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Data Science in Africa workshop looks at locally driven data projects to enable sustainable development

Pulse Lab Kampala
Jul 7, 2016

Pulse Lab Kampala and partners from Makerere University (Uganda), the University of Sheffield (UK) and the Dedan Kimathi University Nyeri (Kenya), IBM Research Africa, the Uganda Communications Commission, Facebook and Google came together for the second workshop on Data Science in Africa, which was organized between 27 June and 1 July in Kampala, Uganda. 

It is no secret that data scientists are both in high demand and face high demands. The data science skill shortage has elevated expectations of data scientists to heroic proportions. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals on the African continent requires stakeholders to stay abreast of new technologies and utilize the new data sources to draw connections that previously were not clear and to communicate the findings in innovative ways. In Uganda, Pulse Lab Kampala is committed to fostering a new generation of data scientists and unlocking the potential of new data sources to support the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.

Data science has an important role to play in the 2030 Agenda. This is why, Pulse Lab Kampala continued the tradition started in 2015 and helped organize the second workshop on Data Science in Africa 2016. The objective was to spread knowledge of technologies, ideas and solutions. For the modern information infrastructure to be successful, big data solutions need to be locally generated. Data projects and tools need to be tailored for Africa to solve Africa’s problems.

With this in mind, the workshop began with a three-day summer school at Makerere University, which brought students up to speed with what is happening in the field of data science in Africa. Some of the lecture topics included: “From raw data to meaningful features,” “Working with Spatial Data”, “Data Exploration & Visualization” and “Text Mining.”

This was followed by a two-day workshop at the Pulse Lab Kampala offices. The workshop welcomed stakeholders and experts from academia, the private sector, government and development partners to discuss how data science can be used for development and humanitarian action and be best applied to help support and achieve the Global Goals.

Interactive panel discussions were organized around various topics: Agriculture, Sustainable Cities, Poverty Alleviation and Health, resulting in 28 presentations over the course of the two days. Over one hundred participants from Uganda and neighboring countries brainstormed on how data science can assist in finding solutions to local challenges.

The ideas and solutions presented were indicative of how much ground the data revolution has gained in recent years in Africa. For example, lecturer Ciira wa Maina with the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology presented a project which uses machine learning to automatically count the calls of a local bird species in Kenya, namely the Turaco. The use of data science in this project created proxy indicators for monitoring biodiversity in forests. Other potential applications of using automated counting of sounds can help assess the negative impacts of illegal grazing of cattle or of poaching on biodiversity through recordings of cow bells or gunshots.

“It is important that people work across disciplines. Is that not what Global Goal #17 is all about? Partnering for the achievement of sustainable development?” says Ciira wa Maina. “For this project, we worked together with ornithologists, park wardens and so many other talented people from across disciplines I never thought I would work with. It is all very exiting,” he adds.

Neil Lawrence, professor of machine learning at the University of Sheffield, gave an inspiring presentation on the challenges that need to be surpassed so that data science is used responsibly for the public good. “We want a better world, but there are also many dangers of making the world worse, because power accumulates with data. More and more data means more and more power. Therefore, we need to ensure mechanisms are in place to safeguard the privacies of individuals and groups.”  According to professor Lawrence “data science offers a great deal of promise in resolving our challenges in health, wealth and well being, but it is also associated with a set of potential pitfalls. As data scientists it is particularly incumbent upon us to avoid these pitfalls and ensure that our community takes steps to resolve challenges as rapidly and equitably as possible.” He added that for Africa, data analytics holds the potential to deliver effective systems that can dramatically improve people’s lives. Read more on his latest blog.

The final session of the two-day workshop focused on best approaches to harness local data science talent to ensure that more applications are being developed locally to meet local challenges. Options were explored to facilitate special training and mentorship programmes for enthusiastic, bright minds in the region. Such programmes will hopefully encourage data science students from Uganda, the region and the entire African continent to become the “local superheroes” needed to advance the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. Read more on Pulse Lab Kampala’s efforts to foster young talent in Uganda.

Data Science in Africa 2016 showed that the information revolution can be locally driven to develop the modern infrastructure that Africa needs. Global Pulse will continue to support partners in developing data innovation projects and tools to ensure the achievement of sustainable development. It will also continue to  encourage innovation and knowledge sharing among the new generation of data scientists.

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Comments

Thu, 2016-07-07 15:06

Thank you to John and the rest of the team at United Nations Global Pulse lab for the invitation to speak and for a well organized event. I look forward to participating in more future events.

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