5 crowdsourcing examples on how the United Nations open up

02.06.2014| Christian Kreutz
First 72 hours challenge by UNICEF

There is no doubt that crowdsourcing has great potential; particularly in the case of the United Nations. One clear advantage of open innovation for the UN is that it allows it to test its performance and engage with each target group to learn what it is actually needed and achieved. The UN has an unlimited audience and deals with immense challenges, which require creative, collective solutions. Using the Internet to gather ideas, discuss and collaborate on finding solutions should be the daily norm; and that is why at least some UN organizations have already started experimenting. Here is a list of interesting crowdsourcing examples.

UNICEF Innovation

UNICEF is not only one of the pioneers in open innovation, but it also has some great crowdsourcing examples. They have an Innovation Guide and are also working on setting up innovation labs such as this one in Kosovo. Moreover, they recently did the first 72-hour challenge, which different to the idea challenges below, had a very limited time. UNICEF linked it to an existing community called Socialab. "The winning ideas are a system from Instanet of Sweden that restores emergency telecommunications using powered parachutes, and a pallet that doubles as a vessel for drinking water from Aguapallet of New Zealand." Of course, in this short amount of time, it is difficult to collaborate around new ideas to find solutions, but such a challenge works as a good filter to move through existing ideas with a critical and supportive audience.

UN - My World

The United Nations has initiated a worldwide dialogue on the post-2015 development agenda. The topics range from Addressing Inequalities to The World We Want for Older People. It is completely open to the public and linked to major events to attract a larger audience. Because it is not so easy to get an overview of the conversations, the UN started experimenting with other crowdsourcing approaches; such as a global survey where you can vote according to the importance of topics. So far, there have been over 2 million votes. The participation clearly demonstrates where more mobilization was done and where not - a key task for each crowdsourcing initiative – and the data results are much clearer compared to the ones obtained by just having a conversation on big topics. There also seems to be a "competing" website by ITU.

UNHCR Innovate

UNHCR seems to be also active in the arena. By the end of 2013, the UNHCR started an idea exchange, which opened up to external stakeholders, such as partners, and also involved refugees. The key question was: "How can access to information and services provided by UNHCR and partners be improved for refugees and people of concern residing in urban areas?” It is great to see that the UNHCR is opening its modus operandi to a (at least) selected audience. Some ideas were "Enhanced Mobile Registration process for the Asylum seekers in urban areas by IVR solution" and "Create a centrally maintained, but country focused, information portal: help.unhcr.org". It seemed to be the first approach in this regard, which was even evaluated. I was excited to see an evaluation in this field since too little research is done, but unfortunately the evaluation lacks substantial analysis. For example, it talks about overwhelming interests, with only 318 participants (including UNHCR staff), which is not really a high participation rate given the context. All in all, it is an interesting approach. Here is an overview article.

UNDP Eurasia

UNDP Eurasia has been experimenting with various crowdsourcing examples, from crowdsourcing energy solutions to crowdfunding these solutions. Together with the innovation charity Nesta, who, by the way, we have also been collaborating with, they have initiated a renewable energy challenge. It is similar to the ITU approach – a public idea contest for an specific challenge, for social enterprises to think about new solutions. I really like their lessons learnt documented here and here, which are much more helpful compared to the evaluation done for UNHCR.

ITU - Young Innovators competition

ITU takes a similar approach to experiment with crowdsourcing. But their question is targeted to business ideas on the topic of local content, which is an often neglected topic. ITU is "looking for the most promising tech start-ups aimed at inspiring the creation, aggregation or digitization of local content, particularly in non-Latin scripts." At this point, they are going through different idea development stages and filtering out 32 promising ideas. ITU invites the public to join the process by either adding ideas or commenting on the given ideas. It has over 4.000 members. Here open innovation comes to full advantage if you look for ideas in niche topics, where business are hesitant to invest in themselves.