chief, Data and Analytics Unit, UNICC

Incorporating a gender perspective, along with a responsible, empowering and creative use of technology is a powerful tool to promote gender equality and address violence against women and girls.

UNICC is looking for allies to make the prototypes generated through this design thinking exercise a reality to provide digital solutions for women and girls in Guadalajara and elsewhere.

UN Women and UNICC are making a call to action to educational institutions, the private sector, governments and civil society to contribute to having safe public spaces free of sexual violence and harassment of women and girls. The power of change lies in collaboration and the community. See the UN Women Mexico version of this story in Spanish here.

un women
Photo: UN Women/Amanda Vard

Columbia University – UNICC Thinkathon

Team Agritech wins with its ozone-based disinfection system to address Disaster Preparedness and advance human welfare

Columbia University School of Professional Studies (SPS) and UNICC have collaborated to bring students and alumni together to advance human welfare, accelerate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and confront the great challenges of our time in the first-ever Columbia University SPS – UNICC Thinkathon. Teams proposed solutions to three social challenges:

  • Gender equality: Using data and technology to address violence against women during and beyond COVID-19
  • Cyber security: Understanding risks that arise from our reliance on the Internet, focusing on regulatory, policymaking and/or technological solutions in areas of Artificial Intelligence, personal data, automatic decision making and victims of data breaches
  • Disaster preparedness: Reporting on the manner in which COVID-19 has impacted vulnerable populations, to inform solutions and strategic planning to recover and reverse deterioration trends.

A summer-long Thinkathon to advance human welfare

Seven teams have been working all summer on real-world solutions with live data, mentored by subject matter area experts from Columbia, the private sector and UN Agencies.

In June, 17 teams of 3 to 5 people submitted their proposals with a statement of interest, with answers to one of the three challenge prompts and optional supporting documents. Among the initial participants there were 45 Columbia University students or alumni from five different schools, with 38 external students or professionals. Up to ten countries on four continents were represented.

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A review committee studied the submissions and selected seven final teams that moved forward to the Thinkathon competition. These teams have been working throughout July and August together with expert university, private sector and UN mentors to refine their proposals and final presentations.

Three of the teams selected the Gender Equality challenge, two teams worked on the topic of Disaster Preparedness and the last two teams chose the Cybersecurity challenge. Mentors who provided guidance and support included:

  • Edna Chun, Lecturer, Human Capital Management Department, Columbia University
  • Shouryadipta Sarkar, Information Management Senior Specialist, UNDP
  • Shahryar Shaghaghi, Chief Technology Officer, Quantum Xchange
  • Tima Soni, Chief, Cyber Security Section, UNICC
  • Lizzette Soria, Women’s Policy Expert, Safe Cities, UN
  • Jay Kesavan, Data Science Expert and Partner, Bowery Software.

Final presentation and winners

On 24 August 2021, finalist teams had the opportunity to present their ideas in front of a global audience and a panel of preeminent judges, in a live event that featured initial remarks by Columbia University SPS Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs Zelon Crawford and presentations from UNICC’s Chief of Data and Analytics Anusha Dandapani and Data Scientist Dishti Gurnani.

Then each team had five minutes for their final pitch, after an introduction by their mentors. The judges had the opportunity to ask follow-up questions. After long deliberation, UNICC’s Chief of Data Analytics Anusha Dandapani announced the winners.

Team Agritech was the first-place winner, receiving a $3,000 cash prize, with its solution of a newly-developed, sustainable, proprietary ozone-based disinfection delivery system to tackle the disaster preparedness challenge. The system addresses the matter of food loss and food safety by dramatically minimising the effect of malicious pathogens on agricultural products across the entire supply chain, while at the same time considerably increasing shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as seafood, meats and edibles greens.

Our unique ozone delivery system is designed extensively to be applied in the form of dry or wet methods determined by sensitivity, delicateness, fertility of the treated products.

Agritech Team

Logista Emergency Response was the runner-up. Their solution addressed the Disaster Preparedness challenge with a rapidly deployable and scalable field-based logistics system that gives emergency responders accurate, data-driven insights in order to make the right choices when time and resources are in demand. The cash prize for the runner-up team was $2,000.

The audience-chosen team was The Bulb, which was awarded a $1,000 cash prize for their Gender Equality solution of virtual networking against violence. The team proposed a virtual networking solution to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women. Their solution contains two major networking platforms, a group chat using a popular communications app and a blog site.

The teams were evaluated for their clarity and innovation, the social impact of their solutions, the capital requirements and financial forecast, the viability, both operational and technical, feasibility and sustainability of the solution, as well as the presentation delivery. The panel included the following judges:

  • Pavan Pidugu, Chief Technology Officer, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
  • Rodrigo Hernan Prado Cordova, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Primus AI, RPA
  • Reda Sadki, President, The Geneva Learning Foundation
  • Ursula Wynhoven, United Nations Representative, International Telecommunications Union
  • Friederike Schüür, Fellow, AI Ethics and Digital Governance, United Nations.

Solutions proposed by other teams were also great:

  • The SafeTeal team proposed an inter-sectional mobile app for gender-based violence prevention and response. The app is intended to engage across the educational space, advocacy circles and the healing space.
  • The Merakhi team also had a solution to the Gender Equality challenge, proposing a smart jewelry and education program.
  • The CV2 team proposed a global, encrypted communications platform to tackle one of the biggest challenges in the cyber security space, by collecting and dispersing information in a timely and secure manner
  • The World ID team proposed a distributed ledger Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providing digital identity solutions designed to immutably protect sovereign, institutional, and citizen-level data and information, increasing scale and integrity in global information systems.

Thanks to this Thinkathon to advance human welfare, participants have been able to sharpen their critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. The challenges have heightened their awareness of global challenges, allowing them to build capacity and share knowledge, and work in collaboration with people with different perspectives.

Photo: UN

UN Digital Solutions Centre Delivers Cashless Payments for the United Nations Booking Hub

The new Clearing House solution leverages Robotic Process Automation to streamline payments and invoicing for UN accommodations in the field

The Clearing House solution seeks to create inter-Agency automated billing for cashless common service payments, with a vision to improve the experience for humanitarian workers in field operations when using UN provided services and innovating the way UN Agencies work today in providing UN accommodations management.

Clementina Dal Cin, UN Booking Hub Accommodation Manager

A WFP medical officer on mission from Rome stays at a guesthouse in Mogadishu, Somalia. She’s able to fulfill her four-day duty work, and, when leaving the guesthouse, sign out without any local currency or sign-out hassles. 

At checkout, the guesthouse manager issues an invoice automatically on the UN Booking Hub with three options for cashless payments: Daily Subsistence Allowance (DSA) reduction, danger pay reduction or salary reduction.

No cash! No bother! It’s just one example of the new and automated payment operations thanks to the UN Booking Hub Clearing House solution.

In the background, and in line with the UN Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies, the UN Digital Solution Centre’s new Clearing House solution, using Robotic Process Automation, digitally processes her invoice data. 

Cashless payments and automated invoicing are now available for accommodation services of the UN Booking Hub. Other UN Booking Hub services will join in the upcoming months: passenger mobility and carpooling services, UNHAS flights and UN clinics.

UN Booking Hub numbers

  • 1.3 million savings
  • 200,000 automated invoices
  • 10 UN Agencies
  • Agency guest houses in 50 countries
  • 270+ UN guesthouses
  • 3,200+ UN vehicles
  • 285+ UNHAS flights
  • 70+ UN clinics
  • 110+ UNDSS hotels
  • 35 UN counselors.

The UN Digital Solutions Centre (UN DSC),  a joint project of WFP and UNHCR, together with the UNICC Robotic Process Automation (RPA+) Centre of Excellence, has delivered a UN Booking Hub Clearing House solution to drive digital innovation for inter-Agency financial services in delivering field-based UN accommodations. 

The vision of the platform is to improve the experience for humanitarian workers in field operations when using UN-provided services by streamlining accommodation logistics and payment details through cashless payments and automated invoicing thorough the digital Clearing House platform.

The Clearing House solution provides needed automation to the existing UN Booking Hub, an inter-Agency platform for UN accommodation management. At full potential on all UN Booking Hub services with all UN partners, the Clearing House solution is expected to generate more than $1.3 million yearly savings and 200,000 saved invoices.

The UN Booking Hub 

The UN Booking Hub, powered by WFP, offers shared services to IOM, IFAD, UNESCO, UNDP, UNDSS, UNFPA, UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), UNHCR, UNICEF, UN Medical Directors (UNMD), WFP and WHO. The 24/7 inter-Agency booking service supports humanitarian workers to deliver last mile aid in the areas of UN accommodations, UN drivers and passenger mobility management, UNHAS flights and UN clinics.

The UN Booking Hub allows staff and managers to book field accommodation services and optimize the guesthouse’s daily management activities. It standardizes business processes, automates request tracking and improves service delivery through real-time monitoring of customer satisfaction. At the same time, it promotes synergies and efficiency gains. It is truly a UN solution for the UN family, designed in accordance with the mutual recognition, costing and customer satisfaction principles. 

The Hub just won the prestigious Fleet Forum Award for its impressive digital innovation in UN passenger mobility services.

The Clearing House Solution

The Clearing House solution, using Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and blockchain technologies, automates administrative and financial tasks around duty travel accommodations. As a result, it optimises financial and human resources, cuts hundreds of hours of superfluous work, and mitigates risks of fraud and error.

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Photo: UNHCR

The UN Booking Hub used to host separate Agency service providers with their own administrative systems and ERPs. The Clearing House solution offers automation, integration and consolidation of separate systems, transforming administrative and operational procedures with a new level of efficiency and effectiveness.

Built over 2020 and championed at a WFP Innovation boot camp last year (see article), the platform was piloted in April 2021 to WFP guesthouses in Somalia and Sudan, and it will be opened to UNHCR guesthouses in Afghanistan in the following months. 

As of July 2021, the UN Booking Hub now supports 12 Agencies for service provision of over 3,200 UN vehicles, 285 UNHAS flights, 270 UN guesthouses and more. 

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Photo: WFP

Some of the benefits of the Clearing House solution include:

Staff

  • No need to carry cash or local currency to pay for guest house fees
  • No need to change local currency to pay for guest house fees
  • Easier last minute booking or changes for a guest house

Admin and finance officers:

  • No need to handle cash at the field level
  • Automatic parking or posting of guesthouse invoices in Agency ERPs

Agencies

  • Expected higher occupancy in Agency guesthouses with hassle-free payments
  • Time savings from automated invoice processing
  • Reduced risk of error and fraud
  • Gradual increase in cashless payments with more Agencies joining the service
  • Path to more advanced cashless payments (such as credit cards)

UN DSC support has been instrumental in accelerating the time-to-market of the UN Booking Hub Clearing House has been implemented initially with long-time partner UNHCR on reciprocal guesthouses.

Davide Picistrelli, UN Booking Hub Digital Manager

UNICC’s construction of the platform is enabled through its services in Robotic Process Automation, where time-consuming tasks are simplified to automated processes that run the necessary task within seconds.

This eliminates the need for multiple platforms and streams of data for each service provider and consolidates all relevant data to one interface. Its capabilities to organise all invoices, logs and guesthouse availability into respective tabs and search via specific category of invoices present a new clarity and high-level perspective on the otherwise tedious systems of accommodation for users and Agencies. 

Photo: ICJ

Digital Transformation Helps the International Court of Justice Optimise and Secure its Mission

UNICC Continues to Support ICJ’s Technology Programme with Advisory Services, Cloud Computing, Enterprise Applications Upgrades and COVID-19 Support

Digital transformation is critical to the way international organizations do business today and find success in delivering their mandates, with an emphasis on leveraging technology to streamline business systems, do ‘more with less,’ and speed the way to mission success.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is no exception. With its role to settle legal disputes in accordance with international law and provide advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by United Nations entities, the Court also relies on optimised business practices to get its work done.

UNICC and ICJ have worked together to help transform the Court’s digital business landscape. UNICC’s experience and expertise from consulting, strategy and information security to web hosting, content, collaboration and communications continue to shape and transform our technology programme and the business it supports.

Alvaro Flores, Head of the ICT Division, ICJ

Daily productivity improvements, enhanced communications platforms, state-of-the-art collaboration tools and safe and secure systems are key to any digital upgrade.

The ICJ joined the growing UNICC family of organizations in 2016, becoming a Partner Organization the following year, benefiting from UNICC’s expertise and complex knowledge about digital business and technology environments, including innovative technologies, business efficiencies, cost savings and volume discounts based on the scale of engagements.

In line with the UN Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies, UNICC has advised, designed and delivered a number of business optimisations to help ICJ embrace cloud computing, with a refresh of ICJ’s enterprise applications stack and technology services, including business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advisory Support and Technology Workshops

Early on, UNICC assisted the Court with an ICT strategy assessment, architectural technology planning, public website support, network infrastructure assessment, ICT process improvements and Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery plans. Other areas of improvement included mobility support (smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc.), updates to collaboration platforms (SharePoint and Microsoft Exchange) as well as security assessments and line of business support for legacy applications. Throughout, there were valuable technology assessment workshops to align ICJ’s needed upgrades with industry best practices.

Website Hosting

Since 2017, ICJ hosts its website (www.icj-cij.org) with UNICC using a globally load balanced content delivery network (CDN) and advanced security protection (DDoS).

Enterprise Communications

UNICC provided ICJ with a fully managed messaging and communications system in 2017 with dedicated and fully-redundant Microsoft Exchange 2016 and Skype for Business telephony resulting in cost savings, better integration and 24/7 support.

Workspace Management

In June 2018, UNICC supported ICJ on conducting an on-site and remote assessment in order to understand the current workspace related configurations, feature needs and propose a solution for the implementation and management of Windows 10, Office 365 and related infrastructure.

Systems Safety and Security

UNICC provided security requirements based on industry best practices from the Center for Internet Security, considering the unique computing environment of ICJ. As a result, ICJ took advantage of several UNICC security services, joining the Common Secure Threat Intel Network service, which shares timely, relevant and actionable physical and cyber security threat and incident information, enhancing ICJ’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate risks associated with these threats.

ICJ also subscribed to UNICC’s Common Secure Incident and Event Management (CSIEM) services gather, analyse and present information from network and security devices, including identity and access-management applications, vulnerability management and policy-compliance tools, operating system, database and application logs and external threat data assessment.

The goal was to improve the overall information security operations and to facilitate the detection of abnormal activity and early signs of compromised infrastructure systems. Implementing the SIEM solution was completed successfully by the end of November 2020.

Photo: ICJ

COVID-19 Support

While ICJ and UNICC continued to deliver system upgrades over the past few years, COVID-19 brought  an abrupt change as the Court’s staff and stakeholders suddenly had to work from home. Turning on a dime, UNICC was instrumental in setting ICJ up for users to connect from home with appropriate hardware and software to continue their daily work.

Unified Communications (Microsoft Teams)

In March 2021, ICJ requested UNICC’s support with implementation of Microsoft 365 Teams as a productivity, collaboration, communications and document management tool for the organization.

This entailed a proof-of-concept pilot for telephony (to eventually replace Skype for Business), identity management support and Change, Communications and Learning services from UNICC to help with the adoption of Teams by its  over 300 staff and stakeholders. As a first step, business champions are learning about Teams to help advocate for the business value for the Court’s business processes. The project is still in progress and it is expected to be finished in October.

Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals

UNICC maintains a strategic view of digital business and technology support for international development goals and deliverables around the globe. UNICC’s experience, expertise and complex knowledge means that Clients and Partner Organizations get the top of today’s technology marketplace services with the best value money can buy.

The partnership between ICJ and UNICC clearly supports SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure as well as SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals for a partnership that is growing day by day.

Photo: UNDP Nigeria

New Partner Organization: UNDP Nigeria

UNICC is pleased to announce that United Nations Development Programme Nigeria has been accepted as a UNICC Partner Organization. UNICC’s Business Relationship Manager for UNDP Nigeria is Emily Bennett.

One of the first initiatives will be to work to host the UNDP Nigeria Jubilee Fellows website at AWS.

The Developing Digital and Tech Solutions Jubilee Fellowship Programme has been created to help 20,000 graduates in their post-COVID-19 job search.

About UNDP Nigeria
UNDP is the UN’s global development network, an organization advocating for change and connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life. They are on the ground in some 170 countries and territories, working with them on their own solutions to global and national development challenges. As they develop local capacity, they draw on the people of UNDP and its wide range of partners.

UNDP has been supporting the Government and people of Nigeria in addressing development challenges, through strengthening and building institutions that promote inclusive sustainable development and democratic governance. They work with an array of partners to support Nigeria to meet its Vision 2020 and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promise.

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

Palestinian University Students Receive Special Mention in UNICC Data Hackathon

Special Mention for Students of Islamic University of Gaza

One of the great opportunities of working within the UN family is encountering bright minds from all over the globe. Such was the case for the 2021 UNICC Global Hackathon: Data for Good, especially the participation of Master’s students from the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG) in Palestine.

Motaz Saad, a UNICC Data and Analytics team member, Senior Data Scientist at UNRWA and IUG Assistant Professor introduced the hackathon to IUG. Together with the Dean of the School Iyad H. Alshami and the data department, he selected the top performing students in their class to join as one team. Over the next few days, Mohammed El-Agha, Abdullah Abu Nada, Ahmed Abu Amsha and Anas Alsalool entered the international competition and submitted a final solution worthy of a special mention.

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.

Mohammed, Abdullah, Anas and Ahmed opted for Challenge 2: Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement on which to build their data-based solution. In the introduction of their presentation to a group of UN judges, mentors and university professors, the team laid out the scope of their work, emphasising that the solution is not simply presenting predictions but also building an implementable plan based on those data-based predictions.

Credit: UNICC

The team then presented their data sources, marking key indicators such as numbers on countries’ fatalities, terrain and geomatics as determinants of which datasets to explore, research and implement into a prediction.

Upon gathering relevant data and comparing and contrasting their findings, the team noticed a noticeable pattern in the graphs of a positive correlation between a country’s high fatality rate and its rate of displacement, especially refugees. Once this pattern was established, the team began to build their data pipeline in order to properly process their data, configure their input and output into X and Y datasets, build their model and ultimately evaluate its results.

Using Syria as a primary example for their findings, Mohammed, Abdullah, Anas and Ahmed compared the effect of the number of fatalities, caused by the nation’s social and political instability to the ultimate number of displaced populations. The time series model the team constructed from the pipeline predicted the number of refugees, internally displaced people and asylum seekers increasing in the next five years, given the continued conflict. The team also observed similar patterns in their predictions for Afghanistan and Mexico.

Following the presentation of their findings, the team evaluated them in their conclusion. One event the team specified to be related to increase in rates of refugees was the Arab Spring of 2011, a series of protests and uprisings in several countries in the Middle East. The team further explained that the fatalities that resulted from periods of political tension such as the Arab Spring are accounted for in other countries’ explanations.

Team IUG, upon presenting to the panel of judges and mentors and in an interview with UNICC, expressed interest in pursuing future opportunities in data science to tackle modern-day issues such as forced displacement.

The opportunity to present our solution with other international teams was highly competitive, but we want to be able to see this hackathon experience as not just a presentation but a means to contribute building real solutions for issues such as forced displacement and migration to make a real difference.

Team IUG, Islamic University of Gaza

Team IUG’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.

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.