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.
How to predict the future
Forecasting the future is about people, not technology, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK discovers on a visit to the HP Innovation Lab in Barcelona
When HP chief technology officer Shane Wall talks about the world three decades from now, the trends to steers clear of technology. That’s startling, given that he is also global head of HP Labs, the advanced research group within the world’s leading PC and printer manufacturer.
The Labs play host to numerous futuristic technologies, from 3D printing to virtual reality, so one would expect its vision of the future to be all about the gadget. Instead, it’s all about the people who will use the gadgets of the future.
“When we think long term, we try to look 15-20, even 30 years into the future,” he said during the HP Innovation Summit at the HP Innovation Lab outside Barcelona, Spain, last week. “The way we do it is that we don’t start with technology. In HP Labs we invent all manner of incredible things in basic areas like biology, physics, and 3D printing. Those give us an idea, but we’re careful not to extrapolate those into the future, because by extrapolating you miss disruption.
“Instead, we look at people. We’ve done this for a number of years, looking every year at what’s accelerating, what’s gone slower, what’s new. We call these megatrends, that look at humanity rather than technology.
“In 2019 we stood back and took a different look at humanity. Everyone does market segmentation, analysing who the customer is and how they buy things. Instead, we looked at economic segmentation, we looked at where the money is moving in the next 30 years. We conducted numerous interviews with economists.”
The key megatrends identified by HP for the next three decades revolve around rapid urbanisation, changing demographics, hyper-globalisation, and accelerated innovation.
“We’re changing where we live,” said Wall. “People are moving out of rural areas and densifying cities. Cities themselves are getting bigger. In 1991, there were 10 megacities – defined as urban areas with 10-million people or more. By 2013, there were 41, by 2030, there will be over 60. Those cities are changing the very nature of everything we do, from the nature of work to the manner of how we do product development.”
The challenge of how to get goods into cities and waste out of them, he said, will result in a much greater focus on sustainability and energy management.
“That is going to change our go-to-market approach. Currently, we focus on countries as markets. Now we are seeing how important cities are becoming. In Nigeria, you may care about all of humanity, but for sales, you care about Lagos. In China, by 2035 any tier 3 city’s gross domestic product will pass that of the entire country of Sweden.”
The very nature of the population is changing, said Wall. The impact of the post-Word War 2 population boom, resulting in the American concept of “baby boomers”, has now evolved into the “silver spenders”, who are living longer thanks to healthcare advances. They expect technology to address solutions to their toughest problems.
“On the other end of the spectrum, we are seeing a whole new generation, Gen Z, a generation like we’ve never seen, very focused on experiences and values, less focused on purchasing. They are also driving a change in our behaviour as businesses in terms of go-to-market. Understanding them deeply shapes the very nature of the enterprise.”
Wall points out that, because we live in a world that is hyper-connected, we expect things to move at speed of light, while at the same time we expect it to be local. This has given rise to the concept of “glocalisation”.
“It is the expectation that things be both global and local, thanks to connectivity and mobile phones. Startups in emerging markets growing at 20% a year. It will be not only ideas that will move at this speed, but in the near future physical goods will also move at that speed.”
Finally, technology must, by its very nature, play a key role.
“Tech itself is moving faster; it’s not just a perception. It started with Moore’s Law and the doubling of capacity on a transistor every two years. That happened at a systems level, and eventually, it brought artificial intelligence and machine learning into being. The algorithms were invented 10-20-30 years ago, but because of scale we have seen that only now are they becoming usable.”
What does this mean for consumers and businesses? On the one hand, it represents massive opportunity. On the other, even greater challenges.
“Over the next 30 years we will see incredible economic expansion, where the number of haves with the ability to spend on products we sell is going to grow at an incredible rate. The number of have-nots will shrink. But in order to meet that economic growth, we will see a 16% shortage in skilled labour, which means we must drive higher levels of automation to reach that growth.”
A big question is: What can prevent it from happening? The answer is highly relevant to South Africa.
“The challenges lie in basic infrastructure, like roads, buildings, and airports, but one thing at the root of it all is energy. When we look into the future, energy will become the critical piece: how well, how fast, we can build it out to meet those needs. In many economies, it is not being built out in a sustainable way. We need to change the equation.”
One of the solutions lies in 3D printing.
“Products can be designed digitally anywhere, and you can transmit the design on a digital supply chain, perhaps using blockchain and security tech, to cities where they are printed or manufactured on demand using 3D printers. That’s digital manufacturing and it’s already happening in some places today.
“Imagine you go to Amazon, you find a product, you edit it, personalise it, make it yours, and at the push of a button it is printed at a local manufacturing facility and shows up at your door two days later. It’s estimated that we can save 25% of our energy using digital instead of traditional manufacturing. Manufacturing itself takes one-third of energy use the in the world, so it will have a big impact on the world of the future.”
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee
Google launches open-source cloud for enterprises
Vendor lock-in is a thing of the past for Google Cloud users, writes BRYAN TURNER.
A new way for enterprises to use cloud, that prevents lock-in, has been unveiled by Google at its Cloud Next event in San Francisco.
“Cloud Next is held in San Francisco, London, and Tokyo to cater for the various markets,” said Mich Atagana, head of communications for Google Africa. “The event aims to bring together cloud developers to showcase the latest cloud. You can think of it as the Google IO event for executives.”
At a round table, a team of Googlers broke it down for those of us who aren’t cloud developers.
“There’s a lot of technicality in this event, and a lot of the magic could be lost on those who aren’t developers,” said Atagana. “That’s why we’ve assembled our Cloud team to demystify the technicality.”
Shai Morgan, head of Google Cloud Sub Saharan Africa, said: “Cloud Next started four years ago. The first one hosted 3600 attendees, while this year we hosted about 30,000. This shows the way Google moves across the industry and how we address businesses. We’ve seen large growth in our partner ecosystem. It used to be very niche players, and now it’s big players like Accenture and Deloitte using Google Cloud.”
Daniel Acton, regional tech lead for Cloud at Google, said: “We had a new CEO come in [for Google Cloud] and he said it’s all fair and well to talk about the benefits of the cloud, but it’s not always attainable for business.”
This is where Google comes in. It launched new products to assist businesses in customising the cloud, the transition to cloud platforms, and how much must remain on-premise.
First up is Anthos, a management system for hybrid environments.
Acton said: “Anthos addresses the journey to the cloud. Businesses know that this journey doesn’t happen at the snap of the fingers. Executives have to make carefully calculated decisions on how to get there. There’s also lots of friction to get to the cloud, with a big factor being cloud vendor lock-in.”
“One way to move a business to the cloud is through a ‘lift and shift’, which is simply moving all the components of the business off-premise and on the cloud. This isn’t always what a business needs. Anthos deals with “infrastructure modernisation”, which is how we go from what we got to what we need. That’s because not everything should be in the cloud.
“We give businesses that option for hybrid infrastructure. Anthos exists to help customers on their journey to the cloud. We realise this is a multi-cloud environment and provide our customers on-premise, a bridge, and computation on the cloud, for example.”
Morgan expanded on this and said: “It’s a bridge to the cloud and a very well managed bridge at that. For an enterprise customer, it’s complicated to move assets, manage skillsets, all while thinking about lock-in to a cloud vendor. Open source in an enterprise environment prevents lock-in. We work very closely with existing vendors, walking with them in their cloud journey but they can leave at any time.
“Anthos can run on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure. That’s the beauty of Open Source, no lock-in. Containerising is a method that’s popular in the cloud developer environment but moving these containers across these environments is not trivial currently. Anthos allows this to happen.”
This brings the second major feature: serverless computing.
Containers and serverless computing go hand-in-hand. Acton explained that containers are like pre-setup computers, where a developer doesn’t have to spend time setting up a virtual environment and can focus on writing code, which ultimately delivers business value. He compared the proliferation of containers to Java, with the “write once, run anyway” phrase.
Serverless computing is split into many levels. At a low level, the Google App Engine allows developers to write code, and it takes care of hosting and handling the load. This is similar to the AWS Lambda service.
The enterprise nature of Google Cloud is not exclusive to large enterprises.
“We address very small businesses as we treat our consumers,” said Morgan “They most likely use Gmail, Drive, Docs, and Calendar because those products are free and very easy to handle. Setting up an enterprise cloud environment is quite complicated.
“If one invests enough time and energy, one can start a business that adds value and has its computing backed by Google Cloud.”