For the first of this two-part blog, I had a chance to speak with Erica about her role in the Innovation Unit, what technologies are already being used by UNICEF in developing nations and how, as well as ways the discussions with ARM can help UNICEF reach its goals. For part two, I spoke with Erica about what technologies in general intrigue her as a technologist, and what she sees for the future. The 34-year-old Kochi, who was named last year to the Time 100 list of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, says the discussions with ARM may lead to some very important technology developments and benefits for the young people served by UNICEF.
Erica says the conversations with ARM began when the UN’s fund-raising and advocacy unit in the UK met with ARM executives from the company’s UK-based headquarters when ARM was looking for a global partner to figure out how it could use its technologies and core platforms to help improve education and better use of natural resources. That’s when Erica’s team was brought in. “We’re both unique organizations that have pretty powerful global reach, whether with ARM’s design set that’s in so many devices, or UNICEF’s reach in 190 countries,” she says.
Among the first areas the two organizations are exploring together are low-energy and efficiency. UNICEF has a messaging platform for connecting young people in remote regions that Kochi says “runs off the most simple phones ever.” She says that getting low-cost communication devices to such areas is an obvious concern, but she says the lack of electricity is also a huge barrier. She says that with very simple voice phones, the battery lasted about a week. Now, she says, smart phone batteries get changed twice a day. So electricity is key. She recounted a story where one enterprising individual in a remote village would take everyone’s phones from the village and travel by bicycle to the next village to charge the phones off a car battery there. One big initiative where UNICEF wants to work with ARM and the ARM community is to determine from the chip design how to develop longer lasting batteries, but also how to design chips that create efficiency. “Connectivity and the power issue are key,” she says. “Obviously the cost of the phone, the cost of data, but battery life is huge.”
The platform that UNICEF uses to connect hundreds of thousands – and soon to be millions – of young people around the world is an SMS-based platform called U-report. It’s still in an early stage – it’s used in seven countries so far, but launching in a bunch of others this year and next – and still at a point where ARM designers and engineers can help. For this service, any young person around the world can join for free. Kochi says with this platform, half a million young children are in direct dialogue with their governments. Each week UNICEF sends out a question to all U Reporters around world. There are 260,000 in Uganda alone, and they represent all demographics, and are even in the most remote locations. “We’re trying to make sure we get representation of all areas and demographics,” says Kochi. UNICEF will send a question out on the platform like “Have you experienced violence in your school?” which Kochi says they chose because UNICEF knew anecdotally that, for example, in Uganda corporal punishment and violence in schools is prevalent. The reason why such a simple question asked in what is essentially a very simple platform is so powerful is because, as Kochi says, to create legislative change, you need data to show how prevalent a situation is. Government officials claimed the violence wasn’t particularly prevalent, but UNICEF heard differently from all parts of the country. She says 80% responded saying that within a school context they had experienced some form of violence. “We had this data within a day,” she says. “And it’s great to have data, but really the powerful thing is the platform on the Web that breaks this down and tells us what responses we’re getting.” UNICEF then works with the government to report the findings in the news. “Every parliamentarian is on this so, they see the data, too. So we’re in process of being able to ban corporal punishment in school. It’s not just that we can hear from young people, but we can create some policy change.”
Other areas where this process and the use of these technologies has been effective include measuring attitudes on HIV/AIDS; determining whether clinics have sufficient drugs to combat diseases; and even sending out alerts about crop diseases to help prevent food loss.
UNICEF won’t just be using SMS for the U Report program. There are also plans to expand the use of other social media channels like Facebook or Twitter. So this will become more and more rich as adoption increases, Kochi says. “In Indonesia we do the same thing on Twitter, because that’s the channel young people are already using [there],” she says.
In my next blog about my conversation with Erica Kochi, I’ll talk about the next technologies that she sees as the most promising for effecting change in the world, and ones that, as a technologist, she just finds to be pretty cool.