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How Data Science In And For Africa Can Blaze New Trails

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The term “data science” was coined by scientists working at the social networks LinkedIn and Facebook in 2008. A few years later, they dubbed it “the sexiest profession of the 21st century”.

This relatively new, interdisciplinary field is a blend of statistics, computer science, mathematics, engineering and subject matter knowledge. In fact, any and all subjects qualify. Its proponents believe it will transform every aspect of society. Many of the disruptive, game-changing innovations that are grounded in data science are intended to improve people’s quality of life as well as the efficiency of processes and services. Examples include autonomous vehicles; precision medicine and precision agriculture; smart cities and financial technology.

Over the past decade, virtually every university in Europe and North America has responded to the challenges and opportunities of data science by establishing new institutes, departments and degree programmes in the field.

Academic institutions in Africa have only recently begun to catch up. Some are creating structures, networks and training programmes to stimulate research and capacity development in the subject. Examples include the African Center of Excellence in Data Science in Rwanda, the AI & Data Science Research Group at Makerere University in Uganda, Data Science Africa, and the Deep Learning Indaba. But with a time lag of at least half a decade, the question is whether Africa is bound to be trailing behind.

As the acting director of the new School for Data Science and Computational Thinking at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, I would argue that the answer is a resounding no. If African universities are mindful of the continent’s specific needs and realities, they have a unique opportunity to blaze new trails in what is still largely uncharted territory.

These opportunities lie particularly in two areas. The first involves creating data science programmes for people who aren’t on campus. The second relates to partnering with governments and businesses to address Africa’s most important societal challenges and capitalise on opportunities for economic growth.

Mobile access

Less than 10% of people younger than 25 have access to higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It is not that the continent’s youth are uninterested in a higher education degree. Many are simply unable to afford full-time on-campus studies. So, if students can’t come to the university, the university must come to the students. The internet and a myriad of innovative distance learning platforms make this possible.

Only 40% of Africa’s population has access to the internet. That’s compared to 61% for the rest of the world. But the internet penetration rate is increasing faster on the continent than anywhere else. Bite-size online content can be taken as standalone modules or cumulated into a certified degree. Either way, online distance education formats can be offered at a lower cost. They are also more scalable than traditional classroom teaching.

In this way, Africa’s youth has the chance to earn a degree while maintaining informal or formal employment. This makes it a financially viable proposition.
They can also stay physically connected to their social networks of families and friends. This is important in preventing internal brain drains and exacerbating socio-economic disparities within and between African countries.

Data science lends itself particularly well to being taught through online learning programmes. This is because thriving in a virtual classroom requires the same creative, solution-oriented mindset that characterises the best data scientists. And much of the programme’s content – like managing and analysing data, writing code and deploying software solutions – happens from behind a laptop which is connected to the Cloud anyway.

Large corporates are another possible target audience. Many are eager to use data science to extract more value out of the data they’ve been collecting. The Vitality programme is a prime example. The South African insurance company Discovery uses trackers of physical activity, healthy grocery shopping and driving behaviour to incentivise healthy living and safe driving.

However, many companies lack the internal capacity to make their business model more data-driven. They could improve the situation by partnering with academic institutions to develop shorter term online and blended learning programmes for staff in particular departments.

These partnerships benefit everyone. Importantly, they also mean that the business and academic environments can share the risk of developing new learning materials and maximise these programmes’ relevance to the real world.

Data science in Africa, for Africa

There’s another vital area where African data science could surge out in front.

It is human nature to focus on immediate, locally perceived problems before venturing into fixing more remote ones. So people and organisations from elsewhere in the world may not always identify and try to tackle the African continent’s problems. These issues include improving access and equity in health care; improving road safety and bolstering food security.

Data science, led by Africa-based scientists, could play a key role in addressing all of these needs. That’s not to say collaborations with overseas partners should be discarded. These bring complementary expertise; avoid reinventing the wheel, and make it possible to make larger investments and ultimately have a bigger impact.

But local academics should take the lead in developing data-driven solutions to local challenges. They understand the social, cultural and political contexts. They are connected to the government departments, non-profit organisations and businesses that can put theoretical models into practice.

Solutions and service

My colleagues and I at the school – launched officially on July 29 – are excited to join the growing network of universities in Africa that are training the data scientists who will help shape the continent’s future. That future is one of ever-changing data, analytics and computer infrastructure. So our focus will be on teaching and practising data science in interdisciplinary joint ventures with partners in academia, industry and government. In this way we can design, test, validate and scale up home-grown, future-proof solutions and services to Africa’s challenges and business opportunities.The Conversation

Wim Delva, Acting director of the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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UN chief warns of ‘catastrophe’ from global food shortage

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UN chief warns of ‘catastrophe’ from global food shortage

The head of the United Nations warned Friday that the world faces “catastrophe” because of the growing shortage of food around the globe.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the war in Ukraine has added to the disruptions caused by climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and inequality to produce an “unprecedented global hunger crisis” already affecting hundreds of millions of people.

“There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022,” he said in a video message to officials from dozens of rich and developing countries gathered in Berlin. “And 2023 could be even worse.”

Guterres noted that harvests across Asia, Africa and the Americas will take a hit as farmers around the world struggle to cope with rising fertilizer and energy prices.

“This year’s food access issues could become next year’s global food shortage,” he said. “No country will be immune to the social and economic repercussions of such a catastrophe.”

Guterres said U.N. negotiators were working on a deal that would enable Ukraine to export food, including via the Black Sea, and let Russia bring food and fertilizer to world markets without restrictions.

He also called for debt relief for poor countries to help keep their economies afloat and for the private sector to help stabilize global food markets.

The Berlin meeting’s host, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, said Moscow’s claim that Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were to blame for food shortages was “completely untenable.”

Russia exported as much wheat in May and June this year as in the same months of 2021, Baerbock said.

She echoed Guterres’ comments that several factors underlie the growing hunger crisis around the world.

“But it was Russia’s war of attack against Ukraine that turned a wave into a tsunami,” Baerbock said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that Russia has no excuse for holding back vital goods from world markets.

“The sanctions that we’ve imposed on Russia collectively and with many other countries exempt food, exempt food products, exempt fertilizers, exempt insurers, exempt shippers,” he said.

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Bandits release Zamfara wedding guests after payment of ransom

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Bandits release Zamfara wedding guests after payment of ransom

Local and federal highways in the North-west have become vulnerable as bandits continue to ambush and abduct travellers.

The gunmen who abducted 29 people returning to Zamfara State from Sokoto State where they had gone to attend the wedding of colleagues have released them after the payment of an unspecified ransom.

The victims, who were mostly dealers of mobile phones and phone accessories at Bebeji Communication Market (Bebeji Plaza) in Gusau, the capital of Zamfara State were abducted in Sokoto 13 days ago.

Secretary of the GSM Dealers Association in the state, Ashiru Zurmi, confirmed the release of the victims but didn’t give details.

One of the victims reportedly died in captivity.

Though the amount paid as ransom to secure the release of the hostages has not been revealed, Abdullahi Lawal, whose brother was among those abducted, said their relatives were asked to make donations. He said his family raised N33,000 while the phone sellers’ association “provided the remaining money.”

“Every family was told to gather N400,000 while the members of the plaza and their colleagues in the state provided the remaining money. Some family members were able to raise the money in full, but we couldn’t. I took the money to the plaza and I was told that they were still negotiating with the bandits” he said.

He said he didn’t know how much was given to the bandits “but I’m happy that my brother is okay,” he said.

From N5m to N700,000

A phone accessories seller, Sharhabilu Muhammad, told PREMIUM TIMES over the phone that the officials of the phone dealers association negotiated with the bandits to reduce the ransom they originally demanded to release the captives.

“You know that the initial money they said was N5m for each of the captives but our officials kept negotiating with them (bandits) until they reduced the money to N700k,” he said.

When asked about the person who reportedly died in captivity, Mr Muhammed said his identity has not been revealed.

“We don’t know because even the bandits didn’t tell but we’ll surely find out when they (captives) arrive at Gusau tonight,” he added.

The police command spokesman, Mohammed Shehu, didn’t respond to calls and SMS sent to him on the development.

Backstory

PREMIUM TIMES reported that the wedding guests were abducted when bandits opened fire on the two buses they were travelling in a few kilometres after Bimasa in the Dogon Awo junction, Sokoto State.

They were returning from Tambuwal town in Sokoto State where they had attended the wedding of a colleague, Jamil Umar.

The captives were travelling on a Toyota Coaster bus belonging to the Universal Basic Education Commission UBEC and another bus owned by Gusau Local Government.

The bandits had demanded a ransom of N145 million to release the 29 hostages.

Bandits have been terrorising North-west states and a part of North-central Nigeria, killing and displacing hundreds of people and rustling domestic animals.

Travelling on federal and local highways is becoming dangerous as bandits block roads, abduct and kill motorists.

Major federal highways including Abuja-Kaduna, Gusau-Sokoto-Birnin Kebbi, and Birnin Gwari-Kaduna have become travellers’ nightmares with attacks and abduction or killing of travellers becoming a daily occurrence.

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Reps demand review of public officers’ salaries, allowances

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Reps demand review of public officers’ salaries, allowances

A motion seeking the intervention of the House of Representatives in the conflict between the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, and Justices of the Supreme Court, over issues bordering on welfare and working conditions suffered a setback on Thursday.

While the House called for a general review of salaries and allowances of all political office holders and public servants, the members were divided over which committees should handle the task.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary, Onofiok Luke, had moved a motion to seek the intervention of the chamber in the crisis rocking the apex court and better welfare package for judicial officers across the courts.

Luke, who moved the motion titled, ‘Need to Address the Deteriorating Working Conditions of Judicial Officers,’ prayed the House to urge the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission to upwardly review the remuneration of judicial officers in line with present economic realities.

The lawmaker prayed the House to urge the Federal Government to increase the budgetary allocation of the judiciary for the upcoming fiscal year and provide special intervention funds for the development of the arm

He further prayed the House to mandate the Committee on Judiciary to ensure compliance and report back within six weeks for further legislative action.

While the lawmakers were making amendments to the prayers, the Deputy Speaker, Ahmed Wase, called for an upward review of the welfare package of all public office holders.

Wase, who stated that he appreciated the memo from the Justices to the CJN, noted that only the RMAFC had the responsibility to review remuneration of government officials.

The Deputy Speaker made reference to a part of the motion that read, ‘The remuneration of judicial officers was last reviewed in 2008 by the RMAFC when the official exchange rate was N117.74 to $1, whereas the naira has considerably depreciated.’

Wase partly said, “I think this particular element does not affect just judicial officers, maybe because they cried out now. I don’t think it is right that we have to wait every time until people write letters of complaints and there is protest before we begin to do the right thing.”

Rephrasing Wase’s proposed amendment, Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, said: “The DSP’s amendment is that we should not isolate the Judiciary and all those enumerated constitutional bodies and public office holders. They should be reviewed; a comprehensive review based on all the things that Hon Luke said – the exchange rates and this and that.”

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