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Dell puts Lab in Diepsloot

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Dell has recently installed a Learning Lab in Diepsloot housing a dozen computer workstations: networked to each other and to the Internet, and self-sustained through solar power.

Among the low-slung roofs of Diepsloot, next to the dust kicked up by playing children and bustling adults, stands a conspicuous metal container. Its past of carrying goods across oceans has been replaced, the roof now adorned with solar panels and windows letting light inside. The container’s massive doors are open, as inviting as its cool and calm colour scheme, and inside rows of computers beckon eager learners to join.

This is the Dell Learning Lab, an ambitious and successful project to bring digital technology wherever it is needed. Using the latest in technology efficiencies, a Learning Lab is home to a dozen computer workstations: networked to each other and to the Internet, and self-sustained through solar power.

But the reason why these Labs have been an incredible success is because they make sense on a local level, starting with the community first.

“I absolutely this solution,” said Natasha Reuben, Head of Transformation at Dell EMC South Africa. “It’s a fantastic way to not put pressure on a school or rural community in terms of electricity, as this solution is off the grid. More importantly, this little container has the potential to do so much. Kids can go in during the day and learn. They can code and play with new technology. In the evening the community has access to it. They can use it to find jobs and research.”

One example Reuben loves is that of an old grandmother, a Gogo, who joined her son at one of the Labs while he updated his CV. She tagged along not so much for the company, but to find new recipes online.  The depth of the kind of access to the internet and help that it brings is what the Learning Labs are setting out to achieve. 

Making Technology Matter

“Technology is forever changing and I think it is important to learn about technology like this,” said Ntale Mametse, a pupil at one of the labs. “It gets you to think about other careers that you didn’t know about before.”

Since launching in 2014, sixteen labs have been launched – some in Kenya and Nigeria, but the majority live across South Africa. Each is carefully chosen: Dell works with partners such as Change The World and Sci-Bono to find communities who want such facilities. It may seem like a given that anyone would approve of a lab, but there is considerably more nuance to such a project. Indeed, this is why many corporate social investment programmes fail: they take a parachute approach, the embodiment of ‘build it and they will come.’

In reality, if there is no sense of ownership from the community, the project inevitably fails. Instead of relying on the flawed determinism that technology will inevitably deliver good, asking what the community needs is crucial. Local organisations, churches and other groups are approached. But the foundation of this is the school where the Lab will be located. If the staff are not co-opted and given the lead on a Lab, it risks becoming a white elephant.

“I love the knowledge that we are gaining here, because it helps me integrate my lessons,” said Mike Masinge, a 19-year veteran teacher from Olifantsfontein. “It helps me teach to the best of my abilities.”

Each Lab is equipped to meet the varied demands and desires of a rising community. A curriculum is designed to help the studies of the pupils, and staff are assessed and trained to take advantage of the Lab’s services. But this goes further: Dell and its partners continuously evaluate the Labs and adjust them. At a high level every lab is scrutinised at least once a quarter, but on the ground it is a weekly and even daily activity.

The Labs are also always connected, enabling Dell administrators to know if there are technical problems. The computer equipment is continually monitored to ensure they are still working, a concept in business technology called ‘managed services.’

Community-Driven Success

But the fundamental success of the project is rooted in community support. It must be seen as having real value, which is why every Lab are available to the larger town beyond the school. Each container is also a wireless hotspot and locals are frequently engaged to see what they need from the container and if they grasp some of its potential. It’s forged a high degree of ownership with each Lab, down to community members guarding their local containers.

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“Most of our learners, if you ask them what is it that they get from the lab, they say they are getting more information, accessing books they don’t have,” said Sihlomo Puzam, one of the parents whose children frequent their local Lab. “It has changed my child’s life so much.”

Technology does not change the world. That is a myth, often told by those who live in the middle of a technology storm. But for those waiting at the edges for that rain to reach them, technology’s true purpose is clear: it’s a means to an end, to create a better life. Empowering people through technology, on their terms, is the key to success.

The Dell Learning Labs are proof of this. By putting the community first and providing technology that makes sense, not just tick a few altruistic boxes, is how real change happens. As new Labs arrive across the country, we all take a step closer towards a united and prosperous future.

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Gadget goes to Hollywood

Gadget visited the Netflix studios last week. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK talks to CEO Reed Hastings.

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is no stranger to Africa. He has travelled throughout South Africa, taught maths in Swaziland for two years with the Peace Corps, and visits close family in Maputo. As a result, he is keenly aware of the South African entertainment and connectivity landscape.

In an exclusive interview at the Netflix studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, last week, he revealed that Netflix had no intentions of challenging MultiChoice’s dominance of live sports broadcasting on the continent.

“Other firms will do sport and news; we are trying to focus on movies and TV shows,” he said. “There are a lot of areas that are video that we are not doing: sports, news, video gaming, user-generated content. We don’t have live sport.

Reed Hastings at the Netflix studios in Hollywood last week. Pic: ADAM ROSE

“We’re not replacing MultiChoice at all. Their subscriber growth is steady in South Africa. They serve a need that’s independent of the Internet, via low-price satellite. There is no intention of capturing that audience. If they’re growing, it’s because they serve a need.”

While Reed ruled out any collaboration with MultiChoice on its satellite delivery platform, despite its collaboration with another pay-TV service, Sky TV in the United Kingdom, he did not close the door. He stressed that Netflix saw itself as an Internet-based service, and would pursue the opportunities offered by evolving broadband in Africa.

“If you look in other markets like the USA, how Comcast carries us on set-top boxes with their other services, it could happen with MultiChoice, the same as with all the pay-TV providers.

“We’re really focused on being a service over the Internet and not over satellite. Our service doesn’t work on satellite. Where we work with Sky is on Internet-connected devices. We’re happy to work on Internet-connected devices. We tend to work on smart TVs, but need broadband Internet for that.

“Broadband is getting faster in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa – we can see the positive trendlines – so it’s more likely we will work with broadband Internet companies.”

Hastings is a firm believer in the idea that one content provider’s success does not depend on pushing another down.

“HBO has grown at the same time as we have, so can see our success doesn’t determine their success. What matters is amazing content with which the world falls in love.”

Click here to read about Netflix’s international expansion, and how the streaming service selects content for its platform.

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Take these 5 steps to digital

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By MARK WALKER, Associate Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Digital transformation isn’t a buzz word because it sounds nice and looks good on the business CV. It is fundamental to long-term business success. IDC anticipates that 75% of enterprises will be on the path to digital transformation by 2027. 

However, digital transformation is not a process that ticks a box and moves to the next item on the agenda – it is defined by the organisation’s shift towards a digitally empowered infrastructure and employee. It is an evolution across system, infrastructure, process, individual and leadership and should follow clear pathways to ensure sustainable success.

The nature of the enterprise has changed completely with the influence of digital, cloud and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and success is reliant on strategic change.

There is a lot more ownership and transparency throughout the organisation and there is a responsibility that comes with that – employees want access to information, there has to be speed in knowledge, transactions and engagement,” he adds. “To ensure that the organisation evolves alongside digital and demand, it has to follow five very clear pathways to long-term, achievable success.

The first of these is to evaluate where the enterprise sits right now in terms of its digital journey. This will differ by organisation size and industry, as well as its reliance on technology. A smaller organisation that only needs a basic accounting function or the internet for email will have far different considerations to a small organisation that requires high-end technology to manage hedge funds or drive cloud solutions. The same comparisons apply to the enterprise-level organisation. The mining sector will have a completely different sub-set of technology requirements and infrastructure limitations to the retail or finance sectors.

Ultimately, every organisation, regardless of size or industry, is reliant on technology to grow or deliver customer service, but their digital transformation requirements are different. To ensure that investment into artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, knowledge engines, automation and connectivity are accurately placed within the business and know exactly where the business is going.

The second step is to examine what the business wants to achieve. Again, the goals of the organisation over the long and short term will be entirely sector dependent, but it is essential that it examine what the competitive environment looks like and what influences customer expectations. This understanding will allow for the business to hone its digital requirements accordingly.

The third step is to match expectations to reality. You need to see how you can move your digital transformation strategy forward and what areas require prioritisation, what funding models will support your digital aspirations, and how this tie into what the market wants. Ultimately, every step of the process has to be prioritised to ensure it maps back to where you are and the strategic steps that will take you to where you want to go.

The fourth step is to look at the operational side of the process. This is as critical as any other aspect of the transformation strategy as it maps budget to skills to infrastructure in such a way as to ensure that any project delivers return on investment. Budget and funding are always top of mind when it comes to digital transformation – these are understandably key issues for the business. How will it benefit from the investment? How will it influence the customer experience? What impact will this have on the ongoing bottom line? These questions tie neatly into the fifth step in the process – the feedback loop.

This is often the forgotten step, but it is the most important. The feedback loop is critical to ensuring that the digital transformation process is achieving the right results, that the right metrics are in place, and that the needle is moving in the right direction. It is within this feedback loop that the organisation can consistently refine the process to ensure that it moves to each successive step with the right metrics in place.

There is also one final element that every organisation should have in place throughout its digital evolution. An element that many overlook – engagement. There must be a real desire to change, from the top of the organisation right down to the bottom, and an understanding of what it means to undertake this change and why it is essential. This is why this will be a key discussion at the 2019 IDC South Africa CIO Summit taking place in April this year. With this in place, the five steps to digital transformation will make sense and deliver the right results.

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