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UNICEF 2021 Annual Report: Information and Communication Technology Division

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Executive Summary

When the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic began in early 2020, the organization-wide digital transformation of UNICEF was already well under way, but the pandemic created urgent needs that accelerated aspects of the process. As child poverty indicators slid backwards for the first time in two decades and children’s education and development looked set to become one of the casualties of the pandemic, the UNICEF mission – to harness the power of digital technology and innovation to realize children’s rights around the world – became ever more pressing.

Changes that would have happened in time – such as the expansion and development of digital learning programmes for children who could not go to school – suddenly became lifelines for millions of pupils around the world. By the end of 2021, the Learning Passport, a digital platform powered by Microsoft Community Training and delivered by UNICEF that gives children access to their school curriculum online wherever they are, had reached more than 2 million children in 17 countries and was voted one of Time magazine’s top 100 innovations of the year. As the digital innovative partner in the Learning Passport, the Information and Communication Technology Division (ICTD) at UNICEF worked with Microsoft to develop the offline solution for the platform, a crucial component that allows countries to deploy the Learning Passport in areas with poor or intermittent connectivity and to serve the most in need.

This speed of change that we have witnessed in the past two years, in terms of the applications of technology in humanitarian and development settings as well as within UNICEF, has been unprecedented. In 2021, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, ICTD continued to underpin the entire organization’s work, ensuring the continuity of its programming in the face of ongoing social restrictions and increased needs. ICTD rapidly increased the scope of UNICEF virtual conferencing facilities in response to the pandemic; our remote services supported children’s courts in Bangladesh, facilitated education and health seminars in India, and allowed the organization to continue to function as a cohesive whole, hosting over 840,000 meetings over the course of the year. ICTD also increased connectivity and improved the resilience of UNICEF systems around the world; 50 offices migrated to the cloud in 2021, thus reducing their carbon footprint, improving their system resilience and simplifying their working environment.

UNICEF partnered widely and creatively – with universities, social media companies and polling platforms, to name a few – to stretch its capabilities and capacity for innovation. Through changes to UNICEF programming and operations, ICTD further improved the organization’s digital resilience, modernized its humanitarian responses and capitalized on the power of digital technology to improve health care for women and children and to strengthen social protection systems worldwide.

Social protection has come under the spotlight during the pandemic, as governments and other actors witnessed the vital role shock-responsive social protection systems play in cushioning their citizens and economies in times of crisis. In our case study from Yemen, we outline how UNICEF adapted the management information system behind the country’s cash transfer initiatives so that it could operate in two different local currencies, and improved real-time data visualization to improve responsiveness.

The internet presents young people with opportunities for learning and safeguarding, but it also presents grave and increasing risks. ICTD has worked to increase the number of safe spaces for children and girls online. This included updating chatbots with simple plug-ins so they are more empathetic and can quickly refer those experiencing traumatic or life-threatening situations to people who can help them. Another tool ICTD has developed is the E-referral Pathway App, which will ensure referral pathways for survivors of gender-based violence are up to date; Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were selected in 2021 to pilot the app, which was scheduled for testing in the first quarter of 2022.

ICTD has produced a range of successful apps and webbased platforms that put reliable, up-to-date information at the heart of the UNICEF response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These include tools for monitoring vaccination stocks and schedules, accessible information on COVID-19, and a period tracking app that is either operational or under development in over a dozen countries.

UNICEF is constantly evaluating its internal processes with a view to improving operational efficiency and effectiveness. In 2021, the organization’s new invoice processing system saved more than 4,000 hours of working time through automation; 55 per cent of UNICEF purchase order invoices, which number more than 60,000 a year, are now handled by bots. The transformation of business processes continues apace across all UNICEF business areas, unlocking new time and cost savings as well as data sets and insights.

The climate crisis is, without doubt, a child rights crisis, exposing children to climate and environmental hazards, shocks and stresses around the world. To prioritize action for those most at risk, ICTD collaborated with partners to launch the Children’s Climate Risk Index in 2021, which provides the world’s first comprehensive view of children’s exposure and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Working with volunteer data scientists from Carnegie Mellon’s Solve programme, ICTD also started to explore the potential benefits and pitfalls of using frontier data to tackle air quality problems around the world. In 2021, ICTD led the development of a transformational plan that will use digital as a key change strategy for UNICEF, in accordance with the new UNICEF Strategic Plan, 2022–2025. In addition, the OneDigital initiative, developed by ICTD to strengthen digital governance, both strategically and financially, was implemented to address the challenges of the organization’s digital transformation. This initiative aims to integrate UNICEF efforts in Enterprise Architecture, information and cyber security, and digital governance and oversight across the organization.

In leading the development of these strategies, ICTD actively encouraged staff and stakeholders to embrace innovative technology in planning, delivering and scaling up UNICEF programming. Looking to the future, the division will continue to focus on organization-wide digital transformation, to improve digital governance and accountability, and lay the groundwork for a global, realtime data strategy while strengthening and enhancing the UNICEF technology investment portfolio.