Thursday, 20 April 2017

My UNV Story: Ilham Akbar

By: Ilham Akbar, Technology, Youth & Innovation Officer

Ilham, right, takes part in assignment preparation in Colombo Sri Lanka
When I checked my email sometime in August 2016, I saw a subject line that that read: “NOW HIRING: Tech Jobs for Social Good”. Two of my favourite organizations, UNICEF and CISCO, were partnering! I decided to apply straightaway.

I had reasons for this. One was that I had successfully completed a Cisco certification on computer networking. Another was a burgeoning interest in volunteerism, which began early on in college when a friend asked me to join a student group at Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java, where I was studying for my bachelor’s degree.

This group, KOIN Malang, focuses on giving street children avenues for getting an education both inside and outside the classroom. When I first witnessed for myself the conditions under which street children live, I have to say it was a shock. Not just the poverty, but the lack of opportunity.

Despite a law entitling all children to a free education, many schools demanded fees these street kids couldn't pay. I felt drawn to help these children, to assist them to overcome a system that wasn’t supporting their right to an education. I saw an opportunity to merge both my passion for computers and my interest in helping children. And so I applied to be a United Nations volunteer with UNICEF.
To my delight, I was accepted as the Technology, Youth & Innovation Officer at UNICEF Indonesia. Weeks later, I joined a training in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where I met incredible people working in various humanitarian capacities in the region. I learned that although we might be from different countries, we share many of the same development challenges and have the capacity to help one another.

In my role at UNICEF, I’ve acquired better insight into how the “Internet of Things” (devices connected over the internet) can change the way we solve problems. For example, in seeking to tackle low levels of immunization among urban infants, we can use SMS messages to send reminders to mothers about upcoming immunizations, and to receive information about their progress. This creates a direct line with the community, which allows us to build smarter and better informed interventions and ensure every parent has the information they need to get their child immunized.
I work with the UNICEF Indonesia Innovation team on many projects. I am working on scaling up a social media-based youth polling platform called U-Report Indonesia which allows adolescents to speak up on issues important to them. This polling data, on issues like child marriage and bullying, is then presented to policymakers to help them design policy informed by youth aspirations. We are also readying a “hackathon”, or brainstorming session, with an array of youngsters with the aim of designing an advocacy game; the hope is that the process and the end product will give them more confidence to speak up on issues they care about.

I also work on “big data,” coding development, and engagement with tech companies and startups. Right now, together with PulseLab Jakarta, the Innovations team is focused on using big data to understand the impacts of haze. Haze is an important topic because even though the social, environmental and health impacts are huge, there is a lack of reliable data on how it affects education. We have built a prototype using a tool called the Laser Egg that can measure air quality in real time and send the data out via a Wi-Fi connection.

Without a doubt, becoming a UN volunteer has been a life-changing experience. For one, I’ve gained tremendous professional experience and insight into how large international organisations like UNICEF operate. But more importantly, I’ve been able to use my talents to improve the lives of children and give something back to those who need a helping hand.