Through the doors of Pulse Lab Kampala

Viola Paulynn Akuma, Project Associate, Pulse Lab Kampala
Oct 3, 2018

Monday morning Jan 3, 2014, was my first day at work at Pulse Lab Kampala. I had read about the Lab just being set up as part of UN efforts to advance sustainable development with big data and analytics. And indeed stepping in, I discovered how new this Lab truly was since it did not even have a space of its own. It was being housed in a borrowed office of the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in Uganda.

Hence, my first task was finding us a space, which is exactly what I did. The plan was to model it after the other two UN Global Pulse labs, as well as give it the local flavor. Today, we continue to work in the same open space, devoid of partitions and hierarchy, and where our doors are open to anyone who is curious and interested in our work. It’s full of white boards with scribbling of projects names, ideas for how to enhance existing tools, and new propositions.

A few months back, during one of our weekly brainstorming sessions, we came up with the idea of naming the tools and applications we develop at the Lab after wild animals that live in Uganda. This is how Cheetah Tracker, our newest ambulance tracking application was born. The tool, implemented with assistance from the Ministry of Health and Enabel, Belgium’s Development Agency, uses Global Positioning Systems (GPS) data to provide analytics on transport-related aspects of ambulances through a user-friendly dashboard and SMS/email alerts. 

More recently, we also worked with an artist to bring more flavor to the office, since “a creative environment fosters innovation.” This is what came out.

Our team at PLK comprises of Data Scientists and Engineers, Designers, UN experts, Communicators, Projects Analysts and Officers working to develop and operationalize big data projects and tools that can be used at the local level in Uganda, and more widely in Africa, to support the SDGs. The Lab embraces cultural diversity with analysts and short-term staffers coming from all over the world to gain both professional and ‘field’ (on-the-ground) experience.

A large part of what we do is to experiment with new sources of data to find different ways of working which can improve operations, help monitor and course-correct projects in real-time, and even make predictions to assist humanitarians working with disaster affected communities. Take for example our speech-to-text technology for indigenous Ugandan languages extracted from radio broadcasts. This is the largest ongoing project at the Lab and in my opinion its “greatest achievement.” By filtering what people say on radio about things that affect their community, and the challenges they face, we, at the UN, can understand how to best serve them.   

To advance academic research, the Lab also collaborates with Universities like Makerere University Kampala, Edinburgh University of Scotland, Poly Technique University of Madrid to mention but a few.

Monday morning, Oct 3, 2018 after just having finished our morning meeting and before getting on with setting up the sessions we are organizing at the upcoming UN World Data Forum, I am finishing my first blog. 

I am not a Data Scientist by trade but working with PLK over the past four years has been an eye opening experience to what it means to innovate at the UN. And for me, it’s not just about developing big data tools and applications, it’s about embracing an entirely different way of working that promotes creativity, encourages experimentation and failure, and fosters collaboration.