How United Nations Backs Tech for the Social Good

Joining forces, IBM, the United Nations Human Rights Office and the American Red Cross are connecting human rights workers and developers to come up with projects for the social good. We talked to Laurent Sauveur, chief of external relations of the United Nations Human Rights Office about “Call for Code”, a project created by David Clark Cause. 

Last year, over seventeen million people worldwide were displaced by disasters. The risks of natural disasters are increasing because of climate change and communities who are already marginalized are hit hardest. In order to respond more effectively, aid organisations are increasingly using technology in response to humanitarian disasters. 

One well known example is drones, who were used in Haiti in the wake of hurricane Sandy. Then there are mapping tools for post-disaster areas and the Red Cross uses Virtual Reality to train aid workers before they go on their mission. Blockchain is also being explored to get financial assistance to the right place, for example by startup Disberse, in collaboration with networks such as the Dutch Relief Alliance, the Start Network and Caritas. 

Still, technology isn’t used in full capacity for the social good. Aid organisations don’t always have the budget to implement technology, aren’t aware of the possibilities, or aren’t convinced enough about the benefits. Tech collaborations are forged at lightning speed within the commercial sector, but happen much slower in the development field. 

Learning to speak the same language

That’s why IBM, with the support of the United Nations Human Rights Office and the American Red Cross,  became the founding partner of ‘Call for Code’ last year, in order to amplify technology solutions for climate disaster. Over 100.000 software developers, data scientists and technologists from 156 nations joined the inaugural edition. The UN and Red Cross are charitable partners of Call for Code and help guide coders in their work. 

The United Nations Human Rights Office recently organised an event at its headquarters in Geneva, where human rights experts met coders to brainstorm together. That can be tricky in the beginning:

“They don’t speak the same language,” says Sauveur. “I mean, you have people living in the field in Syria and they barely know how to switch on a computer.” 

But as the day progresses and some intense brainstorming goes on, projects and ideas pop up. “By sharing our experiences, that’s where the magic happens,” he tells. He believes these get-togethers of the tech world and the development sector are essential to change the game. “We are thrilled because this is a great illustration of how we can use technology to advance social good,” says Sauveur. 

The bright side of technology

Necessary, as there is a lot of skepticism about technology in the human rights field. Sauveur points to the “darker sides of tech”, such as privacy issues and ethical dilemmas around AI. “But there are lots of things tech can improve,” he tells. “At the UN we are very, very pleased to see a tech company using its competencies, its tools, its knowledge to advance social good,” says Sauveur. 

In the future, the UN aims to work internally with more tech experts as well. “I think technology is more and more part of our lives and I think you’ll need to include it in almost every single operations you do,” tells Saveur. 

Call for code 

For the yearly Call for Code, Sauveur thinks it’s important for anyone with fresh ideas and social serving ambitions to get involved, or apply. You can learn a lot and be involved in what might be the most important discussion of our time.

“From the UN standpoint, we believe everyone can make a difference with their own competencies.” 

Last year, project Owl won the first edition of the now yearly award Call for Code. Project Owl is on its way to change how aid workers are able to respond to natural disasters. Their software helps emergency responders map and analyze the hit area. Through their hardware, named ‘clusterduck mobile network’, project Owl can provide ad-hoc internet services in disaster areas. 

Project Owl won 200.000 dollars to bring their ideas to fruition. Their mission is now powered by IBM Watson AI and IoT cloud services. “What IBM does is that they help the startup to solidify the idea, so a solution can be proposed to local authorities and natural emergency responders,” tells Sauveur. 

In October the hero of this year will be announced. Applications are closed, but you can still get involved and learn about how you can reduce the risk of natural disasters through technology. 

With our new impact stage, DN19 will be filled with talks about tech for the social good. You can listen to speakers such as Himanshu Ardawatia from the Norwegian Refugee Council and Alistair Nolan from OECD. We would love for you to be part of the discussion. Join us this November 25 and 26 for some inspiration, motivation, and magic. Get your tickets here


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