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Machine learning will go big and small in 2017

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Machine learning is an emerging trend in South Africa, with demand for data scientists rising and university programmes incorporating it in study programmes. DataProphet MD, FRANS CRONJE, highlights South Africa’s top machine learning trends.

Machine learning as a subset of Artificial Intelligence is an emerging trend in South Africa, with demand for data scientists rising sharply and university programmes incorporating the discipline in study programmes. However, still a long way behind international counterparts, South African machine learning trends for 2017 place focus on our unique and emerging market.

The machine learning sector is really beginning to take form in South Africa with various start-ups taking off and entering the international scene.

At DataProphet, we specialise in the application of machine learning algorithms to provide actionable solutions for a variety of industries. Having built a presence in the U.S. we have experienced the difference in industry trends first hand.

South Africa’s diverse range of spoken languages makes it difficult to use existing personal assistants, chatbots and speech recognition tools which were designed solely for the English language. This is just one example of how approaches to machine learning need to be tailored to the local market.

In addition, inequality in terms of income and high levels of poverty means that fewer people have the means to take part in the growing Internet of Things (IoT) trend. This is also influenced by lower levels of affordable smartphone, computer and data access.

Fortunately, South African companies – not generally known for their customer care – are starting to wake up to the possibilities of efficient customer relationship management (CRM) through bespoke products, targeted marketing and improved customer service.

Our top four trends for machine learning in South Africa for 2017 are:

1. Big Data

Until recently, there were only a few companies who had the expertise needed to handle large datasets. However, as Big Data ‘know-how’ continues to spread across local industries, organisations will begin to see the benefits of uncovering new insights and opportunities presented through previously untouched data.

One way of using this data which has seen incredible growth is in segmentation – distinguishing customers based on their behaviour. Vodacom’s ‘Just 4 You’ campaign, for example, enabled businesses to better understand their needs and provide a personalised experience while also improving profits.

2. Chatbots

In a country where many digital and technological services are limited, chatbots are set to see steady increase in use cases as the technology graduates out of a being seen as ‘gimmicky’. Their return will see an increase in assistance with legal and financial advice, medical diagnosis and customer support.

ABSA has already introduced such a chatbot in the market, increasing the ways in which the bank engages with customers.

3. Computer Vision

The near-human level performance of computer vision will definitely be a trend to watch out for in 2017. For example, useful in the South African retail industry, smart cameras may be able to identify when a shoplifting or a break-in occurs and then notify security services.

4. Autonomous Worker Drones

Lastly, while smaller and far less technologically advanced drones made it onto the wishlists of teenagers over the festive season, advanced drone-mounted cameras are likely to gain popularity in South Africa this year. The efficiency of such technology is undeniable with the ability to battle rhino poachers by scanning large areas and reporting on the whereabouts of wildlife and people.

Beyond 2017, industry players may also want to keep the below considerations in mind.

  • Data is a gold mine

Keep in mind that while you may not be taking full advantage of your data, others are going to be efficiently using theirs and will therefore have a competitive edge over you. Machine learning has the ability to disrupt the market; driverless cars are just one example of this. Keeping up-to-date and adapting with the times is vital to avoid becoming obsolete.

  • Not all solutions are equal

Off-the-shelf ‘black-box’ machine learning models and analysis tools often hide a myriad of algorithmic design decisions in exchange for usability resulting in the most common for all scenarios but also non-optimal solution for all scenarios. The use of such solutions can result in sub-optimal model performance or unintended, negative consequences. Many of the very best machine learning products are open-source and open-data which allow for the establishment of social-good machine learning applications that many may not have even considered yet.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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