Phnom Penh (Cambodia). Nha Nha helps her smaller sister Sopheap with her home-works using a live streaming lesson.

Open Source at UNICEF Innovation Fund, 2020/2021 Reflection

Open Source is a means to collaborate and solve common problems; during the COVID-19 pandemic, open data and tools proved useful in quickly tailoring and deploying life-saving services. How has the UNICEF Innovation Fund kept up with latest Open Source innovations?

 

The UNICEF Innovation Fund invests exclusively in Open Source technology – with today’s rapidly evolving innovation landscape, Open Source software, hardware, data, and content not only create value and generate revenue, but also ensure greater collaboration and impact. This reflection is a look back at Open Source activity and participation stemming from the UNICEF Ventures Team from June 2020 to date (July 2021).

By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of the evolving and forward-thinking approach to Open Source taken by the UNICEF Office of Innovation.

This article looks at a few aspects of Open Source engagement at the Innovation Fund:

 

  1. Support models

    • Legal & policy

    • Building and leveraging from the community

  2. Case study: Cloudline and upstream engagement

 

UNICEF Innovation logo

If you are hearing about the UNICEF Open Source Mentorship programme for the first time, check out this introduction post to get important context behind why UNICEF invests in Open Source mentorship and support for Innovation Fund portfolio teams.

 

Innovation Fund support models

 

Start-ups receive both funding and customized mentorship during their 12-month investment period with the UNICEF Innovation Fund. Since the Innovation Fund launched in 2016, the Innovation Fund team noted the impact of hands-on guidance to help start-ups understand how to work open and lead open. Start-ups receiving Open Source support were better equipped to develop sustainable business models that made Open Source intellectual property work with them instead of against them.

By the end of the 12-month investment cycle, graduating companies achieve the following milestones in place with their projects:

  • Solid understanding of Open Source licenses and different business models depending on a permissive or copyleft strategy.

  • Laying foundations for growing or participating in friendly, inclusive communities.

  • Documentation site to showcase their Open Source work, and how to get involved.

  • Continuous Integration pipeline to test new changes in the code-base before they are added, and avoid common human errors.

Across these milestones, three themes of support have emerged as as most essential in the past year: legal & policy, building and leveraging from the community, and building in the open.

 

Legal & policy

 

The UNICEF Innovation Fund is unique in Venture Capital on its open-first investment strategy. Start-ups receiving UNICEF funding are obligated to either create their own Open Source works or contribute to existing Open Source works. This leads start-up teams to ask more questions: how does this work in a legal sense? How do you establish a sustainable business model with Open Source dependencies and the different types of license models that exist (e.g. permissive and copyleft)? These are the questions that start-ups receive tailored guidance on from the Open Source Mentorship programme.

How did the Open Source Mentorship programme support both start-ups and UNICEF Country Offices receiving funding from the UNICEF Innovation Fund? The programme improved business and legal resources and referrals for managing Open Source intellectual property. This was primarily done by creating a self-serve knowledgebase of legal, governance, and tech policy: the UNICEF Open Source Inventory. The Inventory was created in close consultation with start-ups receiving UNICEF funding, leading industry experts in areas such as Open Hardware and open design, and other existing Open Source communities of practice.

 

Building and leveraging from the community

 

Over the past year, we also saw more upstream collaboration. UNICEF Innovation Fund start-ups collaborated on existing projects like the PX4 Drone auto-pilot software instead of reinventing the wheel themselves. This enabled the work done with UNICEF funding to go further and impact the wider ecosystem, instead of an individual project with highly-specific use cases.

 

Furthermore, as the Innovation Fund portfolio continues to grow, new inductees in the Open Source Mentorship programme are able to build on top of work done by previous portfolio companies. This accelerates the rate of development for the new inductees and gives them a model of success to look towards during their engagement with UNICEF.

For example, two companies from the 2019 Drones cohort created documentation websites that were used as models for the 2020 Generation Unlimited cohort. qAIRa from Perú and Rentadrone from Chile created documentation websites using the popular toolchain Docusaurus, created by Facebook’s Open Source Program Office. The work of qAIRa and Rentadrone was leveraged as models by VRapeutic and I-STEM in the 2020 Generation Unlimited cohort. Using graduated companies as models accelerated both technical and content development for the new teams when they had relatable models to use in building their own Open Source documentation websites.

Cloudline airship

Innovation Fund case study: Cloudline and upstream engagement

 

Cloudline Africa (South Africa) operates small-scale autonomous airships that have longer endurance and range than current commercial drones; their solution will help deliver medical supplies to hard-to-reach communities and reduce operational costs in the last-mile.

Four highlights from Cloudline’s period with the Innovation Fund are below:

  • The team launched the airship with a payload capacity of 10 kgs with a 50 km range.  

  • Full endurance capability (40km/h) along with automated waypoint flying. 

  • Contributed flight control software to the PX4 upstream community by introducing a new mode of aircraft to the community in the form of airships.  

  • Cloudline received the Fast Company South Africa Most Innovative Company Award 

“Our greatest triumph of the year was the flight of our pre-production airship. Capable of a 10kg useful payload and a 50km range, this aircraft is ideally suited to medical logistics and other high-value scheduled deliveries.”
— Spencer Horne, Co-Founder

Going upstream

 

Contributions made to another popular upstream community was another major highlight of the Open Source Mentorship programme. Furthermore, the contributions were not casual “drive-through” contributions; they were consistent and focused broadly around the ecosystem instead of a single repository of source code.

 

During the mentorship programme, Cloudline added 61 commits across four repositories. The summary of their contributions were adding a new vehicle type to the PX4 auto-pilot software: airships. The team first opened a discussion on the PX4 community forum. After getting feedback from a developer, they proceeded to add the Cloudline airship into the upstream software. This was followed by documentation additions with controller diagrams and simulation instructionsThrough their contributions, a wider network of developers can simulate and interact with airships similar to the one created by Cloudline.

 

But the contributions did not stop at code. Cloudline developer Anton Erasmus delivered a deep dive presentation at the PX4 2020 virtual contributor summit. He explained to other developers about how to leverage the multicopter control system, as used in the Cloudline airships and other popular drone devices. This outreach step is important in growing awareness in the existing community for new introductions to the common software, and how both Cloudline and the PX4 community could help each other in achieving their similar yet different goals.

 

“Autonomous airship logistics company, Cloudline, took top honours last night at the inaugural Fast Company SA Most Innovative Companies Awards held in Cape Town.”
— fastcompany.co.za

What is next for the Innovation Fund?

 

What does the next year ahead look like for UNICEF’s Open Source Mentorship programme? Stay tuned for the final post in this series, which will explore on-going work to standardize the mentorship curriculum, detail how Innovation Fund companies are being coached in becoming Digital Public Goods, and the research and development for an Open Source Program Office at the UNICEF Office of Innovation in 2022.

Justin W. Flory

13 September 2021