Kartik Sawhney was denied access to study science in India because he is visually impaired, and authorities said there were too many visual elements to the courses. He finally convinced them to let him in, but none of his textbooks were in a format he could use. He had to type them out instead. The real trouble came with graphs — he had difficulty figuring out the shape of graphs to analyze them.
So, he developed software that would allow the graphs to be translated into audio — "like an arc of sound," he said. If there's an increase in frequency, the graph is obviously sloping upwards. If it's constant, the slope is at zero.
Sawhney's story is just one inspiring example of tech innovation led by children that is highlighted in UNICEF's The State of the World's Children Report - Reimagine the future: Innovation, which was released Thursday, Nov. 20 on the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The flagship report is a new crowdsourced digital project by the UNICEF's Innovation Unit that calls on governments, businesses, activists, and communities to collaboratively drive innovation for tackling some of the biggest problems facing children around the world — and to scale those solutions in sustainable ways.
"This points to a new way of doing business — it's flipping the traditional pyramid of a bureaucracy, starting with people we serve rather than top of the pyramid," said Chris Fabian, co-lead of UNICEF's Innovation Unit.
Reinventing the model
In the West Point neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia, a group of young girls are adapting a UNICEF tool to learn, report, and understand the effects of Ebola and communicate with their peers. The girls wanted to use U-report, a SMS communication system, to discuss their most pressing problem: They weren't able to go to school with Ebola fears circulating.
When Fabian, who just spent six weeks working in Liberia, originally asked the girls what the Ebola crisis has changed for them, he was expecting answers along the lines of not being able to hold hands or touch certain things or perform certain rituals. What he received was their concern over information about how to get to school. With Ebola fears circulating, they weren't able to go and wanted to have their voices heard. So now, the content and language of the system is being driven by these young Liberians and others around the country.
The U-report platform was developed in Uganda, and is used to gauge young people's thoughts on critical issues and connect them real-time with the government. U-report now has more than 270,000 users in Uganda, 70,000 in Nigeria, and 50,000 in Zambia.
The Innovation team at UNICEF in New York is comprised of 15 people, and they keep in touch with Innovation Labs around the world, which run like startup accelerators inside of the organization.
They have an exceptionally high failure rate. But the labs are open source, safe spaces to try ideas — and on a grander scale, to rework the narrative of NGO solutions — which is something that is necessary, Fabian said. This way, it's no longer divided so much between the global north and south, which is patronizing and often ineffective for the people that need help.
"More than ever, it's important to look at innovations coming up in new markets,
rather than shipping out one basic solution, doing pieces of that solution [and using] big tech to scale," Fabian said.
The power of crowdsourcing
To crowdsource the report, Fabian and his team went to many of the 135 UNICEF country offices around the world and held Activate talks, which are like mini TEDx talks. Representatives from each country gave five to 10 minute presentations describing their most pressing issues. Many young people came out to present, and the main themes of their speeches were the foundation for a more authentic, realistic table of contents in the report.
Here are some other tech projects by young people around the world that are highlighted in the report:
- Solar Ear, the world's first rechargeable hearing aid battery charger that can be charged with the sun, household light, or a cell phone plug.
- Vibrasor, invented by two teenage girls in Colombia, is a device that helps people with hearing impairments navigate safely through urban areas.
- Four Nigerian schoolgirls invented a urine-powered generator to get electricity to people cut off from the grid.
- Bisman Deu, 16, from India, invented a low-cost building material made from the rice production waste.
- Balazs Zsombori, 19, from Hungary, developed an app for tablets and smartphones that transforms symbols into audio sentences to help people with speech impairments.
- Shubham Banerjee, 13, who lives in the US, created a braille printer made from LEGO and now has a grant from Intel
- Viraj Puri, 14, from the US, invented Bullyvention, which is a heat map produced by algorithms. It analyzes social media to track and stop cyberbullying.
This report includes essays, studies, and information about the millions of children worldwide who are victims of violence, malnutrition, discrimination, and neglect. According to UNICEF, the poorest 20% of the world's children are twice as likely as the richest 20% to die before their fifth birthday. About one in four children in the least developed countries are engaged in child labor. One in three girls aged 15 to 19 have been the victims of violence by their partner.
What UNICEF is excellent at is scaling projects and influencing policies to tackle these types of problems. Other UN agencies and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAid have signed off on the principles of the project, which creates an alignment and strategy for startup-type approach to solve problems on the ground.
Last week in Malaysia, the innovation leads at the labs met to discuss the report. People were really excited about working with UNICEF, but in a way that allows them to have portfolios of projects they created themselves. It's a lot like how a VC fund would work, rather than the traditional NGO model.
Fabian said crowdsourcing the report was a huge lesson in realizing that the core desires of children and young adults around the world are similar, but they still need customized solutions to address their specific problems.
"Young people want the same things everywhere in the world: access to information, access to opportunity, electricity, new resources, the ability to learn...the ability to make choices in their lives," he said. "Those are human desires, human needs coming out so strongly. It [gives us] inspiration as an organization."
Remember Swahney? He shared his software with a blind school in India and developed an additional app for the software that allows seeing people to upload their own descriptions of the graphs. He finished his science course with 95%, but the top universities in India wouldn't allow him to do the entrance exam because of his impairment. Now he's on full scholarship at Stanford University.
"Sharing ideas is just so phenomenal. You might see their work and see [how] useful it is and work on it. The same goes for people already working in the tech world — they might give you ideas you can work on later," he wrote in an essay for the report. "I want innovations to serve the needs of all people — so we have to be connected. "
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.