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Meet the fact-checker’s fact checker

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At a conference running in Johannesburg today and tomorrow, one of the speakers will bring a new perspective to fact-checking and fighting the fake news onslaught, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Nechama Brodie doesn’t look like a private investigator or a secret agent. Nor, at the other end of the career excitement scale, does she look anything like an accountant or bookkeeper.

Yet, she employs skills central to all of these professions in her quest to perfect the art of fact-checking.

At the Liberty Vuka Knowledge Summit running today and tomorrow at the Sandton Convention Centre, she will teach attendees practical methods for how to question information, and hopes to inspire them to ask better questions.

“The secret in life is not to know everything,” she says. “But how do we learn just enough to ask the right questions from the right people?”

Nechama Brodie. Image by Sarah de Pina

Nechama Brodie.
Image by Sarah de Pina

It is just this dilemma that inspired her, in 2015, to launch TRI Facts as the research and training division of Africa Check, a respected and independent fact-checking agency. Brodie’s earlier work at Africa Check ranged from investigating crime and security statistics to researching politics and policy. She even explored the urban legends around Johannesburg being the world’s largest urban forest.

Heading up TRI Facts now gives this part-time musician the opportunity to share her methods, as well as her unusual perspective on information.

“The current epidemic of fake news, especially via social media, is a consequence of relying on the wrong people to tell us what is right and what is wrong in the media. But even mainstream media doesn’t always get it right.

“Even the term fake news is very problematic, because the media and politicians are both abusing the term. By calling it fake news, they are shying away from calling political propaganda what it really is: propaganda.”

The ordinary member of the public is fodder for this propaganda mill, especially in a time of social media’s ascendancy as a news source.

“There’s a decline in trust in the media. People trust their friends and family more. But generally, your friends and family are not necessarily that smart, so why do you trust them more? So I’ll be looking at the structures of who we choose to trust and why.”

Brodie makes a fascinating connection between distrust of media and the distrust of science that is currently fashionable in various constituencies in both the United States and South Africa.

 

“We’ve distorted media literacy, so that the concept of questioning media has been distorted into mistrust of media. That, then, also translates into people rejecting science.

“Of course science is not infallible, but fallibility is a process and it’s built into the scientific method. But now people say that, if one thing is wrong, it’s all wrong. As a result, they replace acceptable sources with unacceptable sources.”

This is not a new phenomenon, but social media has given it wings.

“It’s not very different to what we used to get from friends and family and neighbours before social media. But the timeline has collapsed, and we now get that information much faster.

“The Internet is a fantastic source of good information. But, when you start asking the how and why, how do you learn to ask better questions, and who can you ask? A hundred years ago scientists were experts in multiple areas; these

days they are expected to be experts in one specialist area. The original scientists were polymaths and real geniuses, not the geniuses we make ourselves out to be on Twitter. We confuse reading stuff on the Internet with making ourselves experts.”

This malaise has spread to journalists, who will now take legal documents to colleagues for opinions rather than calling lawyers. Brodie knows from her own experience how dangerous this can be.

“In my early 20s, when I was starting off as a writer, I had a strong assumption that I was always right. In retrospect, I was very lucky I didn’t make major errors. As I get older, I double-check everything. But not just by using Google. I make phone calls. I call universities, find professors, and meet people.

“The great thing about experts is that they refer you to knowledge, and don’t only give you their opinions. It becomes a knowledge tree.”

TRI Facts primarily offers research and training to journalists, analysts and government officials, among other. Its training includes understanding what facts can and cannot be checked, how bias can affect the ability to find and interpret data, how to find local data, and how to fact-check multimedia sources.

However, it also teaches a simple methodology that can be use anywhere by anyone if they are dubious about information. Brodie will share this approach during the Liberty Vuka Knowledge Summit.

“There is no magic to fact-checking. We teach that you can never be an expert, but that it’s okay. Your job is to find people who do know, and sources that are credible.”

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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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