Q&A: UN IT chief Atefeh Riazi on the changing role of tech in development

Atefeh Riazi, United Nations chief Information technology officer. Photo by: Ryan Brown / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

SEATTLE — The United Nations’ digital front door, www.un.org, faces 10,000 break-in attempts daily. When the Security Council makes major decisions on issues such as Syria, that number can rise even higher. And cybercriminals are constantly prowling for data from sensitive organizations like the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime or the International Court of Justice.

Keeping the international body safe from cybersecurity threats is at the forefront of Atefeh Riazi’s mind. She marked her fifth anniversary as the U.N.’s chief information technology officer on May 9. Riazi came to her 1st Avenue office after stints as CIO at large entities both public and private — the New York City Housing Authority and advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, respectively.

Five years into the job, Riazi is increasingly thinking big picture about the role of technology in delivering on the U.N.’s global mandate, especially in service of the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, her office announced a partnership in March to use software by Seattle-based tech firm Tableau as a global standard for data visualization.

Devex spoke to Riazi in late April at Tableau’s offices to discuss the changing role of technology within the U.N., her efforts to roll out the Umoja computer system across the entire organization, and the responsibilities of tech companies in sustainable development.

Five years ago, after you got the lay of the technology landscape at the U.N., what was your impression of the state of affairs?

My first impression was, what an incredible role and what an incredible responsibility. I was overwhelmed with the scope of the job. The second was that we spend less than half of what the rest of the world does on IT, if you look at governments and the private sector.

We spend 6 to 7 percent of our budget on IT, whereas between 12 to 19 percent is standard in the private sector. It’s not a perfect comparison, because we have peacekeepers, a military operation. But it’s an extremely low budget. We spend half of 1 percent of our budget on IT security, whereas most of the industry spends 8 percent. IT spending by the U.N. has dropped by $100 million over the last few years.

Surprisingly, 85 percent of IT spend was on “lights on” — networks, infrastructure; the plumbing of IT — when most of the sector has already shifted to 60 percent lights-on. So we made that shift. We went from 85 percent to about 60 percent. We reduced costs through consolidation, shutting down data centers, retiring systems, and the modernization of IT itself. But we strengthened cybersecurity drastically.

Do those threats track with certain political decisions?

Decisions get made, and some people like it and some people don't like it. And the [cyber] attacks will come. I think we've been pretty resilient, but it's extremely difficult. When we have the General Assembly, if people don't like a certain president that is speaking, we always are watching for attacks. We have organizations that have missions that certain countries don't like. So, that mission in that country gets attacked, because what they're advocating goes against perhaps what the country wants.

After all those IT upgrades, how do you rate the U.N. versus the private sector?

We are slightly behind the curve. We’re just deploying ERPs [enterprise resource planning] with Umoja. We have an organization that has hundreds of networks and thousands of applications, where the rest of the industry has consolidated, harmonized, automated, and outsourced.

What is your assessment of the Umoja rollout, which caused a lot of consternation among rank and file staff in its early days?

I have deployed ERPs throughout my whole career and they are very difficult to deploy. Not because of technology — it's because the old way of working falls apart and the new way doesn’t work fully. Man and machine come into contact and a lot of unexpected things happen. You have an organization that's used to working a certain way; that's normal.

I've deployed SAP in the private sector and Oracle in the public sector. That first year or two is a difficult year. You go from the phase of great excitement to the phase of great despair.

Umoja is critical for the U.N. Most of the industry modernized 20 years ago to manage finances, human resources, procurement, supply chain, medical, and travel. We had to do it and we're coming out of it a much better, more modern organization.

There was some frustrations about seeing the data. There are now dashboards and access to analytics to make better decisions, predict better, and forecast better. We’ve brought a lot of hygiene into the organization — now you have a clean workflow that’s controlled, governed, and managed. Ultimately, you learn how to use the system and start to normalize.

Are you at that normalized point yet?

We are with Umoja 1.0. Like any ERP, you have to learn from it. Enhancements come and you move to Umoja 2.0. It's a living system. It has to grow and develop constantly.

Three years into the 2030 Agenda, how successful has advanced technology been to help deliver on the SDGs?

We have a lot of data, but we don't always have the right data. Lots of dashboards have been created by nonprofits or governments to track their data. As we're looking at the data, we are trying to understand how to connect the dots, and to connect the dots you may need data that you don't have or is completely irrelevant to you. We're just at the beginning of using data analytics to understand and to predict the future.

“We have a lot of data, but we don't always have the right data.”

— Atefeh Riazi, Chief Information Technology Officer at the U.N.

What do you have to influence? We've done some analytics around the SDGs and how one is connected to the other. How if you influence one, you can influence others. Hunger is very closely related to famine, to environmental issues, to unrest, to supply chain distribution of food, and to water. Take one issue: You think it's related to unemployment, but it's related to disease as well. If you are sick, you can't go to work.

We need a partnership to get data scientists, the technology sector, and other data brokers to collaborate. We haven't really sat back and tried to connect these, and we look for partnerships to help us connect these social issues and find out the causality. If we understand the cause, we can invest in the symptoms.

We are constantly responding to crisis and we don't even have enough resources to do that. Who will start to look at causes analytically? That's where we think the private sector’s energy, along with governments, has to come in and fill that gap.

What are some concrete examples of technology deployments to solve big development challenges?

Let's take a look at health care and remote diagnostics. Rwanda has 600 doctors for 11 million people. Through the use of technology facilitated by WHO [the World Health Organization], you can begin to train health officials to diagnose and prescribe medication.

E-education is another one, allowing democratization of education across the world and access to knowledge and information.

Is UNESCO actively working on that topic?

We need help from the private sector. Purchase and deployment requires resources and capacity that can come only through public-private partnership.

What about technologies the U.N. has been able to deploy?

UN Women on the hunt for a blockchain solution

UN Women hosted live simulations of blockchain apps and programs focused on identity and cash transfers in New York on Tuesday. Caroline Rusten, the organization's chief of humanitarian work, talks to Devex about how they hope the technology could help them better target the needs of women and girls.

UN Women is looking at blockchain for identity. Identity is a big issue, especially for women. If a girl doesn't have a birth certificate and you don't know her age, that could allow for early marriage. Or if they don't have an identity, how do you know they're trafficked? Child soldiers start at a very young age because of a lack of identity. Children are tried at court as adults.

Many women still don't have birth certificates, so they don't have an identity, and thus don’t have access to a bank. The internet has brought great prosperity to so many, but many still really haven’t got any value from the internet. A maid in New York City that makes $500 a week sends the money back home and is charged 20 percent. Through blockchain, maybe she can send that money without paying the 20 percent.

Given how lucrative technology careers can be in places such as Seattle, Washington, in companies like Tableau, is it challenging for the U.N. to recruit the best and the brightest in IT?

It's very difficult. We have to change the model. We have this project called the Digital Blue Helmets. These are IT professionals and data scientists who work for companies like Google, Amazon, or Tableau. They give the U.N. two to three hours of their time to look at a problem. Almost like a Code for America model.

We have an initiative called Unite Ideas. We put problems on a website and we ask people to help us think through those problems. We recently had a project on electrification in Africa and someone from a university helped us tabulate the data. We have come to the realization that we could never afford the talent, but we also know that millions of people love to contribute. If we can get them the right kind of problem to solve, then we can get a lot of innovative solutions.

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