In November, we sat down with a representative from UNICEF to discuss how the agency works with its local partners to implement “tech for good” in the Asia Pacific.
In a recent conversation, Benjamin Grubb, who manages UNICEF’s Technology for Development unit, leads R&D initiatives, and is in charge of partnerships at East Asia and Pacific, walked us through his journey in the field of technology for impact, the highlights of their work, and the emotional challenges faced by industry practitioners.
The following interview has been edited and consolidated for brevity and clarity.
Oasis (OS): Tell us a bit about yourself, your journey within tech, and how you joined UNICEF to foster tech for good.
Benjamin Grubb (BG): Growing up, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by early computing devices. I spent my childhood tinkering with things, taking them apart, and trying to put them back together. My mother worked in academia, so I had access to many university resources, such as an internet connection.
My work in the technology for impact field began in digital media, where I was helping to give a voice to vulnerable communities, like the indigenous people in Australia and other parts of the world. For about a decade, I was moving in and out of many conflict zones around the world. That experience gave me a pretty good foundation to join the technology for development unit at UNICEF.
OS: What have been some of the biggest challenges for you in this position?
BG: Our role is to support governments. This requires an understanding of what’s needed in the local public sector. That can be very different from the private sector’s demands.
UNICEF has been investing internal human resources in this area within the East Asia and Pacific region, but we’ll never have the level of expertise of our partners on the ground, who have a nuanced understanding of the countries they operate in.
OS: What have been some of the most interesting projects that you’ve been involved in as a tech for development manager over the last six years?
BG: We’ve been forging a frontier data tech hub for the East Asia and Pacific region. It has a physical presence in Bangkok, but it serves the needs of countries throughout the region via customized support. This is realized through the effective use of big data and some of the datasets that are made available by our partners in the private sector and public sector.
Another project is an internal knowledge repository for all technology-related activities around the world. For each of the 192 countries UNICEF has a presence in, there are around 50 programs at any time. This knowledge management has been an epic undertaking.
OS: Are these repositories available for the public?
BG: At UNICEF, we work with a philosophy that’s known as digital public goods (DPGs), and we make our resources available to the public. We encourage our partners to contribute to DPGs as well. One of our UN sister agencies, the World Health Organization, has been investing in a global repository of digital health initiatives for a number of years. It’s called the Digital Health Atlas. UNICEF and the WHO have repurposed it to capture information internally across all of our programs.
OS: You often work in marginalized neighborhoods and post-disaster areas. Do you find it difficult to manage your emotions at work?
BG: Working in the humanitarian space can be extremely challenging. Often, you’re on the frontline to support communities that have just gone through intense trauma or conflict. In recent years, I was involved in public health crises, including the Ebola crisis in West Africa, which ripped the soul out of the local communities.
But at the same time, you would also enjoy elation, when a country is able to come out of a crisis like that. Often, technology plays a critical role in that. You have to be embedded in the community to match the technology with the situation. Inevitably, you make friends and become part of that community. It’s not easy, not all these things have a happy ending, particularly in long-term conflicts.
This article was produced in collaboration with the UNICEF Innovation Fund, which provides early-stage funding and support to frontier technology solutions that benefit children and everyone else in the world.