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UNICEF Gets a Little Bit Cooler and More Innovative

Erica Kochi and Christopher Fabian work together on mapping the future of innovation at UNICEF House, New York
Erica Kochi and Christopher Fabian work together on mapping the future of innovation at UNICEF House, New York
Susan Markisz

Celebrities often fill the pages of the annual TIME 100 list. The 2013 list fulfills that trend with the inclusion of Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Jay Z, and Justin Timberlake. A more cynical article would gripe about placing musician Beyonce and skier Lindsey Vonn in the same ‘icon’ category as a woman who endured years of house arrest in an oppressive country (Aung San Suu Kyi) and a pair of women who survived assassination attempts (Malala Yousafzai and Gabby Giffords).

Heck, we here in Humanosphere are ones to do that more often than not. But I can’t help but remain fixated on the inclusion of two ‘pioneers’ from UNICEF, Chris Fabian and Erica Kochi. The two are the co-leaders of the innovation unit over at UNICEF. That’s right, one of the oldest development institutions has a group devoted to innovative solutions. Here is just a things the team is doing as summarized by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey for TIME:

More than half of the 6 million births each year in Nigeria are not recorded. Without a birth certificate, a child is much less likely to get educated, be vaccinated or receive health services. Two young UNICEF staffers — Erica Kochi and Christopher Fabian — moving fast within their 66-year-old organization, have made registering a birth as easy as sending a text. They’ve employed similar methods to prevent early deaths as well, creating systems to track the distribution of some 63 million insecticide-treated mosquito bed nets to stop the spread of malaria. Erica and Chris are using technology and accessible, intuitive interfaces to quickly transform the face of humanitarian aid and international development. The world will benefit from their continued efforts.

The most notable achievement by the pair is the open source technology tool RapidSMS. The tool uses cell phone text messages for collecting data that supports logistics coordination, database building and improved coordination. Its simple set up allows development organizations of any size to support their work through mobile phones. It is one of the more important developments in the realm of mHealth and it is no mistake that Kochi played a game of musical chairs at the 2012 edition of the mHealth Summit by shuffling from one panel to the next.

Mobile phones are providing instant feedbacks that once were hidden in stacks of paper. Health Ministries can know stocks of vaccines at the district levels by having medical staff complete updates on their phones. RapidSMS has been deployed in places like Malawi to collect information from community health workers.

“If one district has a lot of community workers texting questions about how to make oral rehydration salts, we can make a pretty good guess that something is wrong and send a team to investigate,” explains Fabian. “You can’t do that with paper data or something that takes a year or two to get to your office.”

One of the things that may help the team the most is its embracing of failure. Fabian presented on the failure of the UNICEF team to adequately adapt to the Water Canery rapid water testing device at a FailFaire in December 2011. The team goes further by having a FailFaire of their own every Friday.

“We fail a lot. Rapid SMS failed 50 times before it worked,” said Fabian.

“We fail quickly, we fail cheaply and we share that failure. Across the board, what we have learned from them is that we have to design programs with people who are using them. We have to build things with open sources so that they can be adapted and reused by anybody. We have to make sure that what we are building has local support.”

It may be that the path to success for the UNICEF innovation team is paved by failures.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]