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SA telescopes help trace neutron star collision

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The South African Astronomical Observatory and the Southern African Large Telescope are among the 70 ground- and space-based observatories that observed the explosion of two colliding neutron stars, immediately after their gravitational shock waves were detected by the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

Neutron stars are the smallest, densest stars known. They are the remains of massive stars which exploded as supernovae. In this particular event, dubbed GW170817, two such neutron stars spiralled inwards and then collided, emitting gravitational waves that were detectable for about 100 seconds. The collision also resulted in a kilonova explosion of light, initially in the form of gamma rays which were detected by space-based telescopes.  The gamma rays were then followed by X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves.

This allowed astronomers to localise the event within hours and launch follow-up observations by SALT and numerous other telescopes in South Africa and around the world.  South African activities also included the first observations contributing to published scientific results by the MeerKAT radio telescope under construction in the Karoo.

Gravitational waves from colliding black holes were first detected only two years ago, and have been detected three more times since then, leading to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics being awarded to three US scientists. Black hole collisions, however, are not expected to emit light.  GW170817 is the first time light and gravitational waves from the same event have been observed.

The significance of the present event lies in the combination of the gravitational waves and light.   “Imagine you have only one sense”, explains Petri Vaisanen, Head of SALT Astronomy Operations, who was the observer at SALT during the frantic search for the counterpart for the gravitational wave event.  “All your life you have merely looked at the world.  Two years ago you heard something, voices coming from somewhere around you.   But then, suddenly, you actually see someone talking. How much more will you understand about how the world works when you put those together?  Immensely more.  That to me sums up the momentous discovery, and hints at the possibilities going forward.”

August 18, 2017, the day and night following the LIGO detection and the initial successful searches in Chile for the counterpart, was a busy day for observational astronomers.  “After a flurry of messages and emails that afternoon in Sutherland, I finally got the coordinates”, continues Vaisanen.  “There was a new object, which had caused the whole of space-time to ripple, sitting at the outskirts of the galaxy NGC 4993 some 130 million light-years away.  I knew that everyone with a working telescope in the Southern Hemisphere was scrambling to get data on it.  We decided to drop all other plans for that evening, and went for a spectral observation with SALT, since you need a large telescope for such observations breaking up the light into all its colours.  It was a difficult observation since we had to do it in twilight, before it got properly dark.  I’m very proud of the whole team, SALT was only the third observatory to provide a spectrum of the target, and the first spectrum that clearly started showing anomalous behaviour proving that this was no run-of-the-mill transient event”.

The significance of getting early observations stems from the afterglow of the collision changing very rapidly.  Piecing together the new science from the event requires combining observations spanning the first hours, days and weeks after the merger.  The first SALT spectrum has a very prestigious spot in the combined scientific paper, with thousands of authors and hundreds of institutions. In addition, several, more detailed scientific papers have also been written based on SALT, SAAO and other Sutherland observations.

“Finally, the irony of the moment for me, anxiously sitting at the telescope that evening looking at the new object, was that just three weeks before I had attended a meeting discussing the future of optical searches of gravitational waves and the SAAO part in it.  There were arguments that it could be decades before we are able to localise such events well enough for observations, and it would probably not be worth expending the effort.  It’s amazing how quickly things change.”

Sutherland telescopes reveal the details of the neutron star merger

Theorists have predicted that what follows the initial collision is a “kilonova” explosion— a phenomenon by which the material that is left over from the neutron star collision, which glows with light, is blown out of the immediate region, far out into space. The light-based observations from other large international telescopes show that heavy elements, such as lead and gold, are created in these collisions and subsequently distributed throughout the universe – confirming the theory that a major source for the creation of elements heavier than iron does, indeed, results from these neutron star mergers.

The early SALT observations showed that the explosion was relatively bright and blue. Only two or three days later, further observations by SALT, SAAO and other major international telescopes showed that the light was rapidly fading and turning red, due to the dusty debris blocking the bluer light, as predicted by the theory of the evolution of a kilonova explosion. Simultaneously, MASTER (a joint Russian-South African optical telescope located in Sutherland) and  IRSF (Infra-Red Survey Facility; a joint Japanese-South African infrared telescope also in Sutherland) continued to monitor GW170817 for two weeks, showing that it gradually faded in the visible light but brightened in the infrared, consistent with the final stages of the afterglow from the surrounding debris.

The results of this unprecedented event have demonstrated the importance of collaborative multi-messenger observations and mark a new era in astronomy. “The ability of SALT and SAAO telescopes to respond rapidly to unexpected discoveries is a major reason for the success of these observations and will ensure similar successes in the future”, says Dr Stephen Potter, Head of Astronomy at the SAAO. “We are very proud to have played a major role in such a historical event thanks to the sterling efforts and expertise of SAAO and SALT staff who ensure that our observatory is at the forefront of world-class scientific endeavours.”

 

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VoD cuts the cord in SA

Some 20% of South Africans who sign up for a subscription video on demand (SVOD) service such as Netflix or Showmax do so with the intention of cancelling their pay television subscription.

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That’s according to GfK’s international ViewScape survey*, which this year covers Africa (South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria) for the first time.

The study—which surveyed 1,250 people representative of urban South African adults with Internet access—shows that 90% of the country’s online adults today use at least one online video service and that just over half are paying to view digital online content. The average user spends around 7 hours and two minutes a day consuming video content, with broadcast television accounting for just 42% of the time South Africans spend in front of a screen.

Consumers in South Africa spend nearly as much of their daily viewing time – 39% of the total – watching free digital video sources such as YouTube and Facebook as they do on linear television. People aged 18 to 24 years spend more than eight hours a day watching video content as they tend to spend more time with free digital video than people above their age.

Says Benjamin Ballensiefen, managing director for Sub Sahara Africa at GfK: “The media industry is experiencing a revolution as digital platforms transform viewers’ video consumption behaviour. The GfK ViewScape study is one of the first to not only examine broadcast television consumption in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, but also to quantify how linear and online forms of content distribution fit together in the dynamic world of video consumption.”

The study finds that just over a third of South African adults are using streaming video on demand (SVOD) services, with only 16% of SVOD users subscribing to multiple services. Around 23% use per-pay-view platforms such as DSTV Box Office, while about 10% download pirated content from the Internet. Around 82% still sometimes watch content on disc-based media.

“Linear and non-linear television both play significant roles in South Africa’s video landscape, though disruption from digital players poses a growing threat to the incumbents,” says Molemo Moahloli, general manager for media research & regional business development at GfK Sub Sahara Africa. “Among most demographics, usage of paid online content is incremental to consumption of linear television, but there are signs that younger consumers are beginning to substitute SVOD for pay-television subscriptions.”

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New data rules raise business trust challenges

When the General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect on May 25th, financial services firms will face a new potential threat to their on-going challenges with building strong customer relationships, writes DARREL ORSMOND, Financial Services Industry Head at SAP Africa.

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The regulation – dubbed GDPR for short – is aimed at giving European citizens control back over their personal data. Any firm that creates, stores, manages or transfers personal information of an EU citizen can be held liable under the new regulation. Non-compliance is not an option: the fines are steep, with a maximum penalty of €20-million – or nearly R300-million – for transgressors.

GDPR marks a step toward improved individual rights over large corporates and states that prevents the latter from using and abusing personal information at their discretion. Considering the prevailing trust deficit – one global EY survey found that 60% of global consumers worry about hacking of bank accounts or bank cards, and 58% worry about the amount of personal and private data organisations have about them – the new regulation comes at an opportune time. But it is almost certain to cause disruption to normal business practices when implemented, and therein lies both a threat and an opportunity.

The fundamentals of trust

GDPR is set to tamper with two fundamental factors that can have a detrimental effect on the implicit trust between financial services providers and their customers: firstly, customers will suddenly be challenged to validate that what they thought companies were already doing – storing and managing their personal data in a manner that is respectful of their privacy – is actually happening. Secondly, the outbreak of stories relating to companies mistreating customer data or exposing customers due to security breaches will increase the chances that customers now seek tangible reassurance from their providers that their data is stored correctly.

The recent news of Facebook’s indiscriminate sharing of 50 million of its members’ personal data to an outside firm has not only led to public outcry but could cost the company $2-trillion in fines should the Federal Trade Commission choose to pursue the matter to its fullest extent. The matter of trust also extends beyond personal data: in EY’s 2016 Global Consumer Banking Survey, less than a third of respondents had complete trust that their banks were being transparent about fees and charges.

This is forcing companies to reconsider their role in building and maintaining trust with its customers. In any customer relationship, much is done based on implicit trust. A personal banking customer will enjoy a measure of familiarity that often provides them with some latitude – for example when applying for access to a new service or an overdraft facility – that can save them a lot of time and energy. Under GDPR and South Africa’s POPI act, this process is drastically complicated: banks may now be obliged to obtain permission to share customer data between different business units (for example because they are part of different legal entities and have not expressly received permission). A customer may now allow banks to use their personal data in risk scoring models, but prevent them from determining whether they qualify for private banking services.

What used to happen naturally within standard banking processes may be suddenly constrained by regulation, directly affecting the bank’s relationship with its customers, as well as its ability to upsell to existing customers.

The risk of compliance

Are we moving to an overly bureaucratic world where even the simplest action is subject to a string of onerous processes? Compliance officers are already embedded within every function in a typical financial services institution, as well as at management level. Often the reporting of risk processes sits outside formal line functions and end up going straight to the board. This can have a stifling effect on innovation, with potentially negative consequences for customer service.

A typical banking environment is already creaking under the weight of close to 100 acts, which makes it difficult to take the calculated risks needed to develop and launch innovative new banking products. Entire new industries could now emerge, focusing purely on the matter of compliance and associated litigation. GDPR already requires the services of Data Protection Officers, but the growing complexity of regulatory compliance could add a swathe of new job functions and disciplines. None of this points to the type of innovation that the modern titans of business are renowned for.

A three-step plan of action

So how must banks and other financial services firms respond? I would argue there are three main elements to successfully navigating the immediate impact of the new regulations:

Firstly, ensuring that the technologies you use to secure, manage and store personal data is sufficiently robust. Modern financial services providers have a wealth of customer data at their disposal, including unstructured data from non-traditional sources such as social media. The tools they use to process and safeguard this data needs to be able to withstand the threats posed by potential data breaches and malicious attacks.

Secondly, rethinking the core organisational processes governing their interactions with customers. This includes the internal measures for setting terms and conditions, how customers are informed of their intention to use their data, and how risk is assessed. A customer applying for medical insurance will disclose deeply personal information about themselves to the insurance provider: it is imperative the insurer provides reassurance that the customer’s data will be treated respectfully and with discretion and with their express permission.

Thirdly, financial services firms need to define a core set of principles for how they treat customers and what constitutes fair treatment. This should be an extension of a broader organisational focus on treating customers fairly, and can go some way to repairing the trust deficit between the financial services industry and the customers they serve.

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