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How Africa will connect to the digital economy

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BYRON CLATTERBUCK, CEO at SEACOM, says there are two major focuses for telecoms players for the next few years: improving links to landlocked countries that don’t have access to international bandwidth, and facilitating the hosting and creation of content.

Since 2009, the African telecoms industry has come a long way in connecting people and businesses to reliable, affordable and fast Internet services. The new submarine cables that started to land off the continent’s east and west coasts from 2009 onwards brought with them more affordable and plentiful international bandwidth. They now circle the continent, offering a reliable and resilient ring of connectivity at faster and faster speeds.

Meanwhile, telecoms players have also invested in connecting metropolitan areas in most major economies with fibre as well as in building national and regional fibre backbones to connect towns and cities to the Internet. We’re also seeing the industry make investments in more fibre to the home and business as well as LTE/4G in many of the larger cities. This offers telecoms users seamless and fast connectivity, as well as a more consistent quality of service.

The effect on many African economies and people has been nothing short of transformative. In many countries, connectivity costs have fallen by a factor of ten and the quality of the Internet experience has dramatically improved for people across the continent. The result is that organisations and consumers have been able to put the Internet to work in powerful ways that helps drive growth while reducing costs.

Two focuses for the future

Against that backdrop, there are two major focuses for telecoms players for the next few years: improving links to predominantly landlocked countries that don’t yet have access to affordable international bandwidth, and facilitating the hosting and creation of content at open and neutral data centres within African countries.

When it comes to the first point, we’ll see innovative partnerships between governments, the private sector and multilateral financing institutions to help the smaller and landlocked countries that risk falling behind the rest of the continent. According to the World Bank, there are many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with less than 2.5 Internet users per 100 people.

By contrast, Kenya has 43 Internet users per 100 people and South Africa has 49 per 100. Thus, the digital divide is no longer just between Africa and the wealthier economies off-continent, but also between the leading and lagging countries in terms of their access to quality connectivity.

Building terrestrial fibre networks to connect towns and cities with each other, as well as to neighbouring countries and undersea cables, is challenging because of the sheer cost and long payback period involved. The road forward is for governments to work with neighbouring countries, the telecoms industry, and multilateral financing institutions to pool resources and drive efficiency in how those resources get deployed.

Private telecoms operators, like SEACOM, have been driving expansion from the cable stations of key high-speed international subsea cables to more landlocked countries and to the borders of landlocked countries, where regulations often block new private operators from entry. The pace of this is accelerating as more governments recognise that liberalisation, clear regulations, and competition drive Internet growth and the benefits associated with access to quality high-speed Internet.

From consumers to creators

As for hosting more content in Africa, the growing choice of reliable, carrier-neutral, data centres, open peering exchanges, content data networks and cloud ICT infrastructure are quickly changing market dynamics. More and more multinational telcos and Internet companies are now providing their content from within Africa’s borders.

User-generated content and collaboration, especially video, are growing as people flock to Facebook, YouTube, Skype and so on, to share and communicate. As the end-user experience on the web improves, local content proliferates and people become content creators and drivers rather than mere consumers.

We’re also seeing a heavy emphasis on the enterprise market from hosting and cloud companies in Africa, all looking to host locally so as to improve the user experience of cloud-based applications for business users. African enterprises tend to want cloud services hosted in their own countries because laws and regulations in many countries demand that sensitive corporate data be stored within the nation’s borders rather than offshore, and because they want the best possible performance and lowest latency.

The future comes to fruition

We’ve been talking about the cloud, video-on-demand and many other concepts for years, but Africa didn’t have the infrastructure to support these services. Now it’s finally coming to fruition because market deregulation, growing competition and end-user demand in most parts of Africa have forced content, application and infrastructure providers to speed up the deployment of new offerings.

We can expect significant social and economic benefits to follow in the wake of closer digital integration across Africa. Businesses will be able to become more efficient and more integrated with the rest of the world, thanks to the cloud. Governments will be able to deliver richer electronic services – for example, health and education – to their citizens. And for consumers, social media, video streaming, and other rich media services will quickly become a part of everyday life.

Africa News

Smart grids needed for Africa’s utilities

Power utilities across Africa should rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem, says COLIN BEANEY, Global Industry Director for Asset-intensive and Energy and Utilities at IFS.

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Africa’s abundant natural resources and urgent need for power mean that it is one of the most exciting and innovative energy markets in a world that is moving rapidly towards clean, renewable energy sources. The continent’s energy industry is taking new approaches to providing unserved and underserved communities with access to power, with an emphasis on smart technologies and greener energy sources.

Power systems are evolving from centralised, top-down systems as interest in off-grid technology grows among African businesses and consumers. And according to PwC, we will see installed power capacity rise from 2012’s 90GW to 380GW in 2040 in sub-Saharan Africa. Power utilities are needing to rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem.

Energy and utilities providers are transforming from centralised supply companies to more distributed, bi-directional service providers. They can only achieve this through the evolution of “smart grids” where sensors and smart meters will be able to provide the consumer with a more granular level of detail of power usage. This shift from an energy supplier to “lifestyle provider” will require a much more dynamic and optimised approach to maintenance and field service.

African companies must thus embrace digital transformation as an imperative. This transformation begins by embracing enterprise asset management to improve asset utilisation. The subsequent steps are enhancing upstream and downstream supply chain management; resource optimisation; introducing enterprise operational intelligence; embracing new technologies such as the Internet of Things, machine learning, and predictive maintenance; and becoming a smart utility.

Embracing mobility to drive ROI

Getting it right is about putting in place an enterprise backbone that accommodates asset and project management, multinational languages and currencies, new energies and markets, visualisation of the entire value chain, and mobility apps. Mobile technologies that support the field workforce have a vital role to play in driving better ROI from utilities’ investments in enterprise asset management and enterprise resource planning solutions.

Today’s leading enterprise asset management solutions feature powerful functionality for mobile management of the complete workflow of work orders – from logging status changes and updates, from receiving and creating new orders to concluding the job and reporting time, material and expenses. Such solutions are easy to deploy and intuitive for end users to learn and use.

Importantly for organisations operating in parts of the continent with poor telecoms infrastructure, connectivity is not an issue. The solutions work offline and synchronises when network connectivity is available. Users can work on any device—laptops, tablets, and smartphones—commercial or ruggedised.

By ensuring that field technicians have easy access to information and processes, the mobile solution enables technicians and maintenance engineers to easily do the following tasks:

·         Create a new work order on the fly and log new opportunities

·         Access both historical and planned work information when requested

·         Permit customers to sign when the job is completed

·         Capture measurements and inspection notes on route work orders

·         Create new fault reports on routing

·         Facilitate documentation through photo capturing

·         Provide easy access to technical data and preventive actions.

The power of mobility allows the engineer to be the origin of all data capture on a service event. They can easily inquire on asset history, record parts used or parts needed for repair, record labour hours, and expenses as they occur, and any notes of repairs performed. When coupled with workforce management tools, such solutions unlock significant productivity gains for utilities who are trying to get the most from their workforce and assets.

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How machine learning can save your life

Over 11000 people died during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.The virus hopped between Guinea, Leone, Nigeria and Liberia, before making its way to the UK and US. But what would have happened if analysis and machine learning stepped in to help solve the problem, asks ANESHAN RAMALOO of SAS.

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Over 11000 people died during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.The virus hopped between Guinea, Leone, Nigeria and Liberia, before making its way to the UK and US. But what would have happened if analysis and machine learning stepped in to help solve the problem, asks ANESHAN RAMALOO of SAS.

But what if we could have predicted the outbreak months before it happened, buying us time to take proactive measures to contain it and curb its spread?

With access to overwhelming volumes of data, the computational power needed to store and analyse this data in real time, and sophisticated algorithms that can find patterns in the data and alert authorities to health problems before they become, well, problems, pandemics don’t have to be as devastating as they have been in the past.

In fact, with advanced data analytics, we can better manage any disease – long-term, short-term or pandemic – resulting in better patient treatment, more efficient use of resources and cost savings.

It’s been done before.

By analysing data from social media, blogs, online forums and keyword searches, we were able to predict the 2012-2013 US flu season three months before the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued its first official warning.

Imagine the impact if the same analytical power was applied across the entire healthcare spectrum – not only on a national and global level, but right down to the individual level.

Data evolution

In the past, health workers relied on manually intensive, paper-based systems to record infections and deaths during disease outbreaks. Not only was it easy for errors to slip through but because the data was anecdotal and historical, authorities did not get a complete understanding of the reach and impact of the outbreak.

During the Ebola outbreak, the CDC adopted a mobile data collection system that enabled health workers to instantly submit information to a database via text messages. This low-cost method of information gathering not only resulted in fewer errors but also allowed analysts to draw up detailed maps of population movements, which made it easier to understand how the disease was likely to spread, and where to set up treatment centres.

While this was certainly an improvement on the paper-based systems of old, the drawback was that mobile data was historic and did not provide researchers with the ability to track developments and population movements in real time.

Data-driven action

But mobile phones are just one source of data. Today, health authorities can overlay thousands of data sources – including social media, health and physician reports, keyword searches, media reports, transactional data from retailers and pharmacies, airline ticket sales, geospatial data and more – to not only better manage diseases and outbreaks when they do happen, but to see them coming months in advance – and what could happen if we don’t act on the information.

By mining structured and unstructured data, we can track the movements of infected populations and who they come into contact with; we can measure the success of containment policies, education campaigns and treatments – and what to do if they’re not working; we can determine the effect of weather and other environmental factors on the spread of diseases.

Never before have we been able to act on information to save lives, not just during pandemics but through better understanding and treatment of diseases.

Personalised treatment

Until now, standard treatments for diseases such as cancer and HIV have been applied to all patients, regardless of their unique profiles and with little understanding as to why some people respond well to certain treatments and others don’t.

But by analysing and creating ‘medical maps’ of individuals that take into account their anatomy, physiology, DNA, RNA and chemical composition, doctors can prescribe personalised treatments that have a greater chance of success.

There are many other benefits of data analysis in healthcare:

·        Personalised treatment can result in fewer hospital admissions and can produce faster results and better experiences for patients;

·        By better understanding the impact of lifestyle and diet on health, medical aid providers can educate their members with the aim of improving their health, which could result in cost savings for both the provider and the member;

·        Governments can use data to develop proactive approaches to protecting and promoting public health, to prioritise services and to find ways to cut costs so that they can provide healthcare to more citizens.

·        By sharing data and results from clinical trials and combining that data with academic, patient and industry data, medical researchers can better understand the genetics of viruses, why some strains are more deadly than others, and why some people are more resistant to viruses. This could spark innovation and generate new insights that ultimately improve treatment and outcomes.

AI and machine learning

As the use of intelligent algorithms, machine learning and natural language processing becomes more entrenched in advanced data analytics, technology will increasingly supplement the skills of humans to produce faster and more accurate medical diagnoses.

We’re already seeing successful applications of artificial intelligence (AI) in predicting relapse in leukaemia patients and in distinguishing between different types of cancer.

Machine learning can extract valuable insights from unstructured data like clinical notes and academic journals to provide even larger datasets that will transform the medical industry into a proactive front against diseases.

There are plenty of doomsday theories about how machines will supersede our intelligence and rise against us. But there aren’t enough stories about the potential of data analytics, AI and machine learning to supplement human skills and knowledge to drastically changes lives for the better – and even save them. Right now, it’s looking more likely that machines will actually help us to live longer – and I don’t know many people who would object to that.

 

  • ANESHAN RAMALOO, ‎Data Scientist and Senior Business Solutions Manager at SAS.
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