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Africa not a data desert

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The data age has opened up a world of renewed understanding in the ways we live and work, providing insights that hold the potential to improve lives for billions around the globe, writes BEN LEO, CEO of Fraym.

The ability to collect and process vast numbers of data points, and to discover both deeply sought after and wholly unexpected insights as a result, is currently the best way for the public and private sectors to understand people. Regardless of the sector, an understanding of the target market is an essential contributor to business success.

This applies both at the granular, individual level, and at the aggregate level. Such insights play a valuable role in delivering services and products to the communities with the most demand – and Africa is a prime example.

Africa’s rapidly expanding digital footprint demonstrates one way in which data is becoming available, with an estimated 557 million mobile internet users, and a smartphone market that is expected to triple in size over the next five years. Over and above the rich potential insights from mobile technology and data from household surveys, satellite imagery, machine learning and emerging analytic approaches also provide more accurate insights about people. Both conventional and unconventional sources can offer governments and companies the information they need, to ensure access to reliable, sustainable and affordable services and to help businesses grow.

But Africa is large and diverse. Gathering actionable data through traditional means is difficult – but far from impossible.

Here are just three ways enterprising data scientists are finding creative ways to close the gap.

Making Sense of Unstructured Data

Africa thrives on its informal economies, which contribute considerable amounts to each nation’s GDP (less than 30% in South Africa, but as much as 60% in Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe). Informal borrowing and trading is big business, but with it comes a frustrating lack of formal record-keeping, consumer data and transaction histories that could, in the right hands, open a world of opportunity to Africa’s corporate organisations, as well as SMEs and microbusinesses. All of these off-the-record transactions, as well as rising amounts of unstructured text and social data generated by Africa’s mobile users, means that it doesn’t fit neatly into databases organised by fixed categories like name, address, or identification number.

Fortunately, the storage and processing capabilities of the region are rapidly improving, and government bodies are working more closely with corporate innovators to harvest, manage, store and protect these data points, as a first step to eventually mining them for useful insights. As skills and resources on the continent improve, this data will be put to better and better use, as it reveals population insights that can’t be found in more conventional data types.

A Steady Increase in Computing Power

Roughly 2.5 billion GBs of data are created worldwide per day, presenting an exponentially growing problem, even for nations and businesses with the means and expertise to store and interpret it effectively.

But Africa’s private sector is surging ahead, with larger firms showing ever-more aggressive interest in how data can augment their bottom line. In Nigeria and Kenya, both considered beacons of African digitisation, at least 40 percent of large businesses are in the planning stages of their own data projects, with the global average at 51 percent. Partnerships between well-resourced corporates and forward-thinking governments are already bearing fruit, and will only become more impactful as the digital disruption continues to shake up both the private and public sectors.

Innovative techniques and data sources are also being used to better understand the nuances of the African consumer. The ability to understand how a consumer in Johannesburg thinks and buys, in comparison to a consumer in Durban, is often more useful than thinking about consumer behaviour at a national, aggregate level. For far too long, corporations and investors have considered the African consumer as a monolith. But it is possible to use existing data and new techniques, like geospatial analysis, to drill down and understand consumer interests and consumer purchasing power at a more granular level than ever before and across non-traditional geographies.

Closing the Skills Gap

According to the African Data Forum, the continent’s growing demand for predictive analytics has exposed a data skills shortage that leaves Africa sorely under-equipped for the data demands of tomorrow. Even as access to software and hardware continue to improve, there is little substitute for the skill and experience that data scientists can bring to the table. The skill and experience brought to the continent by expatriate consultants has had a positive effect on data science in Africa, but the continent’s vast human resources will need to be developed with greater urgency, if we are truly to realise the potential of data to improve lives and to drive Africa’s digital awakening to new heights.

Thankfully, data science is becoming a prominent feature in Africa’s schools and universities, and the proliferation of technology training hubs springing up throughout the continent promise a data-rich future. Even in comparatively advanced South Africa, the country’s first dedicated data science training academy was opened only a couple of months ago. There is also a great trend toward businesses and organisations taking the upskilling mandate seriously in the workplace, with programmes designed to improve in-house data science skills already proving effective.

Through such skills development, new and cutting-edge methods of data collection, from geospatial satellite imaging to artificial intelligence, are added to existing resources of mobile data, surveys and other more traditional statistical methods, to create a more holistic and insightful picture of the continent and its inhabitants than ever before. Those who label Africa a “data desert” and give up on using data for their needs are missing a great opportunity – there is no lack of consumer data on the ground, only a perceived lack of methods for managing and making use of it. Huge amounts of data are generated every day, and with a little creative application and plenty of computing power, the sky is the limit in terms of the insights that can be gleaned.

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Prepare your cam to capture the Blood Moon

On 27 July 2018, South Africans can witness a total lunar eclipse, as the earth’s shadow completely covers the moon.

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Also known as a blood or red moon, a total lunar eclipse is the most dramatic of all lunar eclipses and presents an exciting photographic opportunity for any aspiring photographer or would-be astronomers.

“A lunar eclipse is a rare cosmic sight. For centuries these events have inspired wonder, interest and sometimes fear amongst observers. Of course, if you are lucky to be around when one occurs, you would want to capture it all on camera,” says Dana Eitzen, Corporate and Marketing Communications Executive at Canon South Africa.

Canon ambassador and acclaimed landscape photographer David Noton has provided his top tips to keep in mind when photographing this occasion.   In South Africa, the eclipse will be visible from about 19h14 on Friday, 27 July until 01h28 on the Saturday morning. The lunar eclipse will see the light from the sun blocked by the earth as it passes in front of the moon. The moon will turn red because of an effect known as Rayleigh Scattering, where bands of green and violet light become filtered through the atmosphere.

A partial eclipse will begin at 20h24 when the moon will start to turn red. The total eclipse begins at about 21h30 when the moon is completely red. The eclipse reaches its maximum at 22h21 when the moon is closest to the centre of the shadow.

David Noton advises:

  1. Download the right apps to be in-the-know

The sun’s position in the sky at any given time of day varies massively with latitude and season. That is not the case with the moon as its passage through the heavens is governed by its complex elliptical orbit of the earth. That orbit results in monthly, rather than seasonal variations, as the moon moves through its lunar cycle. The result is big differences in the timing of its appearance and its trajectory through the sky. Luckily, we no longer need to rely on weight tables to consult the behaviour of the moon, we can simply download an app on to our phone. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is useful for giving moonrise and moonset times, bearings and phases; while the Photopills app gives comprehensive information on the position of the moon in our sky.  Armed with these two apps, I’m planning to shoot the Blood Moon rising in Dorset, England. I’m aiming to capture the moon within the first fifteen minutes of moonrise so I can catch it low in the sky and juxtapose it against an object on the horizon line for scale – this could be as simple as a tree on a hill.

 

  1. Invest in a lens with optimal zoom  

On the 27th July, one of the key challenges we’ll face is shooting the moon large in the frame so we can see every crater on the asteroid pockmarked surface. It’s a task normally reserved for astronomers with super powerful telescopes, but if you’ve got a long telephoto lens on a full frame DSLR with around 600 mm of focal length, it can be done, depending on the composition. I will be using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with an EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Ext. 1.4 x lens.

  1. Use a tripod to capture the intimate details

As you frame up your shot, one thing will become immediately apparent; lunar tracking is incredibly challenging as the moon moves through the sky surprisingly quickly. As you’ll be using a long lens for this shoot, it’s important to invest in a sturdy tripod to help capture the best possible image. Although it will be tempting to take the shot by hand, it’s important to remember that your subject is over 384,000km away from you and even with a high shutter speed, the slightest of movements will become exaggerated.

  1. Integrate the moon into your landscape

Whilst images of the moon large in the frame can be beautifully detailed, they are essentially astronomical in their appeal. Personally, I’m far more drawn to using the lunar allure as an element in my landscapes, or using the moonlight as a light source. The latter is difficult, as the amount of light the moon reflects is tiny, whilst the lunar surface is so bright by comparison. Up to now, night photography meant long, long exposures but with cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV now capable of astonishing low light performance, a whole new nocturnal world of opportunities has been opened to photographers.

  1. Master the shutter speed for your subject 

The most evocative and genuine use of the moon in landscape portraits results from situations when the light on the moon balances with the twilight in the surrounding sky. Such images have a subtle appeal, mood and believability.  By definition, any scene incorporating a medium or wide-angle view is going to render the moon as a tiny pin prick of light, but its presence will still be felt. Our eyes naturally gravitate to it, however insignificant it may seem. Of course, the issue of shutter speed is always there; too slow an exposure and all we’ll see is an unsightly lunar streak, even with a wide-angle lens.

 

On a clear night, mastering the shutter speed of your camera is integral to capturing the moon – exposing at 1/250 sec @ f8 ISO 100 (depending on focal length) is what you’ll need to stop the motion from blurring and if you are to get the technique right, with the high quality of cameras such as the Canon EOS 5DS R, you might even be able to see the twelve cameras that were left up there by NASA in the 60’s!

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How Africa can embrace AI

Currently, no African country is among the top 10 countries expected to benefit most from AI and automation. But, the continent has the potential to catch up with the rest of world if we act fast, says ZOAIB HOOSEN, Microsoft Managing Director.

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To play catch up, we must take advantage of our best and most powerful resource – our human capital. According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than 60 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 25.

These are the people who are poised to create a future where humans and AI can work together for the good of society. In fact, the most recent WEF Global Shapers survey found that almost 80 percent of youth believe technology like AI is creating jobs rather than destroying them.

Staying ahead of the trends to stay employed

AI developments are expected to impact existing jobs, as AI can replicate certain activities at greater speed and scale. In some areas, AI could learn faster than humans, if not yet as deeply.

According to Gartner, while AI will improve the productivity of many jobs and create millions more new positions, it could impact many others. The simpler and less creative the job, the earlier, a bot for example, could replace it.

It’s important to stay ahead of the trends and find opportunities to expand our knowledge and skills while learning how to work more closely and symbiotically with technology.

Another global study by Accenture, found that the adoption of AI will create several new job categories requiring important and yet surprising skills. These include trainers, who are tasked with teaching AI systems how to perform; explainers, who bridge the gap between technologist and business leader; and sustainers, who ensure that AI systems are operating as designed.

It’s clear that successfully integrating human intelligence with AI, so they co-exist in a two-way learning relationship, will become more critical than ever.

Combining STEM with the arts

Young people have a leg up on those already in the working world because they can easily develop the necessary skills for these new roles. It’s therefore essential that our education system constantly evolves to equip youth with the right skills and way of thinking to be successful in jobs that may not even exist yet.

As the division of tasks between man and machine changes, we must re-evaluate the type of knowledge and skills imparted to future generations.

For example, technical skills will be required to design and implement AI systems, but interpersonal skills, creativity and emotional intelligence will also become crucial in giving humans an advantage over machines.

“At one level, AI will require that even more people specialise in digital skills and data science. But skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.” This is according to Microsoft president, Brad Smith, and EVP of AI and research, Harry Shum, who recently authored the book “The Future Computed”, which primarily deals with AI and its role in society.

Interestingly, institutions like Stanford University are already implementing this forward-thinking approach. The university offers a programme called CS+X, which integrates its computer science degree with humanities degrees, resulting in a Bachelor of Arts and Science qualification.

Revisiting laws and regulation

For this type of evolution to happen, the onus is on policy makers to revisit current laws and even bring in new regulations. Policy makers need to identify the groups most at risk of losing their jobs and create strategies to reintegrate them into the economy.

Simultaneously, though AI could be hugely beneficial in areas such as curbing poor access to healthcare and improving diagnoses for example, physicians may avoid using this technology for fear of malpractice. To avoid this, we need regulation that closes the gap between the pace of technological change and that of regulatory response. It will also become essential to develop a code of ethics for this new ecosystem.

Preparing for the future

With the recent convergence of a transformative set of technologies, economies are entering a period in which AI has the potential overcome physical limitations and open up new sources of value and growth.

To avoid missing out on this opportunity, policy makers and business leaders must prepare for, and work toward, a future with AI. We must do so not with the idea that AI is simply another productivity enhancer. Rather, we must see AI as the tool that can transform our thinking about how growth is created.

It comes down to a choice of our people and economies being part of the technological disruption, or being left behind.

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