A few months ago, as Huaxuan Chen was writing an article about the World Telecommunication & Information Society Day (ITU), she found the day especially interesting. The ITU aims to bridge gaps using technology and standardization, and Huaxuan believes that it’s a very important and contemporary topic, especially with the recent advances in big data, AI…etc., so she became interested in interviewing someone from the ITU to learn more about their work. Thanks to the support of Princess Dr. Nisreen and Ms. Nora Mehdi, Huaxuan had the opportunity to interview Ursula Wynhoven, the ITU Representative to the United Nations. 

Here is the interview below: 

Question 1: What does “bridging the standardization gap” mean and what does this process look like?

Bridging the standardization gap is a fundamental part of ITU’s mission to ensure that everyone around the world has equal access to the various technologies available today. The ITU facilitates the participation of developing countries in ITU’s standards-making processes to disseminate information about existing standards and to help developing countries implement these standards. Before this program was put in place, the ITU found that there was a lack of representation of developing countries in their processes. Fortunately, so far, the program has been successful in building capacity and including more developing countries’ representatives in the ITU’s processes and standards discussions. 

Question 2: What would the closing of the standardization gap bring or mean for those in developing nations? 

Global standards are vital in ensuring interoperability in the global markets and in spurring innovation and growth in developing and developed countries alike. They’re critical in growing confidence in large-scale investments in informational technologies, in creating opportunities for small startup companies to become bigger market players, and in bringing down the costs of technology, Effective standards should also cater to everyone’s needs and concerns. Above all, standards improve access to ICTs and create opportunities for small and large firms in developing countries to achieve sustainable development.

Question 3: What types of standards is the ITU focusing on this year? What do the standards entail? 

The ITU’s standards are developed through different study groups, which currently focus on providing standards in 11 areas by the end of the year 2020. The topics they’re working on include: machine learning, support of telecommunications for disaster relief and early warning (which is especially important in the context of the climate crisis and its impact on disasters), network resilience and recovery, mobile financial services, and block chain technology. ITU’s standards are recommendations for its member states, and these standards are developed in a multi-stakeholder context and approach, which is very significant. This diversity ensures inclusion and the well-roundedness of the information received, which can then be used to create feasible recommendations. There are in fact over 4000 recommendations created by the ITU at the moment. These standards ensure that we get the maximum benefit out of our technologies, and the standards also address concerns and challenges that technologies may entail. 

Question 4: How and in what ways do you believe we can help developing countries access, implement, and influence the ITU standards? 

The ITU not only has member states but also members from the private sector and academia (900 of those!); it works closely with its partners to support those in developing countries and developed ones alike. Capacity building and education are vital in ensuring that people in developing countries can access and work with the modern technologies. The ITU has a notable capacity-building program called “ITU Academy”, which provides capacity-building resources online and in-person to help actors from a wide range of countries and backgrounds build their capacity; this is essential for them to meaningfully participate in the ITU’s processes. There are also many annual ITU conferences, where there is increasing representation from developing countries. 

Question 5: How does the ITU work with companies, other UN agencies, and/or those in academia to achieve its aims? 

The ITU, founded in 1865, is indeed the oldest UN entity. In its early stages, the private sector played a really critical role; in fact, it was even more influential than the member states until the ITU became a specialized agency of the UN in 1947. When it comes to voting on policies today, the role falls on member states. However, the creation of standards is still a critical role of the private sector. The private sector helps with the interoperability of ICT creation, the deployability of the information technologies, and helps make the ITU services more affordable. 

The ITU also works closely with local populations from its member states, as local knowledge is very important in capacity building and in empowering the disadvantaged to find solutions. The ITU also has skill-building programs for older persons, the indigenous populations, and other minority groups, to build their capacity and abilities. 

Furthermore, the ITU recognizes the importance and the role of youth in achieving sustainable development for 2030 and beyond, so it is working with the ILU to ensure that youth have the digital skills for successful employment and entrepreneurship, and to prepare them for the future of science and technology. The girls in ICTs programs and the “Equals Global Partnership” aim to eradicate the gender digital divide by showing girls how the ICTs can be used to solve many global issues and the potential and opportunities in the sciences. The ITU also empowers youth to come up with solutions to the SDGs and encourages scientific inquiry, research, and innovation in the pursuit of lifelong learning. 

Since the ICTs are essential to sustainable development, from health to education to food to agriculture, the ITU collaborates with various other organizations such as the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization to achieve the SDGs. The ITU is currently collaborating with the WHO on an initiative called mHealth to use the health sciences and AI to address risk factors of non-communicable diseases like cancer and diabetes, and to help people make better lifestyle choices. The ITU is also partnering with the Food and Agricultural Organization and, through ICT innovations, engaging with companies to address agriculture challenges. 

The WHO and ITU have partnered to use digital technology to strengthen public health services in Africa.

Finally, the ITU collaborates with other organizations and companies such as Verizon Wireless, Novartis, and Sanofi, on a wide range of issues, ranging from health care to cyber security to digital inclusion. 

Question 6: I learned that the ITU is hoping to enable the 5G era by the year 2020, and I was wondering what this emergence would bring and how it could help solve the SDGs. Also, what are some problems that may arise with the 5G era, and what will the ITU do to prevent mishaps of the technology?

Today, consumer demands are shaping the development of broadband services. There are anticipated, large increases in the traffic of data, with the internet of things, and demands for user experience and increased affordability. To meet these demands, we need innovative solutions and technologies, such as with the 5G technology. 5G is anticipated to transport large amounts of data faster, reliably connect to an extremely large number of devices, process high amounts of data with minimal delay, connect to people, data, applications, and smart networks, and above all, accelerating the achievement of the SDGs. 

However, as with all technologies, there are some challenges and issues that must be addressed. There may be operational issues like meeting high levels of stability, security, and reliability, and cyber security concerns. The ITU is also working to ensure that digital identities are protected and are structured like those in the real world. Here, standards play a key role in addressing these challenges in a multi stakeholder context. 

Question 10: The ITU is currently working with large amounts of data to create solutions and standards, and I was wondering about what the data analysis process looks like. Which areas of our lives do you think would be the most benefited by the data that ITU has? How does ITU filter out the data to arrive at the most reliable results? What are some of the concerns or issues with big data at the moment, and how is ITU hoping and working to resolve them?

The ITU is currently the global source for ICT statistics. Since 2016, the ITU has used an innovative means with big data to carry out pilot studies in select countries (ex. least developed countries) to produce new and better statistics. The ultimate goal is to improve the quality and timeliness of the statistics so they can be used by decision-makers to make a difference in people’s lives. The ITU currently collects statistics for 200 economies through over 100 indicators such as mobile cellular subscriptions, internet use, and household ICT access, through which they measure informational society projects. With the rapid advancements and research into the internet of things, real time data, the cloud, and computer power, we are able to process a lot more data, to create statistics, than before. 

Some of the challenges that have arisen with the pilot studies are centred around access to data itself (data protection and legal regulations), the processing and analysis of data sets, including the location of processing and methodology used, and the practicality of the data for policy and investment decisions. 

However, at the centre of this issue is inclusion. We need new solutions for the data processes and diverse minds to come up with the best solutions to the emerging challenges. Also, if the data is only coming from certain sources or if we don’t have a wide range of people included in the study (to contribute to and to employ the data), then we could lose many important insights, which can be very problematic. It is also in wide agreement among UN agencies that one of the biggest obstacles to achieve the SDGs is the lack of interoperability data; if we don’t include some stakeholders in our research efforts, then we can’t make the most tailored decisions and policies for their them and their region. To raise awareness and to increase the discussion around responsible and effective data collection and usage, the ITU coordinates an annual conference called “AI for good”, where those from academia, member states, and other entities (multi stakeholder approach) discuss ways to make the best use of data and AI to minimize societal impingements.

To learn more about the ITU’s work in big data, please visit: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/events/wtis2016/BigData_Tiru.pdf

All in all, there is great potential with our modern technologies, and the effective usage of them lies in our responsible management of them. Hopefully, we can make even greater strides in STEM to achieve the SDGs before 2030, and ensure that their principles continue to guide us towards sustainable development even after 2030.


Huaxuan Chen, hails from Toronto, Canada, and is the RASIT Girls in Science Global Spokesperson. Huaxuan is very interested in the intersections between the sciences, business, and sustainable development. She is a member of the Duke Class of 2023.

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