PULSE LAB DIARIES

A New Generation of Data Science Innovators in Africa

John Quinn
Dec 28, 2015

The Data Revolution has arrived on the African continent. Just in the last two years many changes have taken place, taking data science from theory to practice. Many stakeholders are driving this change; from universities, private sector companies, NGO’s and initiatives like Pulse Lab Kampala.Uganda and its neighbour Kenya are actively joining these developments.

IBM Research Africa is based in Nairobi and does interesting work, for example on water and energy resources. The iHub in Kenya recently opened a Data Science & Visualization Lab. The UN is active in embracing and advancing data science, both though Pulse Lab Kampala and the UN OCHA’s HDX Data Lab in the Horn of Africa region, based out of Nairobi.

From universities in the region there is new work on bioinformatics, telecoms data analytics and market analysis. So there is a lot of activity and interest in data science at the moment, but the field is still nascent here. In order for the field to develop, it is important to have forums in which people working on different projects can cross-pollinate ideas and share their experiences.

That’s why Kenya was the perfect place to host the first Workshop on Data Science in Africa in the summer of 2015. The co-organizers of the workshop included the University of Sheffield, Dedan Kimathi University of Technology, Makerere University and Pulse Lab Kampala.

The workshop began with a three-day summer school on data science, followed by two days of talks and expert presentations.

A few highlights and topics participants agreed upon include:

  • Data science methods can be applied to many fundamental issues in Africa; public health, water resources, agriculture and urbanisation.
  • The datasets needed to do this exist and are increasingly abundant, but access to them can be difficult. This is a barrier to entry.
  • There are ample prototypes and demonstrations of possibility available, but getting data science tools deployed at scale remains a challenge.
  • The newness of the data science field is an obstacle. But this can also be an opportunity. In the same way that African telecoms networks were able to largely bypass the era of copper wiring and move straight to wireless networks and fiber, the information infrastructure here can benefit from the most recent methods and technologies without being overly constrained by legacy systems.

 

Pulse Lab Kampala continues to work with collaborators to tackle these challenges in the region.  We’re working to drive innovation and enable the ecosystem by demonstrating the use of new data sources – such as telecommunications data, remote sensing and radio – by engaging with decision makers to solicit their views on what the problems are, get feedback on potential solutions, and by acting as a bridge between the policy makers and the technical community in the region.

Relevant links & further reading about the Workshop on Data Science in Africa: