UNICEF staff among TIME Magazine’s annual list of 100 most influential people in the world
By UNICEF correspondent and producer Priyanka Pruthi
At just 33, these self-proclaimed geeks are breaking new ground in the world of development with technology. Their innovations include the use of text messages for recording birth registrations and creating real-time dialogue between governments and citizens.
This year, TIME Magazine listed them among the 100 most influential people in the world.
I interviewed Erica Kochi and Christopher Fabian, co-leads and co-founders of the UNICEF’s Innovation Unit about their work, successes and failures
Priyanka Pruthi: Congratulations on making the TIME ‘100 most influential people in the world’ list
Erica Kochi: Thank you. It’s an incredible honor … and I think this is testimony not only our work but all the people who are working in UNICEF Innovation.
Christopher Fabian: Our country offices throughout UNICEF regions are doing a tremendous amount of work already and I think this recognition will help them both connect to new partners and connect to each other in new ways. I think that it will herald in a year of really explosive innovation expansion in UNICEF.
Priyanka Pruthi: Your team has worked on several projects – the Digital Drum and RapidFTR to name a couple. Which one do you consider most successful?
Erica Kochi: Our biggest success is probably this software called RapidSMS. RapidSMS is just a piece of software that allows any mobile phone to communicate with the web through a text message. Nigeria, for example, only had under half of all births registered about a year ago. Through the use of RapidSMS, they’ve now been able to register almost 7 million identities. In Uganda, they’re using RapidSMS in a project called U-report which has over 190,000 young people who answer weekly polls on questions such as ranging from topics such as “what do you think of HIV AIDS?”, “is the water point functioning in your district or village?”. Answers from these polls are directly communicated to policy makers and policy is changed in real time. There is real dialogue happening between young people on the ground and the government in power. It’s about having the information now so you can respond now, and make course corrections.
Priyanka Pruthi: So this works on the assumption that almost everyone has access to a phone. Do they?
Erica Kochi: Mobile phones are the most ubiquitous technology in the world. There are more mobile phones than toilets for example!
Christopher Fabian: It’s a phone that doesn’t cost more than 10 US dollars and that device can allow you to connect to a global information system. So you might send in a text that says – ‘there were 3 girls born in my clinic’ and that message is immediately available on a website somewhere. You can then, as a health worker, access data from that website which will you to keep track of the number of children born in the district. It’s all done in 144 characters!
Priyanka Pruthi: Where are these ideas and inspiration coming from?
Erica Kochi: Our inspiration comes from the global trends around technology and innovation and the intractable problems faced by our colleagues on the ground - of large failed systems, immense poverty and injustice
Christopher Fabian: I was in Burundi recently and 4 percent of people there don’t have access to the electricity grid. That’s an enormous problem but it also an enormous space for us to help make explosive change. We have 7 innovation labs in country offices throughout the world and every one is doing something that’s exciting, that’s new and that’s pushing the envelope in partnerships or processes or new products or new types of programme work. Erica and I facilitate that, connect them to each other and let them drive the change forward
Priyanka Pruthi: Is UNICEF changing the development discourse one innovation at a time?
Christopher Fabian: I think we are changing the development discourse several innovations at a time. One of the most exciting things about having a team of 35 people in country offices is that they don’t have to work in a linear way. What we find is that labs collaborate with each other – so you’ll find UNICEF’s Innovation lab in Juba collaborating with the lab in Kosovo around problems that might be pertinent to both countries and both contexts. For us, that means they can work in parallel on a much larger set of problems than if they were just doing it one at a time
Priyanka Pruthi: We’ve talked about your projects that have been successful. What about the ones that failed? Do you fail often?
Christopher Fabian: Every day we have new failures but we treasure them and try not to have the same failure twice. Our team celebrates failure. One of the things we have found in our team is that everything we build in New York for UNICEF’s 135 country offices fails! But if we look at the way things are failing – and we watch what one country office is doing as they are trying out new processes and learning new things, we can share the learning from those failures fairly quickly. So in a sense, we are failing all the time but we are learning from those and we are failing quickly and inexpensively.
Erica Kochi: Actually every week with our team, we have something called ‘Fail Friday’ where we all sit together and talk about one thing that we failed at that week, one thing that we succeeded at and one thing that confused us
Priyanka Pruthi: I’d imagine there would be a lot of arguments and disagreements while working together
Erica Kochi: We disagree about most things and that’s what makes it our working relationship so great
Christopher Fabian: But we agree about that!
Erica Kochi: Yes, we do agree about that (laughs) One of the reasons that we actually have success and our work has success is because we have this very open, honest and frank dialogue that happens between us.
Christopher Fabian: We have, almost in everything we do, no consensus on either the direction it’s going in or what it’s going to look like until the very end. But because we have a very healthy cycle of design and iteration of ideas and discourse around them, we are able to get to a point where everybody agrees even though nobody knew that they were agreeing the whole way through!
Photo caption: On 10 April 2013, (left-right) UNICEF Innovation Advisors Christopher Fabian and Erica Kochi hold a physical model of their innovation work at UNICEF House. Mr. Fabian and Ms. Kochi have been selected for the ‘2013 Time 100’ – Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Photo credit: © UNICEF/NYHQ2013-0179/Susan Markisz
Read the story on UNICEF.org
Watch videos from the UNICEF’s YouTube channel involving the inovation team.