Empowering young people to lead the digital transformation for the SDGs

The SDG AI Lab Data Science Fellowship

June 12, 2023
Hands holding a smartphone

Empowering young people from all backgrounds to learn and work in data science is essential for digital inclusivity.

Photo: UNDP

By Gokhan Dikmener, ICPSD Technical Specialist, Dina Akylbekova, ICPSD Partnerships and Outreach Analyst and Jiaying Tu, ICPSD Intern

In UNDP's Digital Strategy "digital" means both a range of technologies and a mindset that requires people and institutions to innovate with technology. While Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have great potential to contribute to the 2030 Agenda, global disparities in technological resources and innovation exclude certain groups. Empowering young people from all backgrounds to learn and work in data science is essential for digital inclusivity. 

The Istanbul International Centre for Private Sector Development’s SDG AI Lab has initiated the Data Science Fellowship Programme – the first corporate fellowship for tech professionals. The programme supports young data scientists to become professionals that drive inclusive digital transformation in their communities and actively contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The SDG AI Lab has selected six data science fellows who work in different specialisations, such as Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing (NLP), and GIS. They spoke to us of their stories, aspirations and commitments to use technology for a better world.


Beltus Nkwawir

Beltus Nkwawir

Özge Ozkaya

Özge Ozkaya

Jackson Onyango

Jackson Onyango

Beltus Nkwawir, SDG AI Lab Data Science Fellow, NLP 

I come from the Northwest region of Cameroon which has been affected by a bloody and deadly civil war since 2016. Thousands have lost their lives. Many have fled their homes to neighbouring cities and countries. I have lost a few friends and have seen schools and hospitals burned to the ground. I understand first-hand what it means to live in seemingly never-ending fear and suffering. This experience, however, made me hopeful for the use of digital technologies in crises. 

The SDG AI Lab shares the same passion and beliefs that I have held in my heart for many years – to harness the potential of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Natural Language Processing to promote peace and strengthen actions towards climate control, human rights, education, the eradication of poverty and diseases.

In addition to upholding a fellowship position at the SDG AI Lab, Beltus is also a PhD student at Istanbul Technical University, specializing in information and communication engineering. 

Özge Ozkaya, SDG AI Lab Data Science Fellow, NLP 

I really want to see more women in the field of data science. I believe that women should listen to their inner voice and go for what they want without any hesitation.” 

Özge is a master’s student at the Cukurova University, majoring in computer engineering. Before joining the lab as data science fellow, she was a National UN volunteer in Istanbul. During her time at the lab, she led the development of the Frontier Technology Radar for Disaster and Risk Resilience (FTR4DRR) project – an online tool for the monitoring and tracking of existing and emerging digital solutions for anticipatory risk, risk reduction and crisis recovery. 

I would like to pursue a career within the UN system in the future and continue to use frontier technologies for the common good of people around the globe. I am determined to become a global-level expert on Natural Language Processing and a role model for future generations.” Read more about Özge’s story here. 

Jackson Onyango, SDG AI Lab Data Science Fellow, Full-Stack Developer 

Before joining the Data Science Fellowship Programme, Jackson was an online UN volunteer and a member of the SDG AI Lab volunteer community, where data scientists from all over the world connect and exchange views. The SDG AI Lab community is a part of the SDG AI Lab Volunteer Data Scientists Initiative, which engages over 100 online data science volunteers from 45 countries to develop digital solutions for sustainable development. 

As a volunteer, I helped fix bugs and made frontend improvements to the FTR4DRR website. I had regular check-ins with my supervisor who was great at helping me understand the product and what my task was. With my contribution to the FTR4DRR project, the team was able to launch the site and begin the process of making the toll available online, in order for areas facing disasters to know how to respond and prevent damages.” 

The lab also works on GIS projects. One of the major outputs of the GIS team is the Digital Social Vulnerability Index (DSVI) – a digital tool that helps UN organizations, governments and NGOs to better understand the spatial patterns of social vulnerability. DSVI was first piloted using data from Albania in 2021, and then in Tajikistan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia in 2022.


Ivana Petrakovic

Ivana Petrakovic

Yucel Torun

Yucel Torun

Mert Atay

Mert Atay

Ivana Petrakovic, SDG AI Lab Data Science Fellow, GIS 

Before joining the SDG AI Lab, Ivana was an intern at UNDP, specializing in geospatial science. She is a master’s student at the Vienna University of Technology, majoring in geodesy and geoinformation. 

My focus is on the utilization of GIS, remote sensing, and machine learning in developing diverse digital solutions. I also work on geospatial data processing and analysis, creation of cartographic products, and much more. I hope this experience helps me specialize further in my fields of expertise, improves my analytical and communication skills, and gives me a chance to contribute to meaningful projects that deal with global problems.” 

Yucel Torun, SDG AI Lab Data Science Fellow, GIS 

Yucel is a PhD student at the Istanbul Technical University, specializing in urban and regional planning. He has worked on the Digital Social Vulnerability Index (DSVI) and the application of GIS in disaster management: 

I have been working as a data scientist on several tasks that have GIS and Machine Learning as their fundamental concepts. The Digital Social Vulnerability Indexis a highly innovative way to make vulnerability assessment, and I feel an attachment to the improvement efforts on this approach. Another project aims to reach out to children in earthquake-affected region and support them in an appropriate way.” 

Mert Atay SDG AI Lab Data Science Fellow 

In the pursuit of a better and more sustainable world, data scientists have their unique roles and responsibilities. As a word of encouragement and caution for fellow data scientists and future applicants, Mert Atay, SDG AI Lab Data Science Fellow said: “I would suggest that their learning should not be limited to technical subjects and they should seek ways to improve their communication and collaboration skills as well. In this regard, they should not be hesitant to face challenges. We are all humans after all and even though we build automated digital solutions, their motivation and implications are inevitably affected by us, people. They should be responsible and open-minded towards these topics and do their best for a better future and a better world.” Mert is a master’s student at the Middle East Technical University, majoring in Computer Engineering. At the Lab, he leads projects that utilize Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning.

With the Volunteer Data Scientists Initiative and Data Science Fellowship Programme, the SDG AI Lab provides the platform for young data scientists to collectively contribute to a more peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.