Mr Gökhan Dikmener, SDG AI Lab Technical Advisor, with UN Volunteer Data Scientist Jonas Nothnagel (Germany, on the right).
Mr Gökhan Dikmener, SDG AI Lab Technical Advisor, with UN Volunteer Data Scientist Jonas Nothnagel (Germany, on the right).

On-site UN Volunteers and Online Volunteers join forces for digital transformation to accelerate SDG achievement

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the tremendous need for worldwide digital transformation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has become apparent. With the help of on-site UN Volunteers and Online Volunteers, an SDG Artificial Intelligence Lab in Turkey is developing and implementing digital solutions to address the challenges of achieving the 2030 Agenda in a context of widening digital inequality.

The SDG AI Lab is introducing big data and artificial intelligence into the everyday work of the UN agencies and other development partners. A partnership between the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme, UNDP amd the Istanbul International Centre for Private Sector in Development (IICPSD) has faciliated this process.

The SDG AI Lab has mobilized volunteer data scientists, and now 10 on-site UN Volunteers and Online Volunteers collaborate in developing and implementing digital transformation projects.

Two on-site UN Volunteer Data Scientists, Jonas Nothnagel (Germany) and Ken Y. Jung (funded by the Republic of Korea) drive the large teams of Online Volunteer data scientists. As we have found this an effective solution, we plan to recruit more on-site UN Volunteers and mobilize even more online data scientists. --Mr Gökhan Dikmener, SDG AI Lab Technical Advisor

The data scientists specialize in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and come from diverse backgrounds and different countries. They delivering services ranging from social media content analysis during crises to portfolio sense-making software to improve efficiency in UNDP programmes.

To manage the teams of Online Volunteers, on-site UN Volunteers Data Scientists Ken Jung and Jonas Nothangel come with solutions for coordinating and operating the tasks.

We were able to build up international volunteer teams consisting of PhD students, data scientists employed in both the public and private sector and aspiring students from all around the world. This is both beneficial for the volunteers to learn to work in teams beyond borders and for us, as we got the benefit of creating a fruitful network of international data scientists. --Jonas Nothangel, UN Volunteer Data Scientist

The process works in an agile framework, where Online Volunteers are divided into small teams. Each team works on a specific task for a limited time, called iteration. Each iteration consists of clearly stated inputs and outputs, which allows the monitoring of progress and guidance throughout the whole process. To coordinate volunteers and ensure effective communication, on-site data scientists rely on technologies such as GitHub repositories, online team spaces and more.

Even after the pandemic challenge is resolved through vaccination and cure, the need for digital collaboration skills is here to stay-- Ken Y. Jung, UN Volunteer Data Scientist

The value of online volunteerism lies in the opportunity it provides to gain problem-solving skills without limitations like distance or time difference. These obstacles do not exist in a virtual environment. Online Volunteers spare time in exchange for their contribution to the public good, and can use this experience to append projects to their data science portfolio.

Since volunteering online relies primarily on having an internet connection, its strongest asset is that it enables teamwork among volunteers with different skillsets and from different parts of the world. These are also highly motivated professionals interested in serving with the international UN team.

Nathan Rouff (France/Switzerland) currently working on his Master's degree, has been supporting the SDG AI Lab’s “Twitter Analysis Framework: COVID-19 use” project for four months. The project analyzes Twitter posts using Big Data techniques to explore the trends and correlation between social media usage and crises response. Nathan shares, "I was very excited to explore the potential of using Artificial Intelligence methods on social media data."

Oumaima Hourrane (Morocco) is a Computer Science Ph.D. student interested in machine learning and natural language processing.

I find it exciting to work with my volunteer team on distilling insights, brainstorming solutions and turning these ideas into real-world applications. --Oumaima Hourrane, Online Volunteer

Another project, UNDP Project and Programme Portfolio Sensemaking, uses topic-modelling techniques to analyze UNDP project portfolios. This allows the automatic creation of cluster insights and key features from past projects to revisit the results and reframe the strategic direction of the organization for the future. Data scientist Stephen Okya Shisoka (Kenya) has been supporting the project for three months.

Digital volunteering is helpful both on the demand and supply side. As a volunteer, I get flexible working conditions, while my team benefits from my skills. --Okya Shisoka, Online Volunteer

As it is not yet clear when the COVID-19 situation and measures will end, the demand for online volunteer assistance to accelerate the SDGs around the world is increasing.

The SDG AI Lab will continue to enable young volunteers to gain experience in data science and help them to develop their careers, while simultaneously contributing to the achievement of the SDGs. Thus, UNV Turkey and IICPSD/SDG AI Lab plan to explore how to leverage their complementary strengths in managing projects, AI technologies, volunteers’ deployment to bring digital solutions to Turkey and UNDP country offices.

Digital volunteerism connects projects and competent and motivated people, while removing the constraints of physical distance. It presents an opportunity to engage with professionals with diverse expertise from different parts of the world, while sharing the perspective and goal of giving back to society. --Reshma Elizabeth Roy Kurian (France), Online Volunteer

The SDG AI Lab continues to play an active role in introducing artificial intelligence methods and their implementation through UNV mechanisms. The next intake of volunteer data scientists is planned to take place in late September and early October.

UN Volunteers and other volunteers always stand as leaders of innovation for sustainable development. We highly appreciate the outstanding contributions of our volunteers to boost unique digital solutions for the Sustainable Development Goals within the SDG AI Lab initiative, as a response to COVID-19. --Dmitry Frischin, Regional Manager, UNV Regional Office in Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States