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Hackathon to help kids

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Technology and early childhood development might not always be considered comfortable bedfellows, but recently people working across the ECD spectrum teamed up with techies to brainstorm technology solutions for the sector.

The event was co-hosted by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a specialised unit at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) and ECD social innovation fund Innovation Edge.

Hackathons – also known as hack days or hack fests – are events where computer programmers collaborate intensively with a diverse group of people on specific software projects for a limited amount of time. They are fast emerging around the world as a powerful mechanism to surface co-created, technology-enabled innovation to tackle specific business and social challenges.

The concept has been gaining ground in South Africa too, with champions like the Bertha Centre, GovHack and Silicon Cape leading the way. On the weekend, these three players teamed up with Innovation Edge, which funded the day, and other partners including the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University, Ogilvy, RLabs, Codex and MTN, to focus the power of the hack on the critical area of ECD.

According to the Bertha Centre’s Camilla Swart, who conceptualised the event with Mark Tomlinson from the University of Stellenbosch, research shows that the first few years of a child’s life is crucial to laying a solid foundation for lifelong health and intellectual development. “Poor access to good nutrition, a lack of responsive care and a dearth of early stimulation through play are some of the key challenges ECD centres in the country continue to face, and it was to these issues that the hackathon turned its attention,” she said.

On the day, small teams of coders, ECD specialists and creative thinkers worked together for eight hours straight to find practical and low-cost technology solutions to these challenges.

The most innovative idea and R10 000 cash prize went to the team working on an app called Crèche Connect, which seeks to enable parents to rate a day-care centre’s effectiveness. The team, made up of individuals from: NGO, South Africa Education and Environment Project (SAEP), RegenAfrica, Western Cape ICT, NextGen pioneers, Business Connexion, UCT ICT4Dev and CodeX – none of whom knew each other prior to the hackathon, agreed that they would use the money to incubate the idea further.

Swart said there was a brilliant energy from participants on the day and a real buzz, which translated onto social media as well, where the hackathon was trending at #1 on Twitter.

“So often people are tempted to rush into solutions without really understanding the problem. A lot of time was spent explaining the importance of ECD to the teams, ensuring they understood the context,” she said.

“There were so many good ideas. But the judges really liked the Crèche Connect idea, which was based on the concept of Trip Advisor for crèches,” Swart said. “In low income communities informal crèches can have variable quality assurance. Being able to rank the facilities will help parents find the best crèche for their child and increase quality in the sector.  This idea was designed to empower parents.”

Other ideas included mobile referral systems for clinics, apps to identify developmental delays and ways to share knowledge and communicate across crèches to improve quality. Swart says, “There were funders, government officials and businesses who showed great interest in picking up the other concepts, so some ideas will be taken further.”

The event took place in the MTN Solution Space, an innovation hub located on the UCT Graduate School of Business campus. “We were very excited to host this event,” says Sarah-Anne Arnold, manager of the MTN Solution Space. “Our mission is to connect people for innovation and development on the continent.”

Dr Francois Bonnici, director of the Bertha Centre said that once again the mechanism of the hackathon has shown its potential in drawing out innovative solutions that have social impact.

“The combination of people, action, and ideas in a motivated environment is powerful. These collaborative learning events have the potential to produce novel approaches to addressing key challenges. More than that, they provide all of us with inspiration and lay the foundation for new networks for support and bring new resources to oft-neglected issues, bringing purposeful mentorship to innovators in our society.”

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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