The second Innovation Fund of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) — the German service provider in the field of international cooperation for sustainable development — is in full speed. The GIZ community of 20,000 employees over 120 countries presents a huge potential for solving local problems around the world.

Launched in 2017, the Innovation Fund is an exciting opportunity for FutureGov to bring new ways of working to global teams, highlighting the power of human-centred design. After the first round of “digital solutions”, the topic of the second round is “data for good” with six teams taking part in an ambitious intrapreneurial accelerator programme to innovatively solve a local problem. Starting with a local problem, together we aimed to build ideas that would be scalable to other areas.

Data for good

Modern devices and data address many of the important needs in our society, but that’s just the beginning. Data for good means collecting and using data in a safe, secure and transparent way that helps everyone. This is a brave and ambitious step for GIZ.

As part of the Innovation Fund, six teams are exploring innovative ways to use data for good in developing countries, to build understandings and improve lives. These innovative ideas include:

  • accessibility of voice recognition to African languages
  • helping tech students learn manufacturing skills through digital tools
  • making rural transport accessible to Namibia locals using car-sharing technology
  • collecting air quality data via sensors in Bishkek, Delhi and Nairobi
  • incentivising citizens in Serbia to recycle used cans
  • supporting mothers in rural areas in Africa to get life-saving vaccinations for children

Data innovation does exist, but not everywhere

We’d be hard-pressed in western society to find startups that aren’t obsessed with data. Solving social problems using data isn’t new to us, nor in developing countries. But the demand for innovation here is much higher.

Because many startups are based in a certain area, they’re created with the cultural aspects of that place. Transferability is a problem. It’s not as simple as dragging and dropping existing apps into a new country. Booking a taxi on your smartphone may be normal in the UK, but many local farmers in Nigeria only use text-based phones and security is an issue. Exploring this is challenging and fascinating. I’ve found that drawing on my own experience of service design in the UK doesn’t always apply. Something we believe to be easy is hard because the right data or platform doesn’t exist.

Our question becomes: how do we adapt existing technology and think differently to help people in very different circumstances with a spectrum of accessibility, connectivity, literacy and language barriers?

Regulations and ethics around data storage is also a crucial topic. Handling data is already a big question in the public sector and we’re learning how to make data safe and secure in other countries. It’s not as simple as following GDPR rules when GIZ operates in so many countries outside of the EU and across continents. Because of this, we’re exploring available regional options and thinking carefully about where and how to store the data.

Teams prepare a prototype

Tackling old problems with new approaches

Concentrating too closely on data can overshadow the primary focus: providing value for people. Working with local infrastructure and culture, GIZ and the Innovation Fund have created the conditions to involve citizens and communities throughout the development process, ensuring the technology creates value. This is is where FutureGov really gets to dig in and support.

Steering the six teams to generate a research plan, we’re helping collect new insights and understand the real challenges faced by real people. Each team started with an outcome to achieve, but, we found a challenge: the collection of data in the first place.

The data needed doesn’t always exist. For example, there’s little data available for voice recognition of African languages. We actually need to build an open-source platform first and incentivise people to use it so we can collect data. We encouraged the teams to first and foremost, get out and talk to people. Before thinking about what piece of data to collect, we need to understand the people; who they are, what they need and what they already use. By looking at their personal environment, we can better understand everyday problems and aspirations. Learning about the human aspect sets us up to ask bigger questions: why would people share their data with a wider audience and what would motivate them to try a new service?

This mentality is continued through the whole process, from creating ideas o testing our assumptions with prototypes. A few teams even organised local co-creating workshops, inviting locals to join the work, challenge and contribute ideas.

A brave step

These new ways of working are different for many GIZ staff, but this marks a brave step toward using data to learn from our citizens. The Innovation Fund sees this as a challenge, not a boundary. By taking a human-centred approach to data, we can explore the “so what?” aspect to make sure we’re creating the best possible solution. Eventually, this knowledge will be the start to explore solutions and best practices to unlock data as a tool for innovation at GIZ and the international development sector.

It’s really exciting to be involved in this journey. To work with teams across the world in developing countries is a unique opportunity to learn about very different locations and approaches.

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