In the humanitarian and innovation communities, the collective sense of urgency reached new heights this year. Never before has innovation been so important in light of growing needs and fewer resources.

Whilst new technologies and platforms continued to advance, we refocused our efforts to the future. Experimentation, research, and refugee voices were central to the new direction. We continued to argue that innovation did not, and does not, equate technology. UNHCR’s Innovation Service was instead focused on behaviour and mindset change – a small nudge team interested less in drones and more in better decision-making.

2017 was also the year that we killed our Innovation Labs and invested in a more holistic approach to innovation, diversity, and collaboration in a way that we hadn’t before. This past year, our programmes and trainings gave UNHCR staff the opportunity to innovate and test new projects and processes across the world. The availability (or lack thereof sometimes) of data continues to have a profound impact on our work at the Innovation Service.

If you were to look at the themes found in our year in review, they would be focused on data, storytelling, listening, predicting, and monitoring. In our new publication, we’ve highlighted these themes through stories from the field, stories from refugees, stories on failure, stories on where we’ve been and a look at where we’re going. From research to organisational change, and experiments, take a look back at what UNHCR’s Innovation Service was up to in 2017.

You can download the entire publication UNHCR Innovation Service in 2017: year in review here.

Inclusion and Diversity

We believe that inclusion and diversity are the most powerful vehicles to bring about positive and lasting change – within UNHCR – and more broadly within the humanitarian sector. Diversity and inclusion will be key to transforming UNHCR into one of the most innovative organisations in the world. In 2018 we will continue to build on our team’s diversity, to create an even more inclusive and diverse innovation team.


Percentage of women in team

In 2016 we were 65% women. In 2017, the team become slightly smaller, we had an all female intern team, which among other things increased the proportion of women in the team.

Spoken languages in team

Not only do we speak many languages, we come from various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.


Team members who identify as European

The other fifty percent are represented as: 11.1% of our team are from Africa, 16.7% from Asia and the Pacific, 16.7% North American, and 5.6% from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Team Predictions for 2018

I believe we’re going to see a greater focus on big tech companies and their role in society, politics, and discourse. The consequences of misinformation, hate speech, rumours, xenophobia, algorithm bias, among other issues that these companies can propagate, will gather more attention and we will witness a backlash on tech. There will be more examples of the harms these platforms contribute to with a lack of proper self-regulation. We’ve witnessed first-hand adverse effects on the sentiment around refugee and migrant communities on social media already. Perhaps the bigger question here is if there will be a political will to regulate how tech companies are operating and if we can find new ways of combating hate and falsehoods on their platforms. We will continue with information wars until something substantial is done.

Lauren Parater, Innovation Community and Content Manager

It seems that predicting world events and human behaviour is an increasingly impossible task. It’s more difficult to look at the past and say that because this and that happened, this will happen tomorrow. In 2018, despite continued effects of climate change, erratic politicians, inequality being rampant in many parts of the world, I believe we will do the seemingly impossible, we will be able to predict the future. As a continuation of the work in 2017 of predicting displaced population arrivals in Somalia, I predict that we will in fact be able to predict population arrivals in major Sub Saharan conflict situations – and we will do this with the help of scientists, engineers, machines and math, not anecdotes and human experiences alone. In our field, this will be a game changer.

Hans Park, Strategic Design and Research Manager

Data is pushed as a priority, but human interactions, and qualitative methods are still overlooked.

Chris Earney, Head, a.i.

One? I have many predictions – we’ll need to innovate in Emergency contexts because they’ll be a lot of opportunity to demonstrate the value-add of data-driven decision making and the importance of engaging communities from the outset (and before) an emergency. Unfortunately the situation in Bangladesh will continue, and the predictions are that the situation in DRC will be the cause of continued displacement.

Katie Drew, Innovation Officer (Communicating with Communities)

Continued decline in the support for refugees in the region with a rising number of global crises and a paradigm shift required in the fundraising model to bridge the gap.

Sandra Aluoch-Simbiri, Regional Instant Network Schools Officer

The world will be moving into an era of cognitive analytics: platforms that allow us to process faster natural language (a.k.a. NLP, e.g. automatized simultaneous translation), speech and objects recognition, and human-computer interaction – such as robot personal assistants. Data coming from customer support systems will drive organizations to redesign entirely their services.

Rebeca Moreno Jimenez, Innovation Officer (Data Scientist)

Key Figures from 2017

These few figures demonstrate the importance of experimentation, the power of learning, and how we as a team moved forward in 2017.

Number of questions in our Information and Communications Needs Assessment Tool (v1)

Design iterations before launching new website

Number of Fellows who have gone through the Innovation Fellowship


Accuracy of predicting population arrivals to Bay area in Somalia for October 2017


Read: Why there’s no innovation without experimentation

Experimentation is a crucial part of innovation and some would even argue that there’s no innovation without experimentation. We explain the three main reasons experimentation is essential and six steps you can take to start experimenting in your day-to-day.

ReadOur Innovation Labs are dead. Long live innovation!

In 2017, we started working outside the constructed silos of ‘Innovation Labs’. Through an experimentation phase, we began testing a more holistic approach to leveraging the wider expertise and diversity within our team. Here’s what we’ve learned and the reasons why we killed our Labs.

More essays are on their way. Read all of them now by downloading our publication.

Beyond numbers: Why cultural change has to accompany our renewed investment in data.

By Chris Earney, Head a.i., UNHCR Innovation Service

Data is important. Obviously.

UNHCR sits on a data goldmine. Data is gathered, circulated, cleaned, analysed, continuously visualised, every second of every day, in emergencies, through to operations focused on durable solutions. From registration, to the financial verification of partnership agreements, we are irrefutably an organisation that relies heavily on data. This won’t be the first article that tells us that data is important, and that we need to become more of a data-driven organisation, and it certainly won’t be the best-written article making that case. Instead, it recognises that for UNHCR to become increasingly data-driven, we need a cultural change around data rather than simply to say that, ‘data is important’. Because that we already knew.

How are data and culture linked, and what needs to change in our culture to become data-driven?

Culture is defined by the way we do things, our behaviours, learnings, and the values we attribute to things. If the way we do things needs to be increasingly through the use of data, then to make our organisation data-driven, means that we first of all need to change how we use data, and how we understand data, as something with a value. It’s important to underline that this is not an argument for collecting more data; it’s about using better data, and using data better. We’ve got loads already, let’s use it more smartly. Secondly, if the value that we attribute to data is increasing, then our investments in this resource, should also increase. We will use data to make, or complement, key decisions at all levels, and decision makers will have direct access to the data that they need, when they need it. Newly recruited colleagues will understand that data has a value, and that they will need to display competencies that support the production, and use, of data. More experienced colleagues will understand that they now need to invest in data as a core part of their job. If they do not have the competencies, they will need to invest in those who do. We should also seek to invest in supporting the acquisition of relevant competencies among those who have been with us for a more extended period.

It seems that we need to become comfortable with the understanding that a specific team does not own data. That is to say, that financial data cannot be owned and guarded by colleagues working in finance, and protection data cannot be owned and guarded by colleagues working in protection. Instead, data needs to integrated better across operations, across divisions, and across bureaus. Operations cells that form around specific situations, comprised of people from multiple divisions and bureaus, joint analysis exercises, data optimisation exercises, and good data governance are some of the ways we can start, but our most senior management will need to set the example. It would seem prudent to go one step further still and to make data increasingly open to the public. There is a myriad of examples of organisations doing this successfully – and when we say successful, we mean not only the act of doing so, but the positive impacts this has brought to bear, including inter alia The World Bank Group, the European Union, and of course the Open Data Institute. Thirdly, and linked to both of the above, having the confidence to say that there will be mistakes made, some data will not be as accurate as we would like. Finally, placing a higher value on data, and placing it as a valuable commodity that we have a vested interest in nurturing, and using, in order to create better protection outcomes for refugees, the displaced, and the communities that extend support to them by hosting them.

But why do we need to become data-driven?

Because it will make us better. We will be more transparent, we will provide more dignified protection and assistance to refugees, and others. We will produce better evidence on which to base decisions. Data-driven organisations make data available to decision makers when they need it. It also means allowing people to explore data independently, trusting that they can, and will, do so. Decision making needs to be done on the basis of one version of the truth, not many different versions, and data contributes to the compilation of evidence. This is not to say that interpretations, and different proposals for action should not be proffered, indeed, diversity is to be encouraged.

Diversity of thought, including analysis, is important

To make the most of your data, you need diverse groups and users analysing it. Connecting most critical data sources also includes connecting critical people, many of whom will have very different understandings of what it means. This diversity should be encouraged, because it encourages, and speaks to creativity, to innovation, and to initiative. It makes us more inclusive, and it makes us more effective. We need to be able to make links between data that for example, is gathered around protection incidents, and data that is gathered on outputs of our programmes. We don’t necessarily need to look for cause-effect relationships, but we do need to better understand the impact of our interventions. Likewise, how we understand relationships between different actions, and feedback gathered from communities – host and displaced. Introducing stronger links between critical data sources, and new data sets will also uncover new understandings, and new people who want to understand the data – including non-traditional actors.

To add to this thought soup, I’d like to add some other considerations. The below are some of the things we will need to do, in order to change the culture of our organisation around data.

1) Partnerships

We don’t have all of the tools, expertise, knowledge, products, services, and processes that we need to become as data-driven as some would like. We’ve got a lot of existing resources, and a lot of very smart people, but we do not have enough. Partnerships with large private sector organisations, with the World Bank, with smaller private sector organisations, with academia, with civil society, with other UN agencies, INGOs, NNGOs, and the public at large, will help to harness these, and will help to guide us, as well as to get us, to where we need to go. If I look at the experience UNHCR went through in the Europe Refugee Emergency, one of the many challenges was overcoming the potentially harmful effects of winter on a population that had been on the move for some time. We needed to find the most at-risk points over a large geography, and we needed to understand not the tactical implications, but the strategic implications that weather would have on our operations. To do that, first of all, we had to recognise that we had a gap in knowledge, practice, and expertise, and secondly, that we were prepared to plug that gap. Which we did with the UK Met Office, among others. We’ll learn a lot along the way, and we will likely discover more unknowns that we will then need to address, but we will advance.

2) Human Resources, training, and new profiles

Part of the change we need to see, includes recruiting new profiles of people, and new training opportunities for the outstanding people we are already fortunate enough to work with. More data scientists, coders, front and back-end developers, data governance experts, data architects, UX and UI specialists, will all help us to unleash more meaning and more impact from our data. But we also need to continue to invest in the expertise that we currently have, provide the training, or find the training that our teams need to pivot and to adjust. This cannot only be for those with roles that currently include heavier interactions with data; rather, this needs to include those who view data as being for other people. If we are not doing the latter, then we are not able to connect the most critical people with the most critical data sources, and we are failing. I was asked the other day if data isn’t just the latest buzzword in the humanitarian industry. Aside from such myopic and cynical comments not helping us to advance, of course, the answer is no, it’s not. It’s a tool to make us better at what we do, and investing in the right competencies is part of moving the needle in the right direction.

3) Setting the pace

We – as a humanitarian community – need to feel comfortable in setting the pace, and stating more assertively, our needs. For a long time, the private sector has been almost fetishised for its resources, for its approaches, but this almost becomes a form of commodity fetishism – we’re seeing results, which often gloss over the internal processes, or politics that it took to produce that result. The relationships that we foster, and we garner with the private sector are two-way relationships. We learn from some of the expertise, and some of the skills, services, products. But we also impart knowledge, and expertise, and some of the skills, services, products. And we should not be afraid to recognise that, and increasingly state the needs of our sector, and where the private sector should perhaps be looking to invest. Free stuff is unsustainable, so too is finding a fit for many things that already exist. We are starting to see larger private sector organisations learning from innovations produced by humanitarian organisations, repackaging these innovations, and then attempting to sell these ideas and solutions back to humanitarian organisations.

4) More innovation

The universal truth is that we need more, and more, and more innovation – and that innovation needs to be understood as a set of tools and practices that are accessible to all rather than simply as the application of technology. And that includes Blockchain. We’ve experimented, tested assumptions, iterated, scaled, learned valuable lessons with our constituents globally, including with the previous High Commissioner, and including with private sector partners. It works. It needs to work more, and it needs to work better – including for emerging approaches to data. We now need to make sure that our own innovation processes constantly change and adapt to match the needs of UNHCR. The danger that we almost fell into a couple of years ago was again, looking to private sector innovation efforts, and thinking we could simply replicate these within our own organisation. As soon as we began to blend private, and public sector approaches, from smaller as well as larger organisations, innovation started to have more impact. A renewed emphasis on the importance of data will require innovation to be front and centre, as an engine for constant iteration and improvement. As soon as we start to free the data, as soon as we start to make certain data sets technically open, and available to more people and organisations, then we will reinvent what is possible, and innovation will help us to do this.

5) Data security

UNHCR is an ever changing, constantly re-written, multi-layered, palimpsest of data, and it goes without saying, that new approaches in data need to go hand in hand with evolved data security practices, protocols, and technologies that reflect the best of the latest available tools. Indeed, we must also make sure that evolved becomes evolving – static updates and changes will not suffice. Data is an asset and can be used in a multitude of ways, with a multitude of motivations, and this is evolving rapidly. Unfortunately, some actors have nefarious motives. As we become more digitally, and data driven, we will need to understand that protection now exists in new dimensions as well. This is all obvious to say, nevertheless, also important that we do not approach data protection as an extension to the status quo. Rather, as a new lens through which to manage and understand risk, and mitigation(s) of an ever-evolving landscape.

6) Governance

A forward-looking governance structure will be essential to making investments sustainable and effective. Governance will need to optimise what already exists, and allow us to do more with what we already have. It will also look at what we should have, and what internal clearances, practices, and structures need to change in order to make sure that we are as agile, and efficient as well should be. We will need to remember that – if we’re doing it right – the consumers of UNHCR data, and analysis, are going to be increasingly much wider than our current consumers. Governance will need to underscore the importance of open data, of breaking down internal silos and making real-time a reality. This requires a radical shift in mindset.

7) Management

All of the above require skilled approaches to management. It takes humble, and experienced colleagues to shape, to guide, and to manage a complex change within a complex organisation, which serves an increasingly interconnected, and complicated world. “We the people” have and will, become more connected, and more complicated. We constantly need to adapt, through more processes of change and adaptation, as we will require more sophisticated tools and processes to offer support to the displaced, and those that host them.

So a lot needs to be done. And this isn’t even an exhaustive list. Culture change is complex, and it’s something that is managed with care, and should be managed strategically. UNHCR currently has many of the right ingredients to affect a cultural change around data, and it has a history of being agile, adaptable. With the above in mind, we’re moving through one of the most exciting crossroads in UNHCR’s history. If we move through successfully, we will see an organisation that convenes and connects, and one that enables quicker, more effective decisions made, one that catalyses change within many more organisations – current partners, as well as new.

It’s a change that we’re excited to support, but we will need to make sure that it is inclusive, and does not ostracize the constituents of change that we most need to bring with us on the way.

More essays are on their way. Read all of them now by downloading our publication.

‘Big Data’ illustrations by Ailadi.