UN agency hosts bootcamp to spur digital identity and humanitarian tech innovations

UNHCR Interoperability Coordinator for biometric programs

The United Nation’s International Computing Centre (ICC) hosted a digital solutions bootcamp to develop new solutions for digital identity and other IT issues for the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Topics covered at the United Nations Digital Solutions Bootcamp included a humanitarian booking clearinghouse hub, virtual or augmented reality for supply chain tracking, automated medical clearance, and a centralized skills database, in addition to UN digital identity. Five teams of innovators from the WFP and UNHCR convened virtually for the bootcamp from March 9 to 13, 2020 in Geneva, Rome and Munich.

Digital identity has proven a thorny issue for humanitarian organizations, and the WFP in particular, which has faced a possible shutdown of its operations in Yemen due to disputes about biometric aid delivery controls. The UNHCR likewise uses biometrics to ensure security and efficiency in its aid delivery programs, and recently launched a partnership with IrisGuard and Egypt National Post for financial aid to refugees.

The risk that could arise from digital registration for refugees if their identity data is shared with their host country or country of origin is characterized as a problem with biometric registration in an editorial for Global Voices, produced in partnership with The Engine Room.

The bootcamp program was the first-ever remote bootcamp of the WFP’s Innovation Accelerator.

Innovation experts delivered lectures on human-centered design, lean startup methodology and minimum viable product (MVP) ideas, and were supported by them as they developed ideas to be pitched to a UN panel for further development through the United Nations Digital Solutions Centre (UN DSC) as ICC shared services, according to the announcement.

At the conclusion of the event, each of the five teams pitched a business case they had developed to an inter-Agency panel.

The ICC says it will further develop and deploy high-impact solutions from the bootcamp, using its operational capacity and best practices for project management to scale pilot projects across multiple UN organizations, beginning with WFP and UNHCR.

The UN DSC operates on a mandate to leverage economies of scale to provide high impact solutions despite a small footprint with innovative modern technology.

In Ethiopia, UNHCR spokesperson Kisut Gebregzabiher denied that UNHCR data is shared with “external parties.”

The Global Voices article notes the lack of data privacy laws in Ethiopia, and says that consent was not part of the biometric data collection process for many refugees. Frustrations about the risks of digital ID are increasing in refugee camps, according to the report, and one refugee said it felt like she was “held hostage for food and shelter” by the requirement to register digitally. The process has reportedly resulted in some refugees leaving UNHCR camps.

What specifically the risks of digital ID are, if UNHCR secures and does not share data, is unclear, but clear communication with refugee populations on the topic clearly remains a challenge.

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