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.

Digital CE App
Photo: UNJSPF

UNJSPF and UNICC Present Digital Certificate of Entitlement at UN Innovation Network Webinar

​On Thursday 15 April, the UN Innovation Network (UNIN) hosted a webinar as part of its Blockchain Learning series on the Digital Certificate of Entitlement solution, developed by UNICC and the UN Joint Staff Pension Fund (UNJSPF) for the Pension Fund’s beneficiaries around the globe.

The webinar began with a presentation by Dino Cataldo Dell’Accio, CIO, UNJSPF, who detailed the broader objectives of the Digital Certificate of Entitlement solution, revolutionizing the Pension Fund’s 70-year-old manual processes. 

With a pool of nearly 80,000 beneficiaries, UNJSPF annually holds the responsibility of ensuring the proper delivery of all 80,000 pensions. A tedious, antiquated and risk-prone procedure was in need of updates. Objectives for this solution included process automation, reliability, privacy, security and scalability.

Shashank Rai, CTO, UNICC then described the technical functionalities that serve UNJSPF’s objectives. He noted the application’s ability to confirm biometric Identity of every beneficiary, addressing the Pension Fund’s need to prove facial recognition, proof of existence and physical location. 

We need to congratulate UNICC for its flexibility in navigating the challenges of implementing the application in the middle of the pandemic. The blockchain technology applied in this Digital Certificate of Entitlement brings about endless possibilities to automate other aspects of the pension distribution process and beyond.

Dino Cataldo Dell’Accio, CIO, UNJSPF

Another aspect of the Digital CE solution that Shashank described was the immutability of the process of identity verification, whereby all private, biometric data for beneficiaries is hosted on individual mobile devices onto which the app is downloaded. Because of various obstacles around data privacy and security in the process of verification, the respective hosting of a beneficiary’s data, named a “blockchain wallet,” is “a way to bring back the ownership of one’s data into their own hands.”

The webinar also featured a Q&A session during which many representatives attending from organizations such as UNDP and WFP inquired about numerous aspects of the solution, such as the application’s development process, particularly over the course of the pandemic. Despite the its hampering of plans to properly present the solution throughout the UN ecosystem, UNICC developers and involved stakeholders were able to successfully roll out the Digital Certificate to 250 test beneficiaries in WFP and FAO. 

 UNIN’s feature of the Digital Certificate of Entitlement solution serves as a testament to the UNICC and UNJSPF commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, and Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals. The partnership extends form UNICC and UNJSPF to working with the UNIN to share innovative digital business solutions.

The UNIN is an informal, collaborative community of UN innovators interested in sharing their expertise and experience with others to promote and advance innovation within the UN System. The UNIN is open to innovators from all UN Agencies as well as external partners and to date, 3,000 colleagues from 65+ UN Entities in over 140 countries have joined the Network.

UNICC Trusted Partnerships Rountable Screenshot of Panellists

UNICC Partners Discuss Trusted Partnerships for Digital Public Solutions

UNICC is commemorating its 50th anniversary and as part of the celebration the organization brought together preeminent partners to discuss the topic of Trusted Partnerships: Catalysts for Creative Digital Public Solutions in a public roundtable. 

In this 23 March event, prominent thought leaders from the UN family and beyond discussed the power of partnerships, guided by questions from moderator Prado Nieto Barrantes, Chief, Business Relationship Management, UNICC. 

The panellists of the Trusted Partnerships roundtable were:

  • Enrica Porcari, CIO and Director of Technology, WFP and Chair of the UNICC Management Committee
  • Hans Baritt, Controller and Director, Division of Financial and Administrative Management, UNHCR
  • Dianne Dain, WHO Innovation, Digital Health and Innovation, WHO
  • Jean-Louis Ecochard, Chief Innovation Officer, NetHope
  • Sameer Chauhan, Director, UNICC

The participants defined what successful partnerships look like. Enrica Porcari noted some of the key ingredients in the secret sauce of a strong partnership: hard work and patience to build trust, a shared ethos and continuous support. “We look for partners that are there every step of the way, working side by side with WFP, and who are not there just for the spotlight,” she said.

The discussion moved into the evolution of technology partnerships over the last years and the driving factors of this shift. One of the great values of trusted partnerships is that it allows for more resource efficiency. To that end, panellists noted that UN Agencies should collaborate and share solutions, instead of working independently.

Partnership is the art of understanding shared value. In WFP we have a number of partnerships, not many, but the ones that we have are deep, are sustained, are long-term. And definitely UNICC is one of them. 

Enrica Porcari, CIO and Director of Technology, WFP and Chair of the UNICC Management Committee

Participants shared their views on how partnerships encourage and drive more creative solutioning, with specific examples. They also discussed some of the most critical changes that organisations should make now to have robust, resilient and sustainable partnerships to face the future effectively. 

Dianne Dain reminded the audience of the UN Secretary-General’s description of the current global situation: “The world is facing the greatest crisis since the United Nations was created.” Global challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and many more can’t be solved by any single individual or organisation, but have to be tackled from different angles through partnerships.

Technology and partnerships play a large part in making the dollars go further. We have to partner across Agencies, leveraging and building on institutions like UNICC.

Hans Baritt, Controller and Director, Division of Financial and Administrative Management, UNHCR

Jean-Louis Ecochard offered his view on the value of trusted partnerships and going from the I to the We: “Diversity in partnerships brings creativity and innovation. We need this creativity to design digital solutions to conditions that don’t fit the current technological stack.” 

After half a century, UNICC continues providing shared services to UN entities and related organizations around the world, connecting groups who can come together to collaborate and make impactful digital solutions. 

UNICC depends on its partnerships with Clients and strategic partners, including public and private sector, NGOs, academic institutions and other entities, and appreciates organizations working together for social good, often counting on UNICC, to make the world a better place.