5 Ways Technology Helps the UN Meet Its Sustainability Development Goals

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

Can access to digital technologies improve healthcare, education, and gender equality for people around the world? The answer is yes, according to the latest report by Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), a strategic partnership between members of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector committed to creating and promoting digital technologies that foster economic, environmental, and social sustainability.

Researchers found that access to technology, such as computers, smartphones, and the Internet, has a strong positive correlation with 11 out of 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

  • no poverty
  • zero hunger
  • good health and well-being
  • quality education
  • gender equality
  • clean water and sanitation
  • affordable and clean energy
  • decent work and economic growth
  • innovation and infrastructure
  • sustainable communities
  • justice and strong institutions

Also known as Agenda 2030, after the deadline for meeting them, the goals are a set of 17 ambitious and interrelated objectives adopted by the UN in 2015.

Statistical analysis suggests that the link between digital access and SDG progress is not just coincidental — for example, the report determined that a 5 percent increase in digital access could reduce neonatal mortality by 7.4 percent. This type of positive impact comes after years of technology companies’ commitment to using digital solutions to accelerate progress.

Here is a look at five ways technology companies are helping the UN meet its Agenda 2030 goals.

1. Increasing Access to Preventative Medicine

Of all the industries positively impacted by technological change, perhaps none outweighs the advancements of digital development as much as healthcare. One chief example is advancements in India.

According to the World Health Organization, two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion population live in rural areas. With diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease on the rise, it became increasingly important to provide rural citizens with access to reliable preventative care.

While a network of 200,000 auxiliary nurse midwives (ANM) have and continue to manage these patients, a paper-based system created unnecessary challenges when screening, referring, and tracking patients. Recognizing that errors from a paper-based system could impact the continuity of care, Dell worked with local partners to build a digital healthcare solution, Digital LifeCare, in 2014.

The digital solution includes mobile and web apps with real-time dashboards that gives step-by-step instructions to health workers. The health records created by the ANM are then stored on the cloud and augmented during each doctor visit. A comprehensive planning tool also enables ANMs and doctors to track follow-up visits, per patient.

Initially rolled out in a few South Indian states, since 2017 Dell has worked alongside India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to deploy custom health solutions in 150 districts across India’s 29 states and seven union territories. “It will make a robust system of health management and change the landscape of medical services delivery in rural India,” said Sunita Nadhamuni, director of Dell’s Center for Transformational Innovation in Bengaluru.

2. Preventing the Spread of Disease

In Namibia, technologies were key to guiding malaria elimination through a partnership with Swedish nonprofit Flowminder.

The company helped local officials map how infected people move between communities, better understanding transmission dynamics. Researchers collected and analyzed anonymized mobile phone records to create detailed maps of human movement, then used satellite imagery to map the environmental conditions in which malarial parasites and mosquitoes were abundant.

These mobility and malaria risk maps helped Namibia’s Ministry of Health identify the 80,000 people most likely to be involved in the malaria transmission cycle. In response, they distributed bed nets and sprayed insecticide indoors to reach these people first, instead of covering the 1.2 million people who were previously estimated to be a higher risk of malaria.

3. Securing Identity

Across the world, 366 million children are legally invisible insofar as they are not registered at birth. Without an official identity, children often miss out on critical vaccinations and registering for school. It is harder for non-registered children to locate family during times of natural disaster or conflict, and easier to be trafficked or sold into child marriage. Of these data-less children, a high number — nearly 60 million — reside in Pakistan, where many children are born at home, live in remote areas, or are displaced.

To address the identity crisis in South Asia, Norwegian telecom company Telenor worked with UNICEF and local governments to create a smartphone application for authorized personnel to record people’s names, birth dates and places, residences, and other personal information. Known as Digital Birth Registration (DBR) or Mobile Birth and Death Registration (MBDR) in Myanmar, the system tracks critical identity information and stores it in one place, accessible to local government officials.

To set this into motion, authorized personnel traveled house-to-house with the mobile app to help families report new births (families could also report births at a local DBR franchise), capturing official documents through cameraphone pictures. Once the personnel submitted the information, government authorities could approve and monitor progress through a dashboard.

In just six months, birth rate registration in the region increased from 30 to 90 percent — with nearly 50 percent female registrations. Government officials are now gradually scaling the project; 700,000 children are expected to be registered by end of 2018.

4. Reporting Abuse

Reporting issues of abuse and human trafficking can be an especially messy problem in countries with a large land mass or a huge population. In Indonesia, the government found it challenging to get basic information, such as where and when incidents occurred, in various parts of the country.

In response, Indonesia’s Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection agency worked with Fujitsu to create a digital solution to help citizens report issues of abuse and human trafficking. In tandem, the organizations created several channels, including a free-to-use telephone service, a smartphone app, and a web portal to help citizens report an issue.

The ministry and Fujitsu also added an AI-powered news and social media tracker. This helped field officers proactively target incidents in high-crime areas. Incidents reported on the tracker, along with issues reported by citizens, provided the government with insight into the abuses taking place, knowledge of its location, and ammunition to seek justice on behalf of the victims.

5. Making Education More Accessible

At Stanford, researchers part of the Rural Education Action Program (REAP) aim to bridge the educational divide between rural and urban students across China through a computer-assisted learning (CAL) program developed in partnership with Dell.

Researchers from REAP found that rural teachers in China were not permitted to tutor after school. While urban students often relied on private tutors or attended ‘cram schools’ that offered after-school instruction to enhance students’ academic performance, rural students and migrants did not have the same access to this educational support. The gap caused rural students to fall behind in key subjects.

REAP identified math, Chinese, and English as subjects that students in grades 3-to-6 struggled with the most, so developers created the educational REAP-Dell CAL program to instruct rural students through fun, game-based software run on Dell computers.

Initially, the educational software had to be installed on each school’s computers, but today it is available online and in schools with access to the internet. In 2015, Dell worked with Shaanzi Normal University and Ankang College to create the online version that, in addition to expanding access, allows the students to interact and compete with their friends.

And while Dell and REAP plan to scale the online program to reach one million students by 2020, these types of efforts are increasing across industry and cause. Whether it comes to education or identity, safety or health, if the GeSI report is any indication, emerging digital solutions will be essential enablers for change towards SDGs.