UNICEF Innovation: Developing Tools for Youth

The United Nations Fund For Children (UNICEF) has been a respected member of the international aid and development community for many years. Its work around the world includes programs to decrease child mortality rates in the developing world, provide free education for children of both sexes from all economic backgrounds, protecting children from violence and abuse, and many more.

UNICEF Innovation is a relatively recent UNICEF program developed in response to a changing set of challenges for children and youth around the world, and the aid workers working with them. The program focuses on using low tech hardware and open source software to empower young people and aid workers to improve their lives.

What They Do

UNICEF Innovation’s current projects include:

The Bee is a mobile computing system designed to provide communication and connectivity in crisis situations and other field circumstances where limited access to power and connectivity can inhibit communication and information sharing, thereby inhibiting the effectiveness of the response. The Bee is designed to be lightweight and easily portable, yet rugged and resistant to damage, and has been built with multiple sources of power and connectivity. The Bee can power itself with solar power, car batteries, or conventional power sources, and it can use everything from traditional WiFi to FM radio transmitters to communicate. The Bee’s design is publicly available, and the construction is based on easily available consumer components.

Uniwiki is an open source wiki software based on the MediaWiki platform (the same software that runs Wikipedia) that has been designed to be easier and more intuitive for children and teenagers, especially those in developing countries, to use. Uniwiki will make it easier for children around the world to share and collaborate online. Among Uniwiki’s changes to the MediaWiki platform include easier page creation and an improved editing interface designed to resemble other commonly used software programs. The MediaWiki extensions used to power Uniwiki have been designed specifically to be lightweight and accessible even in areas with low bandwidth and other connectivity problems.

YouthNet is software designed to run youth social networks centered around specific topics of interest. The software is designed to run in areas with low connectivity and to provide a platform for youth to connect both with aid workers and each other to collaborate on discussions about the issues and challenges they face.

UNICEF Innovation is also one of the developers of RapidSMS technology, a data collection, communication, and coordination tool that will enable aid and development workers to more quickly and accurately assess community needs based on text messages from cell phones. The widespread use of cell phones around the world provides an unparalleled opportunity to receive near-immediate feedback for organizations conducting relief efforts or other social services.

One program using RapidSMS to make a difference is an effort to distribute anti-malarial nets in Nigeria. Every year, more than 250,000 children under the age of five die in Nigeria from malaria or its complications, yet health surveys conducted from 2006-2008 indicated that only 8% of households owned malaria nets. UNICEF Innovation is partnering with other organizations to use RapidSMS data gathering technology to distribute the nets to the areas that need them most. RapidSMS was also used to provide real-time tracking of food delivery and availability during the 2008 famine in Ethiopia.

How You Can Help

You can support UNICEF Innovation’s work by donating through the main UNICEF website, or by helping raise awareness of UNICEF Innovation’s products, which are open source or freely available. Due to the open source nature of the programs, interested developers can even get involved in the projects themselves.

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