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Machine learning will go big and small in 2017

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Machine learning is an emerging trend in South Africa, with demand for data scientists rising and university programmes incorporating it in study programmes. DataProphet MD, FRANS CRONJE, highlights South Africa’s top machine learning trends.

Machine learning as a subset of Artificial Intelligence is an emerging trend in South Africa, with demand for data scientists rising sharply and university programmes incorporating the discipline in study programmes. However, still a long way behind international counterparts, South African machine learning trends for 2017 place focus on our unique and emerging market.

The machine learning sector is really beginning to take form in South Africa with various start-ups taking off and entering the international scene.

At DataProphet, we specialise in the application of machine learning algorithms to provide actionable solutions for a variety of industries. Having built a presence in the U.S. we have experienced the difference in industry trends first hand.

South Africa’s diverse range of spoken languages makes it difficult to use existing personal assistants, chatbots and speech recognition tools which were designed solely for the English language. This is just one example of how approaches to machine learning need to be tailored to the local market.

In addition, inequality in terms of income and high levels of poverty means that fewer people have the means to take part in the growing Internet of Things (IoT) trend. This is also influenced by lower levels of affordable smartphone, computer and data access.

Fortunately, South African companies – not generally known for their customer care – are starting to wake up to the possibilities of efficient customer relationship management (CRM) through bespoke products, targeted marketing and improved customer service.

Our top four trends for machine learning in South Africa for 2017 are:

1. Big Data

Until recently, there were only a few companies who had the expertise needed to handle large datasets. However, as Big Data ‘know-how’ continues to spread across local industries, organisations will begin to see the benefits of uncovering new insights and opportunities presented through previously untouched data.

One way of using this data which has seen incredible growth is in segmentation – distinguishing customers based on their behaviour. Vodacom’s ‘Just 4 You’ campaign, for example, enabled businesses to better understand their needs and provide a personalised experience while also improving profits.

2. Chatbots

In a country where many digital and technological services are limited, chatbots are set to see steady increase in use cases as the technology graduates out of a being seen as ‘gimmicky’. Their return will see an increase in assistance with legal and financial advice, medical diagnosis and customer support.

ABSA has already introduced such a chatbot in the market, increasing the ways in which the bank engages with customers.

3. Computer Vision

The near-human level performance of computer vision will definitely be a trend to watch out for in 2017. For example, useful in the South African retail industry, smart cameras may be able to identify when a shoplifting or a break-in occurs and then notify security services.

4. Autonomous Worker Drones

Lastly, while smaller and far less technologically advanced drones made it onto the wishlists of teenagers over the festive season, advanced drone-mounted cameras are likely to gain popularity in South Africa this year. The efficiency of such technology is undeniable with the ability to battle rhino poachers by scanning large areas and reporting on the whereabouts of wildlife and people.

Beyond 2017, industry players may also want to keep the below considerations in mind.

  • Data is a gold mine

Keep in mind that while you may not be taking full advantage of your data, others are going to be efficiently using theirs and will therefore have a competitive edge over you. Machine learning has the ability to disrupt the market; driverless cars are just one example of this. Keeping up-to-date and adapting with the times is vital to avoid becoming obsolete.

  • Not all solutions are equal

Off-the-shelf ‘black-box’ machine learning models and analysis tools often hide a myriad of algorithmic design decisions in exchange for usability resulting in the most common for all scenarios but also non-optimal solution for all scenarios. The use of such solutions can result in sub-optimal model performance or unintended, negative consequences. Many of the very best machine learning products are open-source and open-data which allow for the establishment of social-good machine learning applications that many may not have even considered yet.

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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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Brands fall for app vanity

The experience of a mobile screen full of icons, representing independent apps that your need to open to experience them, is making less sense. Instead, businesses should serve customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the digital platform they already use, says PIETER DE VILLIERS, Group CEO at Clickatell.

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Many brands remain obsessed with creating mobile apps. This not only defies trends that point to increasing consumer app apathy, but can exclude a sizeable portion  of your customers in emerging economies. Companies need to engage with their users where they are rather than forcing them onto an app, in what can only be described as brand vanity. 

In 2017 there were around 2.2 million apps available in the iOS app store and over 3 million on Google Play. And, while the number of apps being downloaded continues to rise, analysis shows that consumers are only using 30 apps per month and accessing just 9 on a day-to-day basis. 

While these numbers still seem attractively high, in reality the majority of the apps we use are for messaging (like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat) and our social networking, gaming, leisure, dating or utility activities. 

Despite the facts, the application strategy as the holy grail for digital transformation is still being pushed even within large progressive brands. What’s more, some advertising agencies and digital consultants are still pushing apps as the best means for companies to connect with their customers. This has resulted in some organisations stubbornly doubling down on app strategies which are simply not showing return on investment (ROI). 

It’s not immediately clear to us whether the fascination with apps is a roll-over from long overdue projects or whether brand owners equate a mobile-first strategy with a mobile app. Mobile-first in 2018 means customer first, and therefore embracing chat commerce in order to deliver services with convenience and simplicity in mind. 

Why apps won’t win the internet

The problem with apps goes beyond user fatigue. In the first instance, many apps are poorly designed, assuming technical sophistication which may not match reality for the average customer. Poor user interfaces and attempts to provide complex engagement can result in even the best ideas missing their targets due to lack of engagement. 

Secondly, we all know that economic realities drive consumer behaviour. In Africa, new mobile phone users typically opt for feature phones over smartphones. With a longer battery life and a much more accessible price point, feature phones still allow for a basic internet connection, chat platforms like WhatsApp, and call and message functionality. In these regions, the cost of an app – even if it’s free – goes far beyond installing it. Constant updates require reliable and cheap access to the internet. For the average phone owner in an emerging market, this can be a serious challenge. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, apps must be relevant to their intended market. Frequency of usage is a key measure of relevance. 

Apps which are used on a daily basis, like health and fitness trackers, enjoy constant engagement. New features which are added are eagerly awaited by users who are happy to update their apps. 

However, users may well question the relevance of the app if they are required to conduct updates on a monthly or even weekly basis when they are only making use of the app once or twice a year. 

On average, I download one app per quarter. Some I use more frequently than others, but all of these apps need to be regularly updated to maintain security, update features, and fix bugs. Many apps are pushing out updates much more frequently. I noticed over the past year that I could go from having all apps updated, to 32 apps requiring an update in five days.

When it comes to a customer-first digital strategy, companies should be asking themselves if an app is really the best way to reach their target audience. 

In fact, at the end of 2016, Gartner predicted that by 2019, 20 percent of brands would ditch their mobile app. What’s more, in its 2018 predictions, the company forecast that by 2021, more than 50 percent of corporations would spend more per annum on bots and chatbots than on mobile app development. 

So, we need to ask, what is the alternative for CIOs, CDOs, CMOs, and digital leaders who are looking for ways to reach, retain and grow their customer base? 

The logical app alternative 

The old battle advice goes: fight your enemy where they are not. Military strategists agreed that having your enemy come to you and fight you on your own terms was preferable. In a world where customers have access to thousands of offerings and millions of deals online, we need to flip that idea to Meet Your Customers Where They Are. 

Any marketeer will tell you just a how difficult it is to drive app downloads. Development, cross platform testing and user interface aside, the marketing campaign required to get customers to download the app can swallow entire annual budgets and still come up short. 

Looking at the facts, it makes infinitely more sense to work within the digital platforms already being used by your target audience. 

Clickatell is already enabling chat commerce for some of the leading global brands with its Touch solution. This allows organisations to serve their customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the chat or browser platform of their customer’s choice (Twitter, Facebook Messenger, etc.) 

Brands can now send an actionable Touch link such as ‘find the nearest ATM’ or ‘reset my password’ within a chat stream that will open an intuitive touch card without the user having to download an app to perform the action. Services can also be linked to the in-app experience for brands not looking to abandon their app efforts. 

Working with our clients, many of whom are global innovators and thought leaders, we’ve found that having the courage to design with an ‘end user first’ approach and dealing with the back-end complexity behind the scenes results in cost efficient customer delight and ROI. 

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