IBM Research has opened its second research location on the African continent and announced new project collaborations in the areas of data driven healthcare, digital urban ecosystems and astronomy.
As part of a 10-year investment program through South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry and working closely with the Department of Science and Technology, the new research lab is based at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). *The university was recently ranked amongst the top 10 in emerging economies by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
IBM researchers in South Africa with backgrounds in machine learning, mathematics, computer science, robotics, genomics and computational biology, are exploring the use of cognitive computing, the Internet of Things and Big Data to support South Africa’s national priorities, drive skills development and foster innovation-based economic growth.
“South Africa is a tremendous growth and transformation story, yet its increasing population and healthcare delivery shortfalls continue to pose challenges in the country,” said Solomon Assefa, director, IBM Research – Africa. “With the ability to detect patterns and discover new correlations, cognitive and cloud computing and the Internet of Things can provide potential solutions.”
The lab’s team of scientists is already collaborating extensively with local universities, research institutions, innovation centers, start-ups and government agencies. This will help foster South Africa’s emerging technology ecosystem and develop and scale new innovations.
“The launch of the IBM Research laboratory is an exciting milestone in the move towards a new era of globally competitive research, innovation and entrepreneurship that will be emerging out of the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein,” said Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. “Wits is delighted to be collaborating with IBM. We look forward to seeing top talent congregate to address the continent’s most intractable problems and work on the world’s next game changing technologies.”
IBM provided the following information:
Aligned with areas of strategic national importance, the lab’s focus areas include:
Data Driven Healthcare
· In support of the World Health Organization’s End TB (Tuberculosis) Strategy, IBM scientists are designing wearable sensor technology connected to the Watson Internet of Things to trace the spread of highly infectious, communicable diseases. This innovation will help healthcare organizations and health officials develop prevention strategies and respond effectively.
· IBM scientists are developing cognitive learning approaches to transform cancer reporting, prevention and precision medicine in Africa. In a proof of concept study, IBM scientists have discovered a basic molecular link between cancer causing genes and those associated with metastasis, the cause of 90% of cancer related deaths*. Preliminary results from this work have been presented recently. Using anonymous, unstructured data provided by the National Cancer Registry in South Africa and in collaboration with the University of Witwatersrand Medical School, the team is developing cognitive algorithms to automate the inference of national cancer statistics in South Africa. This technology is expected to reduce a five-year time lag in cancer statistics reporting to real-time.
· With the support of the City of Johannesburg, IBM scientists have collected 65 samples of microbes and bacteria from 19 bus stations across the city as part of the global Metagenomics and Metadesign of the Subways and Urban Biomes (MetaSUB) international consortium. Once the samples are processed the results will be available to city planners, public health officials and scientists who will use the data to help officials predict and prepare for future disease outbreaks and discover new species and biological systems.
- In early September, scientists from IBM, H3ABioNet and the University of Notre Dame will host a hackathon on anti-malarial drug resistance and drug combination prediction.
Digital Urban Ecosystems
· Building on IBM’s global Green Horizons initiative, researchers at the new lab are working closely with experts from South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to analyze historical and real-time data from environmental monitoring stations. Using machine learning and cognitive models, the data collected in the City of Johannesburg, the City of Tshwane and the Vaal Industrial Triangle will help provide more insight about air pollution and model the effectiveness of intervention strategies. The project has recently been extended to predict ground level ozone and air quality forecasting.
· Commuters in the City of Johannesburg currently spend 35 minutes extra travel time per day due to traffic congestion, according to the Tom Tom Traffic Index. Unreliable traffic light infrastructure provides challenges to traffic light management in the city. Using real time anonymized traffic data from TomTom combined with Twitter, IBM scientists have developed a traffic optimization recommendation tool which can help city officials dispatch traffic volunteers, known locally as pointsmen, to the intersections where they are most urgently needed.
- The City of Cape Town often battles with devastating wild fires, due to its unique topography and vegetation. Using data from The Weather Company, an IBM business, and the City of Cape Town’s Open Data portal, IBM scientists have developed a cognitive dashboard. This can assess fire incidence risk and severity to help officials raise public awareness and prepare for emergency response.
· The number of people living off-the-grid in Africa has grown by 114 million since 2000**. To help meet the energy needs of communities who are living remotely or would like to make use of renewable energy, IBM scientists have developed a mobile app which uses analytics to determine the solar requirements of users based on their energy needs and location.
Exploring the Universe
· In 2018 the, Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope, will be built in South Africa and Australia. IBM scientists are collaborating with SKA South Africa (SKA-SA) on the development of unsupervised algorithms which can make groundbreaking astronomical discoveries. Scientists expect to eventually apply the cognitive technology to other applications, including the development of new pharmaceuticals and genomics. IBM and SKA-SA have signed an agreement to explore the advancement of this technology and to lead some major developments in data science over the next decade.
· IBM scientists in South Africa are joining NASA, the SETI Institute and Swinburne University to develop an Apache Spark application to analyze the 168 million radio events detected over the past 10 years by the Allen Telescope Array (ATA). The volume and complexity of the data requires advanced machine learning algorithms to separate noise from true signals of interest. These requirements are well suited to the scalable in-memory capabilities offered by Apache Spark when combined with the big data capabilities of the IBM Cloud and IBM Bluemix Spark.
Open Infrastructure, Sustainable Design
The new lab features an Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) platform based on OpenStack connected to IBM Storwize for efficiently provisioning 80TB of storage for research projects.
The lab is located in the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein – an inner-city area which is today re-emerging as a vibrant Johannesburg district. The two-level, 900 square meter lab has a DIY maker space with electronic design equipment and a 3D printer.
Agile work spaces provide a collaborative environment for IBM scientists to train and mentor Wits students and local start-ups. Developer communities across Africa will also have access, at no charge, to a LinuxONE Community Cloud located in Johannesburg, which acts as a virtual R&D engine for creating, testing and piloting emerging applications via the cloud.
IBM Research Innovating for Africa
IBM has operated in Africa for almost 100 years. Today, its operations span 24 countries, including South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Kenya and Tanzania. IBM Research – Africa is the first commercial research organization on the continent, conducting applied and far-reaching exploratory research into Africa’s grand challenges and committed to delivering commercially-viable innovations that impact people’s lives.
IBM’s first African research lab was opened in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013. The South African research facility supports IBM’s Equity Equivalent Investment Programme (EEIP). In recent years, IBM has also invested in the development of an IBM Client Centre, an Innovation Centre, Service Delivery Centre and a number of offices and data centers across South Africa.
IoT’s answer for Africa
IoT and digitization enables us to efficiently, proactively and predictively address the sustainability challenges that are faced globally and on the African continent, RESHAAD SHA, CEO of Liquid Telecom.
With Africa’s population set to increase from around 1.3-billion in 2018 to 1.7-billion in 2030, both challenges and opportunities are presented with regards managing issues including food production and security pose as well the utilization of limited natural resources in a sustainable manner.
Water scarcity and quality for example are realities that negatively impact health, food production and security. Population growth rates and climatic changes place an exponential demand on this scarce and dwindling resource. These are just some of the sustainability challenges facing not just the African continent, but other developing nations and the world as a whole. In addition to this, the demand for the delivery of basic services as healthcare and sanitation also increases.
Against this background of African population growth lies the grim projection that Africa will account for more than 50% of child deaths (under 5) by 2030, while each day, nearly 1000 children die owing to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases according to the UNICEF 2017 trends in child mortality report. It’s an alarming fact, given that while some 2.6-billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources since 1990, 663-million people still do not have access.
The department of Water Affairs and Forestry estimate that the agricultural sector accounts for more than 50% of water use in South Africa and experience water losses of between 30 and 40 per cent. Further, the department states that around 35% of irrigation system losses, often nutrient enriched and containing herbicides, pesticides, and other pollutants, return to rivers. These are just some of the ways in which reactive, inefficient, and manually driven processes have limited us in responding in an impactful manner and timeously mitigating these risks
It is for these reasons and other socio economic and environmental concerns that the United Nations has established its Sustainable Development Goals strategy, addressing the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, and environmental degradation.
We need to look at smarter ways that leverage technology in order to addressing these challenges. The situation requires a radical response that delivers a proactive, predictive and data driven approach to addressing these issues with exponentially growing levels of speed and impact.
The IoT ecosystem, comprising of sensors, connectivity, data analytics and workflow automation platforms, and applications are at the core of acquiring, analyzing and harnessing the insights that can be integrated into agriculture, service delivery, health and resource management processer – IoT is at the core of a digitization
One such sector which has benefited immensely from technology is in agriculture pest control, with the implementation of AI and IoT by Spanish startup AgroPestAlert. The innovation makes use of “smart” traps that capture insects and analyse their wing beats to identify their species and even their sex. Placed throughout the fields, the traps communicate with the system to predict an imminent invasion. The system will send alerts to phones, tablets and computers and use an easy-to-understand visual tool to cue farmers instantly.
Around 200-million Africans use approximately 1-million manual pumps across the continent to manually access clean drinking water. IoT applications have been utilised in assuring the delivery of water through manual these pumps, According to estimates, at least one-third of those pumps will break down at least once in its lifecycle, and up to 70% will break in the second year of operation. The impact of not having access to clean drinking water is dehydration or water borne pandemics.
In the Kenyan Region of Kyusoa, Oxford University began a proof of concept project in 2013, which made use of motion sensors) to capture the movements of the pumps’ handle which was transmitted and analysed in real time. A decision support system based on real data was used to predict pump malfunctions, allowing for a better planning and shortening the time needed to repair broken pumps, or avoiding malfunctions altogether, directly improving the access to clean drinking water for the rural population.
Liquid Telecom realise that the future of sustainability lies in technology and innovations such as IoT. We provide high speed fiber connectivity to interconnect as well as access platforms to build IoT solutions, in addition to access to Microsoft Azure suite of platforms for analytics and algorithm driven based processing and execution. Our Pan African network enables collaboration and cross border innovation and learning, fast well as the capability to efficiently scale out these solutions on Africa’s Liquid Cloud.
Africa start-up ecosystem can drive blockchain
Through nurturing and technical support, Africa’s tech start-up ecosystem can be a major driver of Blockchain-based innovation says BEN ROBERTS, Liquid Telecom’s Group Chief Technology and Innovation Officer.
African communities have always come-up with inventive solutions to local problems. Take Somalia as an example. The country is said to have one of the largest diaspora populations in the world. It has few commercial banks and relations with international creditors remain frozen due to debts incurred in the late 1980s.
So its population uses Hawala; an informal value transfer system based on the performance and honour of a large network of money brokers. For example, it would mean a Somali based in the US would give money to a local branch agent, where it is sent to a central country clearing house, then onto a clearing house based in another country (typically somewhere in the Middle East). From there it goes to a Somali agent, before the funds are finally collected by an individual in Somalia.
Much like blockchain, the Hawala system is built on trust – but that’s where any similarities end. In fact, cryptocurrencies – many of which are blockchain-powered – may eventually become a replacement for Hawala and other existing forms of international remittances. Cryptocurrencies can enable people to exchange currency online without any middleman – even banks.
International remittance is one of many compelling use cases for blockchain. The technology’s ability to digitise trust makes it a unique fit for many African countries, particularly those where processes and supply chains remain poorly designed and susceptible to corruption.
At Liquid Telecom, we’re excited about the potential for blockchain technology across the region. Along with other emerging technologies, we recognise this as another major new digital opportunity for businesses that utilises our network infrastructure and services. The rise of blockchain innovation will rely on the skills and talent of the region’s software developers, who themselves rely on a high-speed internet connection and access to cloud-based tools. Our fibre footprint – which will soon stretch all the way from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt – is providing the foundations for digital innovation, while our partnership with Microsoft is enabling access to the cloud-based services and tools needed to create digital solutions for local problems.
Last year, with support from Microsoft, we set-up our Go Cloud initiative, which is helping to provide the region’s start-up communities with technical support, training and access to software. Using Azure Cloud, start-ups can cut development time and experiment easily with modular, preconfigured networks and infrastructure, enabling them to iterate and validate blockchain scenarios quickly by using built-in connections to Azure.
We’re starting to see the first crop of African start-ups experimenting with blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Take Rwandan start-up Uplus, which is utilising blockchain to secure all transactions on its digital crowdfunding platform. The technology also allows the platform to take contributions from any country and covert it to the local currency.
A lot of existing applications in Africa tend to fall short when it comes to user experience, and blockchain could certainly help address some of these issues – be it by creating a new trusted way to make payments or verify user identification. During this early stage of blockchain experimentation and proof of concept, it will be crucial for start-ups and businesses to develop solutions that are relevant for African communities. Without that, the technology won’t gather momentum.
Regulation can nurture or constrict the technology and will have a role to play in being a ‘make or break’ for blockchain. Living in Kenya, I’m proud to see how proactive the government has been in seizing the blockchain opportunity. The creation by the President of a taskforce earlier this year dedicated to blockchain – led by the former permanent secretary for Ministry of Information and Communications, Dr. Bitange Ndemo (see page 7) – shows how committed the country is to being a leader in emerging technologies. As more African countries follow Kenya’s lead, blockchain should hopefully find itself resonating more powerfully with local businesses and consumers.