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Skills-Based Volunteering case study - Open Source in the Social Sector for the United Nations Workshop

Cynthia Lo image

Cynthia Lo @csmlo

Program Manager, Skills-Based Volunteering, GitHub Social Impact

April 3, 2023 // DevelopersEmployeesSkills-Based VolunteeringHumanitarian Response

Published on: April 3, 2023


The Office of Information and Communications Technology (UN-OICT) is a United Nations (UN) office that enables a better, safer, more sustainable future through innovative technology. They work to provide UN personnel with innovative tools and processes to ensure that all entities part of the UN Secretariat are able to deliver on their mandates and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UN-OICT works on everything from field technology for international peace operations, cybersecurity for protecting the United Nations’ data and resources, and emerging technologies to expedite the adoption of frontier technologies across the United Nations Secretariat. The UN-OICT’s vision is to be a catalyst for innovative technology solutions for organizational transformation and to ensure solutions are agile, simple, reliable, innovative, and secure. Open source is part of this solution. 

Exploring Open Source at the UN-OICT

In September 2022, Omar Mohsine, Open Source Coordinator, and Sebastian Rocca, 

Information and Communications Technology Strategy Consultant, from the UN-OICT reached out to the GitHub Skills-Based Volunteering team to explore developing a comprehensive program designed to build the capacity for UN staff to use and engage with open source technologies and tackle the challenge of implementing a culture of open source. Open source culture embodies the ideals of and fully resonates with UN mandates and values as it rests on openness, transparency, inclusivity, equality, and collaboration. 

A GitHub project team led by Belinda Vennam (@bvennam) Senior Software Engineering Manager, and supported by SKi Sankhe (@megamanics) Senior Solution Architect and Joshua Ku (@therealkujo) Service Delivery Engineer, began exploring the challenges the UN-OICT encountered in the adoption and implementation of open source. Over the course of the following meetings, the project team dove into understanding how open source works in the social sector and the unique challenges when implementing open source. The team then worked to develop training workshops that were customized for the UN-OICT staff to establish a culture shift in adopting open source.

Deepening open source collaboration

The project led to the inauguration of the first ‘Mind the Open Source Gap’ workshop. This brought UN staff together to discuss the opportunities and challenges of open source software as a key enabler in the delivery of UN mandates. These three sessions aimed to provide a platform for exchange of best practices and experiences, to create new networks for innovative forms of collaboration, and to generate concrete recommendations.  

The workshop opened with remarks from Special Adviser United Nations Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Technology, Fayaz King, and Director of Policy, Strategy and Governance Division at UN-OICT, Salem Avan. Followed by an opening keynote delivered by Rahul Kulkarni from iSPIRT, an Indian non-profit software product industry think-tank, where he detailed the characteristics, mindset, and culture that fosters innovative open source products especially with an emphasis on the digital public goods (DPGs). DPGs are open-source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm by design, and help attain the SDGs. Connecting the digital public goods to the programming that the UN employees are working on, helped to create a sense of connectivity to tech for social impact.

Following the opening segment, Omar Moshine and SKi Sankhe led a session on ‘Open Source Software vision, benefits and challenges’ focusing on the macro-perspectives and considerations that underpin successful open source adoption within any organization. Along with a showcase of AI for Global Health led by Gemma Turon, CEO and Co-Founder of Ersilia. Ersilia is a platform for sustaining open research and models in infectious and neglected disease research using open science and publicly available data to build collaborative AI models to be used by all. This session helped to provide a real life example for the audience to understand why open source is important for achieving the SDGs.  

Next, Belinda Vennam dove into ‘How to open source your project’ expanding into the legwork required to convert any codebase into an open source community. She demonstrated how to use GitHub from exploring proper code repository setup to maximizing new contributors, and encouraging, approving pull requests and managing communication between developers. 

Finally, the workshop concluded with a technical workshop led by Joshua Ku from GitHub. This hands-on session provided a full walkthrough of setting up a repository on GitHub with proper permissions within an organization from setting up teams within organizations, assigning repositories and, finally, proceeding to simulate the collaborative development experience by creating pull requests, reviewing, approving, and merging code. Show how easy it can be to contribute to open source projects.

Project Outcome

Open source can help facilitate collaboration, innovation, and cost-effective solutions towards achieving the SDGs especially through the DPGs. This inaugural workshop led by UN-OICT and GitHub’s project team provided close to 500 UN staff members with increased understanding on open source security concerns, licensing and technical expertise, as well as further support for digital public goods to create a more equitable world. It has also led to an opportunity for more discussion on questions raised by attendees such as: 

  • How can open source projects and communities support the development of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain in a responsible and ethical manner that aligns with the SDGs?
  • How will open source help with gender inequality amongst developers?
  • How can open source communities work together to ensure that technology solutions are accessible and inclusive, particularly for marginalized and underrepresented communities?

These questions are ones that we hope to work together on in the future with the open source community. Sincere gratitude to Omar Mohsine, Sebastian Rocca, Mithusa Kajendran and Benin Lenin from the UN-OICT, and Belinda Vennam, SKi Sankhe and Joshua Ku from GitHub for all their hard work on this project! 

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