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Huge tech potential will ride on public transport

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Technology-enabled public transport systems have the potential to become far more than merely ways to get people from the proverbial ‘A to B’, writes Harry van Huyssteen at T-Systems South Africa.

With innovations like high-speed connectivity, sensors, big data, geolocation and mobile services, transit routes can become the connective tissue that creates stronger communities and flourishing local economic development.

These various forms of technology can help stimulate ecosystems of trade and development alongside important commuter routes – uplifting local communities and improving the lives of millions of South Africans.

Using transport routes as a catalyst for economic development, a concept known as Transit Oriented Development (TOD), has a few clear benefits:

•             Access to economic opportunity… employment and entrepreneurship opportunities from businesses that operate at public transport nodes – like bus stations, train terminals, and taxi ranks.

•             Social spaces… where people can connect, network, and share knowledge. Just by creating a safe environment for people to interact, a myriad of opportunities can emerge.

•             Easier movement of labour… integrated and efficient transport routes reduce wasted time (such as waiting time, and walking between a train and a taxi station, for instance) – meaning that people can be more productive, and get home to their families in the evening with less hassle.

For TOD to be possible, gathering and intelligently using masses of commuter data is a critical starting point. Data-driven transport planning can ensure public services infrastructure – like schools, parks, hospitals and police services – are integrated into the major nodes of a region’s public transport infrastructure.

If we are to implement a new bus network in Soweto, for example, data collected from millions of daily commuters would reveal the ideal bus routes, times, and frequencies, to serve the maximum number of passengers.

But in developing economies, TOD strategies often have to be creative, fitting within the existing informal transit services and considering local culture, geography, and practices. Case-studies from first-world countries don’t always work everywhere in the world.

The remarkable Gondola-style cable cars in Columbia’s sprawling mountain city of Medellin is a great example of this. WiFi-equipped capsules transport residents between the upper- to the lower-regions of the city, connecting them with bus networks at ground level. At all of the major nodes you’ll find locally-owned restaurants and shops selling a variety of products to both locals and tourists alike.

In South Africa, we have a unique blend of formal and informal transit mechanisms. Considering local context means using technology to augment and incrementally improve the existing systems, rather than to outright replace them.

Even the most simple technology, like free Wi-Fi, could make a massive difference to commuters in our cities – giving access to those currently on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide’, helping to stimulate local business, and making communication far easier for travellers.

In fact, better communication is one of the clearest ways that we could improve our public transport. Commuters would be able to enquire about schedules and routes – through mobile apps, or USSD sessions, or web portals. Operators could communicate relevant information to passengers likely to be affected by, for instance, a late train (instead of bulk groups of travellers all receiving the same alerts).

Public transport operators could dramatically improve efficiencies with modern transport management systems – which link everything from ticketing to customer counting, from predictive maintenance to driver management and weather alerts. These comprehensive systems enable the optimal resource allocation, and the ability to respond in near real-time to isolated events, such as large entertainment events, unusual weather, strikes, or accidents.

Serving communities and applying technology in a way that benefits all requires deep partnerships between local government and specialist IT partners – to not only improve the levels of mobility and accessibility for commuters, but also stimulate new commerce, services, and tourism opportunities in the districts surrounding the transport hubs.

* Harry van Huyssteen, Transport Industry Subject Matter Expert, at T-Systems South Africa

 

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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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