United Nations CITO believes tech can solve some of the world’s biggest challenges if the private sector steps up

United Nations CITO believes tech can solve some of the world’s biggest challenges if the private sector steps up

UN CITO Atefeh Riazi discussed how tech can help with some of the world’s most difficult problems at an event in Seattle. (Photos by Gregory Scruggs)

To hear the United Nations Chief Information Technology Officer tell it, the world is a scary place. 1.2 million people are displaced in South Sudan. 27,000 Royhinga Muslims are fleeing deadly persecution in Myanmar. 85 people own 70 percent of the world’s wealth. In 2025, two-thirds of the planet may face water shortages. 20 million people annually are victims of human trafficking — 80 percent of those are women, and 30 percent are children. On the dark web, you can buy a child for $300.

These startling statistics, made all the more precise by robust data-tracking measures, are part of the daily U.N. operations crisis report that lands on Atefeh Riazi’s desk — or tablet — every day. Her job is to harness the power of technology and innovation within a lurching bureaucracy of a massive global body rooted in diplomatic paperwork in order to try and solve some of those challenges.

“Technologists have such tremendous power, but we don’t advocate,” she told an audience of several hundred last week at Seattle Pacific University. Riazi was in town for a multi-day trip to visit Seattle tech movers and shakers, chief among them Tableau. In late March, the U.N. and the Fremont-based visual analytics firm signed an agreement to make Tableau software the global standard for data visualization at the international organization.

(Photo by Andie Long / Global Washington)

Tableau’s prowess in data for development received global acclaim last year for its partnership with Seattle global health giant PATH to tackle malaria in Zambia through a project called Visualize No Malaria.

“We have a lot of data, but we can’t make good sense of it,” Riazi told GeekWire at Tableau headquarters last week. “The visualization piece is really critical. Through data analysis, we can shift from crisis response to crisis prediction.”

Getting ahead of the world’s problems with the help of technology has been one of Riazi’s chief priorities in the five years she has been in charge of IT for the $8 billion international body, headquartered in New York and with offices around the world. Riazi, an Iran-born U.S. national, came to the U.N. from stints as CIO at advertising firm Ogilvy Mather and the New York City Housing Authority.

“What would be the value of knowing about Ebola two to three months beforehand?” she asked the Seattle Pacific University crowd. Or, she added, the famine in Yemen or the Arab Spring.

Riazi hopes the Tableau partnership will be part of shifting from crisis mode to proactive, something she already sees seeds of in other U.N.-backed technology partnerships, like deploying remote health in Rwanda, where drones deliver medical supplies. That innovation is part of the country’s multiyear eHealth strategy, prepared with support from the World Health Organization. Such efforts, Riazi said, are a way for Rwanda to compensate for having just 0.06 doctors per 1,000 residents as compared 2.7 in the U.S.

While Razi shares technologists’ faith in networks, hardware, software and the Internet, she is also cognizant of a digital divide that might seem foreign to those working with Gigabit connections from their standing desks. In Burma, unauthorized possession of a modem can land someone in jail for 15 years. Human rights groups accuse the Syrian regime of imprisoning people for expressing unfavorable views of the government online.

“The Internet has brought tremendous prosperity to some, but not to all,” Riazi warned.

Even as West Coast tech hubs generate billions in profits with products for affluent consumers, the U.N.’s top techie hopes to inculcate a change in mindset. “For a long time, the perception from the private sector has been that you cannot make money when you focus on social issues, and I disagree with that,” she said.

To her mind, solving poverty, hunger, and sickness can, in turn, create future consumers. “There’s money to be made in addressing social issues and we’re going to see an explosion of innovation from the tech sector on those issues,” she said.

But first, she believes that tech companies need to take ownership for their own production footprint, citing an appalling lack of responsibility around e-waste, whose impacts she has seen firsthand as child laborers pick apart toxic components in China and India.

“We are seeing unintended consequences of innovation and modernization,” she said. “How do we energize the world to own the unintended consequences?” She cited a mindset prevalent in the tech sector that such issues are “somebody else’s problem” that the U.N. or national governments must deal with, for example, by coming up with a recycling plan for e-waste or medical waste.

Riazi expressed disappointment that the tech industry is not fully invested in the so-called circular economy, which sees a life cycle for products beyond use-and-dispose. “The amount of e-waste is increasing exponentially and the tech sector has no plan around a circular economy and rather continues to push for further consumption and planned age out of the equipment,” she said.

“Responsible innovation means you should do no harm,” she said.

“Ultimately I’m an optimist. People can solve the big problems using technology and innovation,” she concluded. “I truly believe that these issues can be addressed through responsible innovation, but my understanding is pessimistic.”

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