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Are we drowning in data?

We live on a planet almost three-quarters covered by oceans, but says ADRIANA MARAIS, Head of Innovation at SAP Africa, better data-enabled management can prevent a global water crisis.

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Life as we know it requires water to survive. While simple in composition, the H2O molecule in bulk liquid form enables the complex chemistry required for organisms from bacteria to humans to function. However, as the pace of change of our technological development accelerates and shifting weather patterns and a growing population place increasing pressure on our fresh water resources, a deeper appreciation and better management of this most vital resource to our existence needs to become a priority.

Water is more abundant in the solar system than we thought

Life is arguably one of the most mysterious phenomena we have ever come across. Philosophically, it could be argued that a full understanding of the topic may be impossible from the vantage point of being living organisms ourselves. Nonetheless, this has not prevented us from trying to figure it out.  Among the most interesting discoveries that we have made is that all living things on Earth contain DNA, and that significant portions of the genetic code are shared in organisms from amoeba to elephants. This is a beautiful discovery in terms of unity- we are all part of one living system on this planet. On the flipside, this implies that terrestrial life provides us with just a single data point in terms of our understanding of life itself. In light of the observation that all terrestrial life requires water, a reasonable place to begin in our search for a second data point representing a living system, is in places in our solar system where liquid water is present.

Much of Earth’s water is older than the Sun. This remarkable observation is based on the Sun not having radiated enough during its lifetime to have produced the observed isotope ratios of existing H2O. Furthermore, liquid water in our solar system appears to be far less rare than previously imagined. For example, Jupiter’s moon Europa is thought to have an ocean beneath its icy crust, kept warm by the tidal friction of expansion and contraction induced by its elliptic orbit in the gravitational field of the massive planet. Recently, the detection of an underground lake on Mars was announced, its liquid state thought to be maintained even at temperatures significantly below zero due to dissolved salts as well as the pressure of the ice sheet above it, similar to lakes detected under Antarctica.

At the recent OzWater 2018 conference held in Brisbane, Australia, the opening speakers addressed the role of big data, both in increased precision of astronomical observations including detections of water in our solar system, as well as in managing our diminishing fresh water supplies on Earth. The Mars One Project and other endeavours to design and implement human settlement of Mars are driving a fundamental rethink of how we use and think about natural resources, in particular water. Capabilities in efficient solar-powered desalination, which we should be moving towards faster on Earth, are crucial prerequisites for the design of systems on Mars to extract ice crystals from the sand, liquefy and purify for safe usage, all powered by thin-film photovoltaics.

The extraction of resources like metals and water from asteroids may seem futuristic in terms of our requirements on this planet, but in fact, for example, we are predicted to run out the rare metal indium required for touch screen functionality in the next decade. For crewed space travel on the other hand, the capability to rendezvous with asteroids to collect water and other resources is essential as we explore beyond Mars. A crew of four people requires three tons of drinking water for the seven-month journey to Mars- a figure which quickly becomes a limiting factor for longer journeys.

Back on Earth, water scarcity is an increasing problem

Around the world, water scarcity is gaining ground as one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. The recent global headlines around Cape Town’s impending Day Zero- the day the taps run dry- sent shockwaves around the world. A major city running out of drinkable water may have been unthinkable only a few decades ago, but according to the World Wildlife Fund, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages by 2025. Already, some 1.1 billion people around the world lack access to water, with a total of 2.7 billion finding water scarce for at least one month of the year.

At the recently-held WISA 2017 conference in Cape Town, deputy Cape Town mayor Ian Nielsen admitted that water scarcity may become Cape Town’s defining feature, and that “we need to accept the days of plentiful water supply in Cape Town may well be over.”

Dams and (Big Data) lakes

Space exploration continues to push the envelope in terms of our technological capability. We first landed remotely controlled equipment on Mars in the 1970’s. The Mars Rover is the 7th successful landing on Mars, and has traversed the surface of the Red Planet since 2012, gathering and sharing volumes of data that are instrumental in our understanding of the planet and its capability to support life, both in the past, present and future. Recent data generated by the Rover revealed that the watery lake that once filled Gale Crater, around 3.5 billion years ago, contained complex organic molecules that may constitute a food source or the remnants of life there. In 2014, the Rover detected methane- the simplest organic molecule, periodically being released in Mars’ atmosphere.

In isolation, neither of these discoveries provide proof of life on Mars. However, while the data itself is inconclusive, increased sophistication of hardware sent to explore Mars, use of capabilities like machine learning for increased automation of this hardware, and by applying powerful data analytics tools, researchers can start piecing together parts of the problem. As more pieces of the puzzle are revealed, the possibility of uncovering ground-breaking findings increases exponentially.

The accelerating use of IoT sensors and accompanying computing platforms that mine sensor data to reveal insights and trends is equipping policymakers and governments with unprecedented insight into how to best manage available resources based on real-time, accurate information.

Cape Town City has begun to take steps to securing its 3 million-odd residents’ water supply. These include plans for desalination plants, groundwater abstraction projects, improved municipal water management, and other supply diversification programmes. And much of this is built on or enabled by technology.

Data has been used to develop a range of interventions that have seen water consumption reduced by 30% over the past 15 years in the Cape Town, despite its population growing by 30% during the same period. The City’s use of technology to automate asset management and field service processes has enabled mobile field workers to access, complete and manage their assigned work orders and service requests via their mobile devices. To date, the meter reading teams have captured over 3.7 million meter readings using its mobile application at an average speed of 45-70 seconds per meter. This has enabled the City to better manage its water resources and install, inspect, maintain and repair water and sanitation assets while giving managers access to near real-time information that is analysed to improve future decision making.

In spite of all the data, a lot remains to be done in the City from a management perspective. Damage to agriculture in the region due to the water crisis has already been estimated at several fold the cost of a desalinator with capacity for the entire City’s consumption. This is coupled with last week’s report of underspending by the City’s water department of a whopping R1.6 billion on its capital budget in the midst of the ongoing crisis.

As climate change and growing populations place increasing pressure on our limited natural resources, all countries and cities will need to drastically rethink their approach to the preservation, management and use of scarce natural resources. I always come back to the thought that intelligent aliens would laugh at a water scarcity crisis on a planet 71 percent covered by oceans. Instead of accepting that the days of plentiful water supply may well be over, we need to accelerate our use of technology and data towards better management of our precious resources on this planet, most vitally, water.

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Queues and cash-only frustrate SA’s commuters

A new study by Visa reveals the success factors for improving travel and creating smarter cities

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The use of cash-only payments was a frustration for 38% of Johannesburg commuters and 37% of Cape Town-based commuters, according to a new global study by Visa. Another commuter frustration when paying for public transport has been long queues – 67% of Johannesburg commuters and 64% of Cape Town commuters.

Visa, in collaboration with Stanford University, came up with these findings in one of the largest global studies examining the growing demand for public and private transportation, and the important role digital commerce plays in driving sustainable growth.

According to the UN[i], by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban centres – and the number of “megacities” with populations greater than 10 million people will rise from 43 today to 51 within that same period. South Africa is no different, with the majority of the country relying heavily on the public transport system. In fact, according to the General Household Survey (GHS) for 2018, a total of 54 209 000 minibus/taxi trips take place in South African per month. 

Building on Visa’s experience working with transit operators, automotive companies and technology start-ups, Visa commissioned a global study, “The Future of Transportation: Mobility in the Age of the Megacity” to better understand the challenges commuters face today and in the future. The key findings were combined with a view of existing and near horizon innovations provided by experts at Stanford University, to better understand the technology gaps in addressing their pain points.

The South African Perspective

Payments lie at the heart of every form of travel, and will continue to become more integral as more cities move to contactless public transportation, digital payments for parking and rental services such as bikes or scooters.  Malijeng Ngqaleni, Deputy Director-General of the South African Inter-governmental Relations, states that a high as 60% of South African households spend on average of 20% of their monthly income on transport, while in rural areas this number can be as high as 31%.

Aside from cash-only payments, another commuter frustration when paying for public transport has been long queues – 67% of Johannesburg commuters and 64% of Cape Town commuters. Over the last few years, a number of mobile-driven taxi-hailing apps have been launched in the South African market to counteract these concerns and commuters are open to the possibilities presented by mobile apps. The Visa study echoed this by showing that 77% of Johannesburg commuters and 76% of Cape Town commuters would be willing to try a consolidated app to make payments for public transport.

 Mike Lemberger, SVP, Product Solutions Europe, Visa says: “The future success of our cities is intertwined with – and reliant on – the future of transportation and mobility. Visa and our partners have an important role to play, both in streamlining the payment experience for millions of commuters around the globe, and supporting public transportation authorities in their quest to build sustainable and convenient transportation solutions that improve the lives of the people who use it.”

Herman Donner, PhD and Postdoctoral Researcher from Stanford University co-authored the report and summarised: “When looking across the technology landscape, there already exist many products that could easily address people’s daily frustrations with travel.  However, none of these solutions should be developed in isolation. A major challenge therefore lies in first identifying relevant technologies that provide suitable products for the market then managing implementation in conjunction with  a broad set of stakeholder including  mobility providers, technology companies, infrastructure owners and public transport agencies.  From our research, we think that many of these small, incremental changes have the potential to make a significant difference in people’s daily travel,  whether it’s to help find parking, get the best price to refuel their car or plan their journey on public transportation.”

Click here for the detailed global findings.

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Women take to tech, but more needed

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By HAIDI NOSSAIR, Marketing Director META, Dell Technologies

$12 trillion – that is the value in additional global GDP that remains locked behind the gender gap. This is according to the latest Women Matter report from McKinsey, which also reveals startling disparities in the workplace. Even though women make up more than half of the human population, only 37% contribute to GDP on average – and in some countries that proportion is significantly lower.

The reasons for this can be put in three areas. Fewer women – 650 million fewer than men – participate in the global labour force. Women are also more likely to be in part-time employment and thus work fewer hours. Finally, female employees are more common in lower-productivity sectors than in higher-productivity areas.  Are women not being offered the opportunity or are they holding themselves back?

Among STEM careers this ratio is particularly dismal: only 24% of engineering professionals are women, and as few as 19% of careers in ICT are filled by women.

What is the cause of this? Studies have found that women pursuing STEM careers are higher in countries with more oppressive policies towards women, because those careers hold the promise for financial freedom and more social autonomy. In contrast, countries with progressive attitudes towards women tend to produce fewer female STEM graduates. Then how can we encourage women from early ages to take the path of STEM education?  And how can organizations ensure women have equal opportunity at the hiring stages.

Certainly addressing gender inequality is crucial and must not stop.. Where women are increasingly more part of the workforce, there are often still barriers preventing them from assuming higher management roles. Female entrepreneurs often struggle more to gain investment capital. Corporate cultures are rarely aligned with the pressures of balancing work and family obligations. Decision makers may simply lack exposure to the potential of female candidates. Female pioneers have also argued that women are too risk-averse when compared to men. 

Whether these assertions are true is a matter for debate – and that’s exactly why every professional man and woman should be talking about them and identify action to change the status-quo. This is not just about female rights, but about social upliftment: companies with a mixture of male and female leaders perform better across the board and companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity are 21% more likely to outperform on profitability.

The digital economy we live in today represent a golden opportunity for increased women contribution to the workforce as technology breaks the boundaries of location and time for the workplace and where labor intensive jobs may today be performed by data scientists. 

For two days in March, top professionals will gather to talk and exchange ideas around creating more roles for women, larger appreciation for female professionals, as well as counter the attitudes among women holding them back from greater career success and autonomy.

If you want to be part of this conversation, join the Women in Tech Africa summit today at the Century City Conference Centre in Cape Town – learn more at https://www.women-in-tech-africa-summit.com/ and use the code DELL20 for a 20% discount.

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