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We were a solution in search of a problem worth solving.

In August 2017, I participated in a cross-departmental design thinking session with our Global Services vice president, John Allessio, our vice president of marketing communications, Leigh Day, and numerous other leaders from our design, brand and marketing teams. After a face-to-face, all-day session where ideas burst out of our collective heads left and right, one thing was certain: we were collectively passionate about using open source technology, along with Open Innovation Labs’ focus on people and process, to help solve the world’s grand challenges and to positively impact people in need. We just needed to find the right project to prove it would work.

Fast-forward to New York City, late that same year. I was attending Red Hat Forum, an amazing event where our customers, partners and communities come together to share what we’re doing, and find new ways to leverage Red Hat to great advantage. I presented on Open Innovation Labs and talked with Red Hat users from Cigna, Marriott, Deutsche Bank, and more.

While in the hallway, I ran into one of our consulting managers, Alexandra Machado. Alexandra shared with me her work at Red Hat around social innovation programs, including recent meetings with UNICEF Innovation.

UNICEF Innovation intrigued me. Like many others, I knew well of UNICEF — the United Nations organization committed to children’s rights worldwide, advocating for their basic needs and for expanded opportunities to reach their full potential — but was unaware of an innovation group.

UNICEF Innovation is committed to using emerging technology solutions to help children in need, especially in countries where needs are greatest. Further, UNICEF Innovation is 100 percent committed to open source software as part of their foundational principles. Open source allows them to scale globally at low cost, and to maximize opportunities for worldwide collaboration. UNICEF Innovation, like Red Hat, believes that by working together, we can solve problems faster. And open source maximizes that possibility.

After learning more about UNICEF Innovation we decided to meet with them. Walking into that office was amazing. It was clear that UNICEF represented international cultures and perspectives in a way that few other groups could match. I sat down with Innovation leaders Clara Montava, Naora Zurutuza and Mike Fabrikant to learn more about their portfolio of initiatives.

It was incredibly moving. Honestly, my first reaction was that I wanted to drop everything I was doing, and start working with the team at UNICEF right away. Then I realized I could do even more good by leveraging Red Hat’s capabilities to make an even greater impact.

UNICEF Innovation had already established advanced capabilities for innovative application development based around agile and design thinking: Magicbox.

Magicbox is a place for public and private entities to share data of all shapes and sizes, in order to create a global sandbox for humanitarian problem-solving through data science and teaming. Magicbox is designed to be the proving ground for building and launching new applications that can help address the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems for children.

But we learned there were several challenges - and opportunities - for Magicbox to confront. A few areas we would need to tackle together included improving data quality, creating a human-centered design and automated deployment.


We looked each other in the eye and decided: these challenges are all solvable with open source culture and open source technology.

Working the open source way - by using the principles like transparency, collaboration and participation - meant that we could harness the collective power of a community of talented individuals working in concert to deliver not only more ideas, but deliver them more quickly and be able to troubleshoot faster should any issue arise.

We began to narrow down our focus. It became clear that the Magicbox data pipeline process provided a platform for responding to emergency situations. The challenge with emergency situations is that they are inherently unpredictable - you can’t plan for everything. You simply can’t tell when, or where, or how the next disaster may strike.

So, we took a leap of faith, together. We banded together for two months, across New York City and Bogota, Colombia, committed to a common mission: using open source to unlock the world’s potential. Late in 2017, UNICEF Innovation underwent an Open Innovation Labs residency aimed at creating a reusable open source platform to apply big data for social good. Through the residency, we implemented enhancements to Magicbox and co-created the School Mapping project.

Using several Red Hat open source technologies, including Red Hat OpenShift Container Platform and Red Hat Ansible Automation, the teams collaborated to allow data scientists to investigate and explore data sets and to extract knowledge that can be used to help children in emergency situations, whatever they may be. The School Mapping project uses high-resolution satellite imagery and deep learning techniques to map every school in the world. The data generated will help identify where the gaps and information needs are, serve as evidence when advocating for connectivity and help national governments optimize their education systems. It will also allow UNICEF to measure vulnerabilities, improve emergency response, and resilience against natural disasters and crisis.

I invite you to watch this video series to learn how Red Hat teamed with UNICEF to tackle these challenges, and how a small, scrappy, determined team emerged with a globally-impactful solution to unlock the world’s potential with open source.

Mike Walker is the global director of Open Innovation Labs at Red Hat.


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