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16 Nov 2019
Image of Head of the UNTIL programme, Mr. Maurizio Gazzola
UNTIL Interview: A Tech Innovator from the UN with a Mission of Inclusivity

As Head of the UNTIL programme, Maurizio Gazzola has spent the past few years focusing on a widely apparent and growing problem: technological inequality and the growing digital divide  -- particularly in the approach to SDG challenges. He has spearheaded the creation of four UNTIL labs employing about 60 staff that are working on dozens of projects in the development pipeline. Many of these projects show a commitment to grapple with digital solutions that could accelerate the 2030 SDG agenda. The establishment of numerous other Labs are being negotiated. “We’ve been singled out about moving too fast,” he says. “But the differing rates of technological adoption of Member States is such a growing problem that we have to try new methods. The goal isn’t to create another UN entity with more bureaucracy. It’s to make the UN’s value proposition more technologically relevant and agile.”

UNTIL: UNTIL is one of the fastest growing UN Technology Innovation programmes. It’s popular with Member States in the global south as well as advanced economies. How do you account for this success?
 
M. GAZZOLA: All Member States have committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the world needs to scale up all efforts to achieve them by 2030. These goals are ambitious and require investments - not only financial. The SDGs are attempting to bring change in all aspects of human behaviors and require full attention by all actors of the society. Governments have realized that no one single actor can get the job done, alone. Public resources will never be sufficient. For years, the model was to programme funds through local government structures or institutions like the UN or other foreign development mechanisms. Governments are starting to realize that not all existing development initiatives are up to the SDG challenge and they are looking for ways to accelerate development, but in smarter ways. In fact, there is no single goal in the colorful table of SDGs that mentions technology innovation, but technology innovation underpins them all.

This is where UNTIL comes in. Member States see the profoundly positive changes brought by technology innovation in their countries and they would like to see this kind of partnership and experimentation applied to even the most challenging locations/cultural environments in support of the achievement of the SDGs. In fact, the 2030 goals cannot be achieved in one part of the world and not in another, these goals are global and need to resort to global efforts by all actors of the society. UNTIL is helping Member States, the private sector, the civil society, academia and UN entities to address technology implementation.
 
The UNTIL programme is approaching the stage where we have a critical mass of physical laboratories, in a mix of regions and Member States at different stages of development. UNTIL is popular in the global south because the UN has the credibility to focus attention on domestic challenges and in a lot of places has a long history of fostering and scaling technologies. And UNTIL is popular in more advanced economies like Finland, Germany and Italy where there is a desire to share technology but also to understand how technology can be made more applicable for different contexts so it can be a benefit everyone.
 
The UNTIL Labs complement each other establishing a mechanism within international development to take fresh technology ideas from the advanced economies to developing contexts and vice-versa. A technology developed in Finland can be piloted in India or Malaysia or Egypt. An idea developed in Egypt that works there might find traction in Malaysia or India or in Finland, Germany and Italy.
 
UNTIL: No one SDG is about technology, yet no SDG challenges can be solved without technology. How can UNTIL play a role in the 2030 Agenda?
 
M. GAZZOLA: UNTIL is poised to support local eco-systems in different ways, addressing as much as possible local requirements and integrating them with global requirements. UNTIL Labs, operational in Egypt, Finland, India and Malaysia, are creating cutting edge technology and can play the role of incubator and accelerator of existing solutions. The lab in India has a contract with UN-Habitat to build Afghanistan’s first land registry using blockchain technology. The Lab in Malaysia is also using blockchain, to create a platform for ethical fashion in support of the Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week’s “Design to Sustain” initiative. The lab in Cairo is exploring new high-tech ways to improve Egypt’s agricultural sector through robotics and IoT sensors to monitor field humidity and activate irrigation systems. And then there’s Reboot the Earth. That was the UN’s largest ever hackathon – over 1,000 youth in six countries coming up with solutions to the problem of climate change. Our collaboration didn’t stop when the hackathons ended. After presenting their ideas to world leaders in NYC during the UN General Assembly week, winning teams returned to our Labs where they are receiving support to bring their ideas forward. As we speak, winners are building their solutions with UNTIL lab support, ready to present viable products at Davos next year.
 
We also see one of UNTIL’s role as a broker of technology. Member States and the UN do not need to reinvent the wheel. There’s lot of wonderful technology that already exists that could be of huge benefit if only it could reach the right beneficiaries worldwide. UNTIL is working to identify promising technologies as well as partners in Member States who could be early adopters, again, focusing on the SDG challenges, first. The first UNTIL question is always what is the 2030 challenge we want to resolve? And thereafter what technology could be adopted to resolve it?
 
There’s also a role for UNTIL to play sharing knowledge. The UN is establishing technology innovation toolkits, trying to address at higher level as many contexts as possible. Unfortunately, just because a technology solutions worked in Uganda doesn’t mean it will work without changes in India and vice versa. At UNTIL, in addition to useful toolkits, the Lean Start Up is our operational guide, and the key insight of that document, which has done so much to revolutionize technology in the private sector, is to focus on the needs of the user. What are the problems facing Member States? What would a solution look like? How can we add value? These are the kinds of questions we ask.
 
Many UN entities recognize that the value proposition of UNTIL could be applicable to their needs too and are increasingly also coming to us for concrete technology innovation support and challenges. They want to know how technology can improve their results or they want us to create specifically tailored software solutions for their programmes. They come to us because of our past work in the areas of law enforcement as we understand how the UN and Member States operate including their social and political context. This makes it easier for us to translate the requirements of development programs into new technology platforms. In this regard, we recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the United Nations Interregional Crime Research Institute (www.unicri.org) to develop crime-fighting tools using artificial intelligence.
 
Finally, we see a role in harnessing the energy of youth. In September we hosted a global hackathon called Reboot the Earth. UNTIL offered Egypt, Finland, India and Malaysia (as well as Germany and USA) with entry points for young people, particularly women, who aspire to be tech entrepreneurs. We intend to host more Reboot events through which youth will generate ideas and the winners will receive mentorship and support by the local and global UNTIL Technology Innovation eco-systems to create prototypes ready to be scaled up into viable products.
 
UNTIL: You also manage a program that allows Member States to share information on terrorists who may be travelling. How does a small UN program manage such an important pivot point for global security?
 
M. GAZZOLA: The United Nations Office of Information and Communications Technology (OICT) is the technology partner of the United Nations Office of Counter Terrorism and specifically its Countering Terrorist Travel (CTT) (https://un.org/cttravel) programme. The aim of the programme is to build Member States’ capacity to prevent, detect and investigate terrorist offenses and related travel by using Advance Passenger Information (API) and Passenger Name Record (PNR) data, in line with Security Council Resolutions 2178 and 2396.
 

goTravel is a United Nations-owned software solution supporting the end-to-end process for law enforcement to obtain passenger data from (airline) carriers and conduct targeted analysis as well as share the findings of their data assessment. Member States adopt the UN-owned and operated goTravel solution to enable the automated analysis of large data volumes on passengers on all inbound and outbound traffic.

The project is an example of the kind of tech support we offer directly to Member States. The OICT goTravel solution derives from the Dutch TRIP solution that The Netherlands built for their internal purposes – The Netherlands’ Passenger Information Unit deals with around 200 million passenger records per year. The donation of the TRIP’s Intellectual Property rights to the UN, allowed our team to further improve the software and ensure it is fit to be deployed in all requesting Member States jurisdictions.
 
While the UN does not have any access to the data managed by the goTravel system, Member States find the ability to leverage best practices already implemented in the goTravel solution and benefit from economies of scale very beneficial, particularly in continuously shrinking government budgets. In fact, the capital costs for goTravel establishment have already been incurred, processes and procedures supported by the software solution are in line with UN Security Council mandates and all that the UN require Member States to cover is the ongoing maintenance costs of the solution. With such resources provided by the UN in a crowdsourcing fashion by all goTravel Member States users proportionally, the UNTIL team can service, refresh and effectively support/continuously improve the solution that will soon be integrated by a maritime passenger traffic data management module.
 
Member States greatly appreciate the UN input as honest broker for innovative technology solutions and UNTIL is the concrete programme they can easily access.
 
UNTIL: You recently created a panel of global experts to solve the problem of getting the private sector to share its intellectual property and conform with the UN’s Digital Principles. What does the private sector need to know about this?
 
M. GAZZOLA: The UN is committed to the Principles of Digital Development (https://digitalprinciples.org/). UNTIL uses open source solutions because the cost of closed source solutions is sometimes too high for some Member States. One of UNTIL’s philosophy stronghold is to work towards reducing the world’s digital divide. And because development and poverty reduction often come together, we are committed to finding the best technological solutions that Member States can afford. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that we want the private sector to give away their trade secrets or we want to disrupt free market opportunities. This is a common misreading of the Principles of Digital Development. At UNTIL we are poised to create universal guidelines and frameworks for technology development/transfer/adoption of digital solutions in a way that allows Member States as well as private sector to find win-win propositions and ensure that technology innovators benefit from them.

Through the UNTIL Open Source and Intellectual Property Advisory Group (OS & IP AG) with members from top ICT law firms, Open Source Communities and large and small corporations, we want to identify software innovation engagement frameworks that ensure all parties, including the end beneficiaries, win.

The first advisory note of the OS & IP AG identifies a model whereby the digital solution code is open-sourced and a striving community of technology innovators maintains it with the help of UNTIL. The open-source solution would then be offered by private sector entities on a Software-As-A-Service (SAAS) model to prospective customers. Additionally, the data managed by the solution could be monetized by the private sector entity servicing the solution for a time-bound period before it becomes “open” and accessible by all. Supported by existing licensing frameworks, the model is one of the possible way for UNTIL to engage effectively with private sector partners.

UNTIL, with the OS & IP AG, are striving to innovate also the private sector engagement mechanisms to ensure work around concrete solutions supports the achievement of the SDGs. We strongly believe that problem solving within the labs sitting physically in Member States may actually help the private sector by expanding their markets and allowing for unexpected but organic developments. UNTIL is also targeting long term value through public-private cooperation.

UNTIL: Why is it in the interest of the private sector to use open source coding?
 
M. GAZZOLA: Open source coding promotes innovation and, lately, we have seen a strong move of big technology players in validating this statement. The world needs tons of innovators and tons of technology innovation. No single actor can harvest and retain all the best innovative minds we continuously meet worldwide. The issue is to tap on the brain of innovators who are now in all parts of the world. Sitting on the shade of a mango tree in Asia, in a favela in South America, in an isolated village in the savanna, in the outskirt of a big metropolis as well as in a comfortable air-conditioned apartment in the Silicon Valley, innovators know the problems they are facing and, most of all, know the possible solutions.
 
We see that digital solutions made for one market, not necessarily work out-of-the-box in another, and as long as they can be modified and adjusted to the local context they can reach and find use in locations and environments their inventors never thought of. The world doesn’t need shiny new products for every problem in every country. There is a lot of overlap with the result that an existing tool can be built upon in ways that still add value to its creator. There is a lot of value in looking around before reinventing the wheel – it makes a lot more sense (also business sense) finding the wheel and make it spin faster.

Secretary General

"The advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including those brought on by a combination of computing power, robotics, big data and artificial intelligence, are generating revolutions in health care, transport and manufacturing.  
I am convinced that these new capacities can help us to lift millions of people out of poverty, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and enable developing countries to leap‑frog into a better future."

23 March 2018, New York