July 10, 2013

Prototyping with UNICEF: Intrapreneurial Investments and Resource Mobilization

Guest Post by Joseph Agoada

Joseph Agoada was selected as a YouthActionNet Fellow in 2008--today he is innovating from within as the Resource Mobilization Coordinator for UNICEF Social and Civic Media.

      Students document a dangerous gap.           
In a large organization, moving past pilot successes can be just as challenging as starting up innovative new ones. Recently, a community based, youth-led digital mapping initiative facilitated by UNICEF was facing a “good” problem. In the pilot initiative, 111 youth in five low-income communities were trained to use the system known as UNICEF-GIS to assess the risks and vulnerabilities in their neighborhoods. They used mobile phones loaded with the UNICEF-GIS app to photograph problems; the photos were automatically tagged with global positioning system (GPS) coordinates, enabling researchers and officials to pinpoint the problem areas helping to identify the presence or absence of drainage systems, the availability of sanitation facilities, impediments to evacuation, and other issues.

The project which started in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in late 2011 was replicating organically, with new neighborhoods adapting the platform each month. A second country successfully piloted the technology, and we were receiving constant interest from new countries. However, with the replication and success of the project came a large influx of media-rich, geo-referenced data, and our team did not yet have the capacity to sort through the data and develop actions to remedy these issues quickly.

It became clear that this experience was a side effect of the “big data” paradox that makes many innovative initiatives too complex for institutions.  There are tensions and complexities in trying to balance data needs appropriately—you need sufficient data inflows to derive comprehensive conclusions from data sets, but too much too data too fast creates the impossible task of trying to make sense of all of it. At the time, we were also dealing with resource-constrained governments and poor communities which made the process even more complex.

                          Students identify risk areas                                
Our team was committed to finding a solution. We devised a plan to build a tagging based system. For example, when a youth submitted a “landslide” risk near a “school” it would rank higher than a “pothole.” Urgency would thus depend on keywords that were attached to each report of an environmental hazard or risk logged by the youth mappers. (read more on Urgency Rank development). To test this out, we applied for a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


The Knight Prototype Fund provided UNICEF with the financial investment that empowered our team to mobilize resources for a small, fast-turnaround project and to test the urgency platform. While it is true that UNICEF is a large-budgeted organization, resources for new and risky projects are very limited. The grant from Knight Foundation was a critical catalyst, and a valuable intrapreneurial investment that let us assemble a team to quickly build and test our idea.  That funding turned into a prototype that is now live.

Test the Prototype: urgencyrank.unicef-gis.org

The financial resources provided by Knight Foundation were only part of the solution in delivering this working prototype. To mobilize the technical resources and innovative support, key partnerships were maintained with the MIT Mobile Experience Lab and Joost Bonsen, instructor in the MIT Media Lab. They provided critical initial feedback and direction. UNICEF was also able to renew its working relationship with InSTEDD, working collaboratively to crystallize and execute the technical side of the solution.

The next step for the innovation, which is part of the UNICEF-GIS platform, is to continue iterating and prototyping, testing solutions based on scientific assumptions and failing fast and forward in the scaling process. A renewed partnership with the incredible Public Laboratory for Open Technology is in the pipeline to further create do-it-yourself solutions that will allow communities to take action into their own hands, without extensive technical training.

The forward-thinking process we undertook at UNICEF for the Urgency Rank Prototype was a methodology of intrapreneurial advancement, moving past a pilot within a large organization by experimenting, testing assumptions, and learning quickly. This summer I am looking forward to sharing knowledge and insightful discussions on the intrapreneurial approach through an online learning course with TechChange.org, run by 2009 International Youth Foundation Global YouthActionNet Fellow Nick Martin. The course, featuring practitioners from the World Bank, Washington Post and Johns Hopkins begins July 24th and is currently in open enrollment: 

TechChange Course  TC108a - Intrapreneurship - Innovating from Within

Photo Credit: (1,2) CEDAPS and (3) UNICEF-GIS
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