How Africa can benefit from the data revolution

 in The Guardian: “….The modern information infrastructure is about movement of data. From data we derive information and knowledge, and that knowledge can be propagated rapidly across the country and throughout the world. Facebook and Google have both made massive investments in machine learning, the mainstay technology for converting data into knowledge. But the potential for these technologies in Africa is much larger: instead of simply advertising products to people, we can imagine modern distributed health systems, distributed markets, knowledge systems for disease intervention. The modern infrastructure should be data driven and deployed across the mobile network. A single good idea can then be rapidly implemented and distributed via the mobile phone app ecosystems.

The information infrastructure does not require large scale thinking and investment to deliver. In fact, it requires just the reverse. It requires agility and innovation. Larger companies cannot react quickly enough to exploit technological advances. Small companies with a good idea can grow quickly. From IBM to Microsoft, Google and now Facebook. All these companies now agree on one thing: data is where the value lies. Modern internet companies are data-driven from the ground up. Could the same thing happen in Africa’s economies? Can entire countries reformulate their infrastructures to be data-driven from the ground up?

Maybe, or maybe not, but it isn’t necessary to have a grand plan to give it a go. It is already natural to use data and communication to solve real world problems. In Silicon Valley these are the challenges of getting a taxi or reserving a restaurant. In Africa they are often more fundamental. John Quinn has been in Kampala, Uganda at Makerere University for eight years now targeting these challenges. In June this year, John and other researchers from across the region came together for Africa’s first workshop on data science at Dedan Kimathi University of Technology. The objective was to spread knowledge of technologies, ideas and solutions. For the modern information infrastructure to be successful software solutions need to be locally generated. African apps to solve African problems. With this in mind the workshop began with a three day summer school on data science which was then followed by two days of talks on challenges in African data science.

The ideas and solutions presented were cutting edge. The Umati project uses social media to understand the use of ethnic hate speech in Kenya (Sidney Ochieng, iHub, Nairobi). The use of social media for monitoring the evolution and effects of Ebola in west Africa (Nuri Pashwani, IBM Research Africa). The Kudusystem for market making in Ugandan farm produce distribution via SMS messages (Kenneth Bwire, Makerere University, Kampala). Telecommunications data for inferring the source and spread of a typhoid outbreak in Kampala (UN Pulse Lab, Kampala). The Punya system for prototyping and deployment of mobile phone apps to deal with emerging crises or market opportunities (Julius Adebayor, MIT) and large scale systems for collating and sharing data resources Open Data Kenya and UN OCHA Human Data Exchange….(More)”