Finding opportunities in a crisis — How UNDP’s Accelerator Lab in Baku has made the most of 2020

By Nargiz Guliyeva, Leyla Seyidzade, Jasur Hasanov and Sandra Ismanovski

Ninety-two UNDP Accelerator Lab teams covering 118 country offices are now up and running as part of a global network dedicated to doing development differently.

We launched our Lab in Azerbaijan exactly one year ago, together with our founding partners the Republic of Germany and the State of Qatar, and immediately started searching for smart solutions to development challenges from citizens across the country.

As the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the Lab team committed most of our efforts to tackling the challenges arising from the virus.

12 months, 12 highlights

Spearheading the digital revolution in healthcare

Doing development differently is not just about acting fast to tackle challenges but thinking creatively about how to turn a crisis into an opportunity for longer term improvements.

Our strategy in the case of COVID-19, for example, has been to rapidly deploy innovative solutions to help healthcare professionals and the public cope with the pandemic while joining forces with the Ministry of Health to look at how we can transform healthcare delivery by unleashing the power of digital technologies.

1 An early innovation we supported was the development of a coronavirus self-checker bot to inform people what to do if they think have symptoms The bot further helped the health authorities answer more queries online, freeing up resources to enable medical professionals to look after patients in need of critical care. To date the bot has helped answer over 3,000 queries from citizens.

2 To support frontline healthcare workers in the face of unprecedented circumstances, we helped develop an e-platform providing healthcare professionals with free online training courses and certification programmes. The platform currently offers over 55 courses, including training in infection prevention, the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 and other acute respiratory infections, as well as numerous other educational resources. To date, over 500 healthcare professionals have enrolled in the courses.

3 To help medical personnel make informed clinical decisions based on the most up-to-date research findings and information, we helped launch a mobile app for COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment. Over 750 medical professionals are regularly using this platform.

4 To enable remote medical consultations and help reduce the need for close contact between healthcare workers and patients during the pandemic, we helped launch a Video Doktor app that has now been successfully piloted in 15 polyclinics throughout Baku, involving 31 doctors and 131 patients.

5 In support of efforts to counter misinformation about the pandemic, we partnered with the health authorities to design a bot that answers questions from the public, providing prompt, reliable and officially approved information 24/7. Already over 200,000 queries from citizens have been answered.

These solutions are not only helping to expand the digital capacity of Azerbaijan’s healthcare system in response to the ongoing pandemic but can also be further scaled up to support the system once the crisis is over.

Supporting small businesses to go digital

6 Despite major government efforts to mitigate the economic impacts of the pandemic, most micro, small and medium enterprises in Azerbaijan have been hit hard, with many having to seek new opportunities to survive. As an initial response, the Lab team conducted a rapid analysis to identify the most effective ways to support companies going digital.

7 As one outcome of this analysis, we partnered with the Ministry of ICT to develop ‘Evdeqal’ the country’s first-ever one-stop shop portal for all e services, from healthcare to food delivery, including free advertising space for companies. The platform has inspired many companies to go digital and we are now upgrading to offer free courses and webinars on how to switch businesses from analogue to digital. And the platform has just been exported to the Maldives!

Building forward greener

8 We took a deep dive into circular economy by partnering with the EU and the Ministry of Environment to build the country’s first-ever upcycling platform –designed both to encourage more people in Azerbaijan to upcycle products they’d normally throw away and to provide an opportunity for people to learn new skills and stay in touch during stressful periods of lockdown. The website has had over 178,000 visits and over a hundred videos have been shared.

9 To support Azerbaijan’s National Water Strategy and bring new voices and ideas into the important debate about water, we invited innovators, developers, companies, CSOs and citizens passionate about water issues to discuss tech solutions for a ‘smart water society’.

We also organized a ‘water hackathon’ inviting young women and men to come up with tech solutions to water-related challenges. We hope to see some of these solutions — including flood-forecasting apps and smart irrigation systems — prototyped and deployed over the coming year.

Tapping into collective intelligence to leave no one behind

10 We helped carry out ‘collective intelligence’ sessions with professionals and youth on how to develop and retain top IT staff and how to encourage more women into STEM training and careers.

11 In partnership with USAID we launched an informal STEM platform aimed at encouraging young women and girls to graduate in STEM fields by matching students with mentors working in STEM fields to provide informal career guidance.

12 As part of a National Inclusivity Campaign, UNDP helped organize Azerbaijan’s first-ever inclusivity hackathon, bringing together industry experts, academia and people with disabilities to work on the development of tech solutions for increasing the social inclusion of people with disabilities.

We also brought together people with a range of different disabilities to share their visions of how smart cities might be more inclusive and we also sought out good examples of local initiatives with potential for amplification, tech enhancement and scaling-up to improve accessibility.

And this is an area we’re planning to focus on more in the coming year.

We get asked a lot these days whether we’re still as optimistic about the future of the accelerator labs as when we first started this journey a year ago.

And we say: Absolutely.

And we are just as optimistic about the power of innovation to drive progress, benefitting everyone, everywhere.

Our work has contributed towards the achievement of the following Sustainable Development Goals:

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