Interviewed by Vera Jonsdottir
Sasha Rubel, a participant of our Women Talent Pool programme, is Programme Specialist, Digital Innovation and Transformation, Communication and Innovation Sector, at UNESCO. In our interview, she talked about her current role and what she likes best about working for UNESCO, how her creative background has contributed to her career, her vision of the post-covid19 world, and much more!
Can you describe your current role as Programme Specialist at UNESCO and what do you like about working for such a prestigious organization?
I lead our work on digital innovation and transformation, specifically projects related to digital entrepreneurship, innovation, artificial intelligence, and internet governance.
What I like most about working at UNESCO is working in a multicultural environment as I work with people from 195 countries every day, with different perspectives, backgrounds, and expertise. With a Franco-Polish mother, a Scottish-Austrian father who grew up in India, and a large part of my youth spent in West Africa due to the motorcycle racing career of my mother, I know first-hand how much cultural – and career - diversity can enrich both your personal and professional life.
I also love the fact that I can bring together, in my job, different stakeholders and build crossroads where people from the private and public sectors, civil society, academia and the technical community can come together, talk, and dream up impactful, meaningful projects – and implement them together.
Lastly, UNESCO is a great opportunity to continue to challenge myself, learn, and grow in emerging areas that are important for women’s empowerment, inclusive growth, and self-determined development and I love the fact that my job allows me to harness creativity for the greater good.
UNESCO is a great opportunity to continue
to challenge myself, learn, and grow in emerging areas
that are important for women’s empowerment.
Beyond your role as a Programme Specialist, you are a dancer, musician, and video artist. How has this contributed to your career?
Having been trained as a dancer, video artist and a musician, I place creativity at the heart of the way I work.
Managing a team for me is like composing music or choreographing a dance. You find the most beautiful notes inside people and put these notes together to make something even more beautiful than the individual note. This is also relevant in ensuring that my team grows together, and encourages a form of deep listening practice necessary for productive teamwork.
My creative background is also a concrete asset working in the tech sector, which needs people that come from other horizons. We do not necessarily need more engineers or more backend software developers or coders – we also need designers that think out of the box. We need a multidisciplinary approach so that tech can be inclusive and harnessed for social good at large.
Through my creative work, notably in West Africa, I learned a lot about how creative practice can be transformed through the use of new technology. This intersection of cultural diversity, collective intelligence, and artificial intelligence is a very productive space, and also underlines the ways in which technology can give communities agency to imagine and co-create the futures they want.
Lastly, the creative sector also underlines the importance of finding your own voice. For women particularly, in a sector that is dominated by men, how to take up space, philosophically, psychologically, and physically, including in our own bodies, is a crucial exercise. Being creative can particularly help us as women to find how to do that professionally in our daily lives.
Managing a team for me is like composing music
or choreographing a dance. You find the most beautiful notes
inside people and compose these notestogether to make
something even more beautiful than the individual note.
After undertaking a PHD in anthropology you worked for several years in West Africa. Can you tell us a bit about your work there and the connection between culture, technology, and development?
My relationship to West Africa goes back to my childhood. After I graduated University, I went back to Mali and Nigeria with a Fulbright Fellowship to study performance-based peer education and do research for the center for disease control and prevention (CDC). Having studied infectious disease and public health, I had planned to become a doctor – and still dance. This was at the beginning of smartphone popularity. I became interested in the ways in which technology was opening up entirely new horizons for solving local development challenges, including those related to health. And it changed my life, and career.
I went back to the Continent in 2013, when I moved to Ethiopia as Liaison Officer to the African Union. For two years, I got to actively shape the ways in which emerging technology was part of development plans at the Continental Level like Agenda 2063 of the AU, and facilitated the EU-AU Digital Economy Task Force that articulated partnership priorities between the two Organizations in the field of digital transformation. I also played a lot of music with the incredible jazz musicians part of the incandescent Addis Ababa nightlife.
In 2015, I moved to Dakar to become Regional Advisor to the Sahel. I worked specifically, in the framework of the G5 Sahel, on training military personnel on how to work with the media to combat terrorism, promote access to information, and protect freedom of expression. At a time of democratic transition in the Gambia, I had the opportunity to support the revision of the Constitution and laws related to access to information and freedom of expression. And I still found time to play music, largely because the nightlife in Dakar starts after midnight.
In Dakar, I became a part of a network of women working in the ICT Sector, and through this network, established a partnership with the Government and Orange to work together to establish training programmes for young women in coding and the development of mobile app solutions to address local development challenges. This led to the opening of a free coding school, targeting young girls, in the heart of Dakar, but also lifelong friendships with the women in this network. It taught me first-hand how important it is to work across different sectors (public and private), but also how powerful we can be when women come together and mutually support and celebrate each other.
You have been working at UNESCO since 2009. How has UNESCO adapted to the shift to digital transformation?
My response has two sides: how do we change as an organisation and in our different areas of work in digital transformation.
As an organization, I would highlight that the speed of digital innovation is quicker than any policy process of any international organisation that exists. Which means that we need to completely reinvent how we work. Therefore, digital transformation is an incredible opportunity for us to come together and reinvent how we work internally, but also how we work with our partners. It also provides a great opportunity to develop, thanks to digital tools, public policy processes that are multi-stakeholder and inclusive. Governments cannot afford to develop policies behind closed doors. We must engage all sectors and citizens, and blow open these doors. If you want to develop truly impactful policies and programmes based on real need and dialogue, everyone needs a seat at the table, and particularly women.
Concerning our areas of work, digital transformation changes how we need to work intersectorally because, for example, the question of artificial intelligence is not just a question for the ministry of science and technology. It is also a question of the ministry of culture with copyright issues, for the ministry of education with issues around self-directed learning etc.
At UNESCO, we also emphasize that we need to position particularly developing countries, women, marginalized groups and young people, to be not only consumers, but also producers, of digital solutions and innovations. So this means that solutions to sustainable development challenges won’t need to be imported from offices in Paris or New York or San Francisco; they can be made on the ground.
Solutions to sustainable development
challenges won’t need to be imported from offices
in Paris or New York or San Francisco;
they can be made on the ground.
Can you tell us more about your work in AI and ethics and your standard-setting instrument under development?
At UNESCO’s general conference in November 2019, the 193 Member States mandated the organization to develop the first global standard setting instrument – or in other words, a recommendation – on the ethics of artificial intelligence.
This is a two-year process, and we hope the recommendation will be adopted officially in November 2021 by our Member States. It builds on some of the great work of other regional and international organizations which are working in this field like the European Union, the OECD, and the Council of Europe, as well as the IEEE and ISO.
In this framework, I am leading the development of an online platform to ensure multi-stakeholder input from the widest range of people possible and the development of a Decisionmakers toolkit to help policymakers – in government and the private sector- translate principles into practice and render them operational in AI development and deployment. Principles and frameworks on the ethics of AI exist, and some very good examples come from private sector companies like Orange, Microsoft, and Thalys. We are hoping to highlight some of these in our use cases: if we want an ethical and responsible AI, we need to be concrete about what we mean.
This recommendation will also reflect our two global priorities which is harnessing AI to ensure sustainable development in the global south, and also how we can address gender bias in the algorithms, in the systems, and in the tech sector more broadly. Women need AI, but AI needs women.
You are currently employed in the Digital Innovation and Transformation Section in the Communication and Information Sector at UNESCO. What is your department doing to address the COVID-19 Crisis?
I am leading specifically three responses at UNESCO to the COVID-19 Crisis.
The first initiative is called CAIAC, short for Collective and Augmented Intelligence Against Covid-19. It is a coalition between UNESCO, UN Global Pulse, the WHO, the AI Initiative, IBM, C3, and Stanford. We are developing a portal that will make sense of the enormous amount of knowledge and data related to COVID-19, and help navigate and translate that data into actionable insights and informed decision-making – both for policymakers and frontline healthcare workers.
Secondly, we are supporting the development of an AI-enabled mobile app that will help mitigate COVID-19 developed by the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute and Yoshua Bengio, who is one of the three inventors of deep learning. This mobile app will be launched as a free and open source and peer to peer solution, so it can be taken up for free and benefit countries most in need. It is also one of the only solutions to date that has ethics-by-design at its heart, and respects fundamental human rights related to data protection and privacy.
A really exciting project I am leading is the online campaign #DontGoViral. I developed this campaign with our partners, i4Policy, to combat the infodemic and disinformation around COVID-19. The campaign, launched on 1 April, addresses the urgent need to ensure access to culturally relevant and openly licensed information in local African languages in order to facilitate awareness-raising. The intent is to produce creative content that can circulate across the globe, with a focus on Africa, where populations are the most at risk given both lack of health infrastructure and lack of quality information. In partnership with 170 hubs in 45 African countries and the BBC world service, we have had more than 400 submissions from 36 African countries, with more than 54 million likes on FB and twitter alone. Our #DontGoViral playlist is proof: you can dance, learn, and save lives all at once.
What will the world after the Covid-19 crisis be like according to you?
COVID-19 will completely change the way we think about technology, education, community, and about the possibility of us coming together as a global community to work in a coordinated way for the common good.
It is also going to change how we think about women’s roles in the public sphere. Women comprise the majority of frontline healthcare workers globally, meaning that female representation is vital in tackling the COVID-19 crisis. Currently, 70% of health care workers globally are made up of women but only 25% global leaders are women. Without women in leadership positions, women’s issues could continue to fail to be addressed – in the crisis, and beyond.
Then lastly, one of the main questions COVID-19 raises is the need for women in leadership positions. We are currently seeing how countries that are being led by women during COVID-19 are managing the situation in a more efficient way, placing the primacy on global wellbeing instead of GDP or political gain. COVID-19 will dramatically change how we measure our growth and development, and this is also where women’s leadership will play an important role.
COVID-19 will dramatically change
how we measure our growth and development,
and this is also where women’s leadership
will play an important role.
More information on Sasha: