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.

UNRWA
Photo: UNRWA España

UNRWA Digital Transformation Support Amplifies Opportunities for Refugees

UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, has recently embarked on a mutually beneficial journey with UNICC. While UNRWA has been a UNICC partner for fifteen years, their relationship blossomed last year with a host of new initiatives as well with an agreement for UNRWA to supply IT and other skilled support staff to UNICC, allowing UNICC to leverage cost-efficient resources and support UNRWA’s mission to deliver services to over 5 million refugees in the Middle East.

I’m so pleased with UNICC because they’re not only offering application hosting as we traditionally received from other service providers within and outside of the UN, but they’re offering management and consolidation services, and they were really looking for ways to optimise our architecture and reduce our costs.

Kaan Cetinturk, CIO & Director of Information Management and Technology, UNRWA

Achieving Human Potential through Digital Transformation
UNRWA, with its mission to help Palestinian refugees achieve their full potential across the spectrum of human development initiatives, needed to optimise its IT business processes and consolidate and simplify its enterprise application stack.

Digital transformation means a significant shift in how an organization builds and uses digital tools and platforms, how they use technologies to improve internal operations and help people to be more focused on the organization’s business, mission and values.

Digital transformation is now a CIO priority as more business leaders understand business agility, resiliency and productivity as important factors in determining their success. Kaan Cetinturk, CIO and Director of Information Management and Technology, UNRWA, was of this mindset when he reached out to UNICC for advisory and digital business support.

After a number of projects including information security assessments, a connectivity consultancy and Forrester IT advisory services support, early in 2020 UNRWA subscribed to Infotech Advisory Services through UNICC, and together, through workshops and consultations, the organizations plotted a strategic path for digitisation of the UNRWA enterprise application stack.

As outcomes of this strategy and roadmap, UNICC supported UNRWA with a host of services and projects, from meeting management support, remote conference hosting services, security enhancements for infrastructure and applications, electronic signature services, Azure hosting for a number of applications as well as support for UNRWA’s International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), hosting an IATI generator, data transparency dashboard, application development, maintenance and support.

UNICC supported the following 2020-21 projects to fundamentally modernise UNRWA’s digital footprint:

UNICC

UNRWA transformation initiatives. Credit: UNICC

Migrating, Hosting and Supporting the UNRWA ERP REACH SAP Platform
UNICC’s involvement with UNRWA’s digital transformation journey began with ERP support. CIO Kaan Cetinturk reached out to UNICC asking for support to migrate and manage their SAP ERP platform, which was hosted in the UN Global Service Centre (UNGSC) data centre in Valencia, Spain.

In September 2020, the plan to migrate the REACH SAP platform began, moving it to the UNICC data centre, co-located in the UNGSC. The goal was to complete migration before December 2020; however, the production migration was postponed due to business concerns affecting end-of-the-year financial reconciliation and payments.

UNICC supported UNRWA on migrating development and staging environments before the end of the year, using these migrations as testbeds for evaluating migration and reducing risks to UNRWA business stakeholders.

By January 2021, a new plan for migrating the Production environment was agreed, where a dry run for testing the production platform migration was introduced, to further reduce the risk of interface failure with other external systems. Since the UNRWA REACH SAP has a series of interfaces with other business-critical systems of UNRWA (i.e., eHealth, eTM, RRIS, FMIS, etc.), the joint team had to mitigate any connectivity and interface issues that might arise.

Production migration was completed successfully at end of March 2021, with some ongoing activities related to migrating additional production systems ancillary to REACH SAP systems, as well as setting up a Disaster Recovery platform in UNICC’s data centre in Geneva, Switzerland.

The UNRWA REACH SAP system was one of the first production platforms to be hosted in UNICC’s data centre in Valencia. The migration required a sound level of coordination with the previous hosting provider, the UNGSC, to allow the setup of required applications to support the migration of the platform.

UNRWA Espana

Photo: UNRWA Espana

Providing a Holistic Solution, Not Just Application Hosting
What persuaded CIO Kaan Cetinturk to move in this direction? Shifting from the UNGSC to UNICC data centre was a holistic solution rather than just a hosting service. UNICC offers applications hosting as well as ongoing support, with improvements, administration, consolidation, monitoring and reporting.

UNICC helped and is still helping UNRWA transform their organization in identifying an effective, enterprise-wide, digitally enabled ERP-based business transformation roadmap by:

  • Building an ERP digital strategy and vision
  • Assessing the maturity of business innovation and digital adoption
  • Understanding the value generated by the business transformation
  • Increasing the performance rate for the new infrastructure deployed in Valencia
  • Providing additional support for setting up new Azure Data Gateway systems, a new interface hub system supported in Azure cloud for UNRWA
  • Reducing operational costs, providing additional flexibility to add in new services, and faster operational support for increased client satisfaction and increasing the overall security of the platform through including common security services.

Migrating, Hosting and Supporting eHealth and Education Applications
UNRWA was hosting its eHealth and Education Management Information System (EMIS) applications from their data centre in Amman, Jordan and was looking to move applications hosting to the UNICC data centre in Valencia, where cost-efficiencies, stricter security controls and ongoing administration, monitoring and reporting meant a more robust solution.

A plan was agreed to provide hosting services for the UNRWA eHealth and EMIS applications environments, for production, staging and testing environments, with Disaster Recovery in the UNICC Geneva data centre for risk mitigation and business continuity.

We make every effort to provide the best possible services, reduce costs and help UNRWA achieve their goals. As an example, for the eHealth application, we are helping them reach their goal. We recognize that the e-Health application benefits a large number of clinics and hospitals in the Middle East, so that is our target.

Javier Conde, Solution Architect, UNICC

The goal is to migrate the eHealth and EMIS applications infrastructure to UNICC premises and hand over operational tasks related to platform infrastructure from UNRWA to UNICC. This allows UNRWA to have 24/7 support and utilize UNICC support organization distributed across three continents. The support scope includes but is not limited to:

  • Creation and management of customer dedicated network VLANs for the front-end and back-end servers
  • Management of firewalls and Load Balancer VIP addresses
  • Provisioning of virtual servers for staging environments
  • Production and Disaster Recovery environments
  • Installation with UNICC monitoring tools and definition of monitoring alerts and escalation paths
  • Virtual server and Operating System administration
  • Backup configuration
  • 24/7 incident management support
  • Assistance on the applications migration and Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity configuration.

Since the eHealth and EMIS databases are combined, UNICC assisted UNRWA in saving time and money on hosting, maintenance and migration. As a result, UNICC was able to help UNRWA to identify ways to reduce costs of their IT services, enabling them to invest savings in other areas. The production migration for both applications is expected to be completed in Spring-Summer 2021.

Doing Dev Ops Successfully with Azure DevOps Services
Another critical component of UNRWA’s digital transformation was its Dev Ops capabilities. UNRWA asked UNICC for a tooling license to do Dev Ops for application development, and thanks to UNICC, they quickly realized that Dev Ops is more than just a collection of tools, despite some definitions. DevOps refers to a set of practices, methodologies, and technologies that enhance an organization’s security and ability to deliver software and services successfully.

UNICC, with its highly skilled Applications Delivery team, provided the know-how to get this going. UNRWA undertook a series of workshops hosted by UNICC to learn how to do DevOps effectively using Microsoft Azure DevOps services. And now, they’re using this technique for their production systems.

UNRWA doesn’t need to see UNICC as a provider, because first and foremost, we are non-profit. This sets us apart from most other public or cloud providers. Our primary goal is to provide the best possible services. So, when we work with an organization like UNRWA, they don’t have to see us as a competitor or just a hosting provider because their goal becomes our goal and we will work as UNRWA colleagues.

Javier Conde, Solution Architect, UNICC

Common Secure Security Information and Event Management (cSIEM) Services
Many UNICC Clients, including UNRWA, have implemented cyber security services including security log and event collection and management systems, endpoint detection and response tools, firewalls, intrusion prevention systems and other security operations tools.

UNRWA was looking for a strong platform to help to visualise anomalies that may occur and to enable quick and useful analysis of log data that allows the countering of complex cyber threats.

UNRWA will be using UNICC’s CSIEM services to collect, correlate and analyze event logs from its core components globally to enhance overall information security operations and to enable the identification of suspicious behavior and early signs of compromised infrastructure components or systems.

Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals
Multi-stakeholder collaboration and inter-Agency coordination are essential for digital transformation and IT growth. This can be accomplished by involving a wide range of stakeholders in the digital field and exchanging best practices within the UN system.

As the largest direct service provider to Palestine refugees in its areas of operations, UNRWA supports the following Sustainable Development Goals central to our work: SDG 1: No Poverty; SDG 2: Zero Hunger; SDG 3 Good Health and Well-Being; SDG 4: Quality Education; SDG 5: Gender Equality; SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation; SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth; SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities and SDG 13: Climate Action.

And the new partnership between UNICC and UNRWA 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.