By Kanon Hile, Social Innovation Portfolio Director, Dell Technologies
Given that half of the world’s people continued to be offline in 2021, according to a UN report, the digital divide is fast becoming the global face of inequality. Lack of access to the internet is also a challenge for children, as an inability to access digital tools is one of the factors that denies them a meaningful education, especially for girls and children with disabilities. Giga, a joint initiative of UNICEF’s Office of Innovation and ITU’s Telecommunications Development Bureau, hopes to level the playing field in just eight short years. Their plan is nothing short of ambitious: Connect every school in the world to the internet by 2030.
In 2021, approximately 2.9 billion people lacked access to the internet. An estimated 90% of children globally had their education interrupted by the pandemic. Currently, only half of the world’s schools are online. This global digital gap disproportionately impacts girls and students with disabilities. Without the option to learn remotely or gain digital skills, children all over the world are missing out. But UNICEF and ITU are changing that.
Launched in 2019, Giga maps schools’ internet access in real time, creates models for innovative financing, and supports governments contracting for connectivity. This is made possible through the support of partners, such as Dell Technologies. In 2021, Dell Technologies partnered with UNICEF USA to support Giga in their mission for global connectivity.
Leveraging advanced technologies to achieve connectivity goals
To connect schools and furnish them with the necessary infrastructure, Giga first needs to find out where they are. Information about schools’ locations might appear easy to access, but many countries do not have such records. One solution, physically deploying people on the ground to collect such data, is time-consuming and difficult, especially in remote areas. As a result, Giga relies on satellite imagery, artificial intelligence (AI) models, and telemetry data that show ground-level detail about buildings, and fill information data gaps.
To map school locations, Giga has been developing AI-based approaches. The satellite imagery datasets feed into AI models that are trained to distinguish the structures that are schools from those that are not.
Under the hood, Giga works with Dell Technologies’ high-performance computing (HPC) units. “[Dell] has provided us with high-performance computing clusters with graphic processing unit (GPU) support to process larger scale imaging datasets,” says Do-Hyung Kim, Data Science Lead, Giga, UNICEF. “Using Dell’s HPC clusters, we were able to accelerate development of our AI model for detecting schools from high-resolution satellite imagery, from a year to a matter of weeks.”
“We were excited to develop a custom solution for Giga with what they were looking to accomplish,” says Quy Ta, a senior manager systems development engineer who manages the HPC engineering team at Dell Technologies.
Once the schools are mapped, an additional layer of intelligence—connectivity and its strength—can be layered on. And connectivity can be strategically delivered to zones that are more severely lacking.
Sudan as use case
The AI mapping method is registering results for Giga. In Colombia, for example, Giga has applied the technology to map the location of 7,000 schools that were not part of the government’s official datasets.
Giga has carried out similar implementations in Sudan. The team started with a preliminary dataset from the Sudanese government, which was improved through various iterations using the model. For example, after training the model on a small sample area it became obvious that it was delivering false positives, mislabeling buildings that were not schools as schools. As a result, the team refined the set further to increase prediction accuracy.
The final AI model for Sudan not only spots schools from satellite imagery with good accuracy (approximately 91%), but also provides more precise location information. In Sudan, Giga plans on using local volunteers from Youth Mappers, an organization working to develop free geographical data, to validate location predictions. “We believe that this is an opportunity to combine expertise from the local scale and the information we gather from AI in the next stages,” Kim says.
“Dell’s HPC solutions will continue to be important for Giga’s data science work, as we seek to scale up our AI development capabilities to locate previously-unmapped schools globally, which is the first step to connecting every school to the internet.”
— Do-Hyung Kim, Data Science Lead, Giga, UNICEF
Scaling through AI
The Giga team plans to use the developed AI models to assist in mapping new countries and regions. Giga is also focusing on enhancing its AI models for scalability so it can cover more areas rapidly and meet its 2030 goals. “In further refining this AI algorithm, the focus will be on ones that require less human input, and which are applicable in larger areas and that can maximize use of the training samples,” Kim says.
“Dell’s HPC solutions will continue to be important for Giga’s data science work, as we seek to scale up our AI development capabilities to locate previously-unmapped schools globally, which is the first step to connecting every school to the internet,” Kim says.
“[It was rewarding to] work with the Giga team, they were very competent and knew what it was they wanted to do, so at Dell Technologies, it was a matter of giving them access to the right resources, systems and technology,” Ta adds.
Giga is also exploring the use of blockchain to raise funds for school connectivity, including the recent launch of Patchwork Kingdoms – the largest NFT collection across the United Nations. The NFT artwork was derived from Giga’s mapping data on schools and their connectivity levels. To date, the collection has raised over $700,000 USD for school connectivity.
Currently, Giga is developing software for schools to measure the quality of connectivity in real-time. The school’s internet speed status will automatically upload to the Project Connect platform, providing a mechanism for transparency and accountability of service delivery.
So far Giga has connected over 2.1 million students to the internet in over 5,000 schools across Africa, Central Asia, Latin America and the Eastern Caribbean. But given there were more than 360 million young people without online access when Giga launched, the initiative has a lot of ground left to cover.
It’s a race to the finish line so all children can access a level digital playing field and be connected to information, opportunity, and choice.
Lead photo credit Riccardo Lennart Niels Mayer via iStock Photo
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) works in more than 190 countries and territories to pursue a more equitable world for every child. UNICEF has helped save more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization, by providing health care and immunizations, safe water and sanitation, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more.
UNICEF USA advances the global mission of UNICEF by rallying the American public to support the world’s most vulnerable children. Together, we are working toward a world that upholds the rights of all children and helps every child thrive. For more information, visit www.unicefusa.org.
UNICEF does not endorse any company, brand, product or service.
Giga is a joint initiative of UNICEF’s Office of Innovation and ITU’s Telecommunications Development Bureau. It aims to connect every school in the world to the Internet by 2030. Working with 14 corporate and non-profit partners, Giga maps schools’ Internet access in real time, creates models for innovative financing, and supports governments contracting for connectivity. It is part of ITU’s Partner2 Connect Coalition, UNICEF’s Reimagine Education initiative, and the UN Secretary General’s Common Agenda and Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.