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SA chainsaw operators now train in VR

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Developed by Forestry South Africa (FSA), the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing Sector Education and Training Authority (FP&M Seta) and industry partners, this solution trains chainsaw operators in a safe, simulated environment before they test their skills in this high-risk activity in timber plantations.

While the number of chainsaw operators employed in large commercial plantations has declined in recent years, the opposite is true in small-scale and community forestry, where suitably trained chainsaw operators need to be equipped with this scarce and critical skill.

Although forestry has used simulators over the past decade, their use in the training of chainsaw operators is an innovative development.

Mobile, cost-effective, learner-adaptable and injury-free

The cost of practical training has risen substantially. The sector sought a solution that would not only provide a cost-effective coaching medium with minimal risk, but a means whereby trainee operators could gain a feel for their equipment before taking their first steps into the field or forest. 

Safety concerns have proved to be a limiting factor in the training of chainsaw operators. Other constraints include unwieldy class sizes and a limited number of trees available for practical instruction.

“Besides the obvious benefits that our industry stands to gain from this project, VR is the future of skills development and training. It transports learners into the environment for which they are being trained, promotes interactivity and improves the retention of information through experience,” says FSA business development director Norman Dlamini.

“I am holding the very first chainsaw in the world that has been wired with sensors and can transport a learner into a virtual timber plantation,” says Dlamini in a video developed to promote and demonstrate the application.

The solution is remarkably simple to operate and offers significant value for money. All that is needed is a dedicated computer, a VR headset, a specially adapted chainsaw with sensors and a customised mobile gazebo. The total cost of the hardware to run the app is approximately R35 000, while the software is available free of charge to FSA members.

Project partners

The project has been substantially funded by the FP&M Seta. “It uses fourth industrial revolution technology to improve the quality of instruction. Excited by FSA’s proposal, FP&M Seta contributed to this initiative,” says FP&M Seta CEO Felleng Yende, who too believes that VR is the future of training and skills development.

FSA executive director Michael Peter explains that capacity building and development are vital to the sustainability of the industry and its future growth. “Our membership includes not only the country’s 11 major corporate forestry companies but 1 300 medium-scale plantation owners and around 20 000 small-scale operators. This development will benefit them by enhancing the quality of operator training,” he says.

Some FSA members have already committed to testing the technology at their in-house training departments and will be giving constant feedback to the development team to refine the design of the product prior to commercialisation.

Where to next?

According to Peter, the app will meet the need for better quality and safer training in the industry while standardising the level of training and assessment of trainees across the country.

Initial demonstrations have been well-received by the industry, with a Version 2.0 already in the making. “During consultation with user groups, we identified two important improvements to enhance the next generation of VR chainsaw training aids,” adds Dlamini.

These will incorporate the use of a wireless module to eliminate cables that interfere with the movement of the learner operator as well as VR gloves to improve haptic feedback from the chainsaw during operation. This will add realism to the experience, enabling trainees to sense vibrations and resistance as the chainsaw engages with the virtual tree or timber.

Learning from this development, FSA is investigating other VR-based training applications for similarly hazardous operations. One of these is firefighting. “Fire knows no sectorial borders, so we would seek multi-sector collaboration,” says Dlamini.

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Small SA town goes smartphone-only

Vodacom partners with farming business to upgrade all residents of Wakkerstroom from 2G devices to smartphones

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All residents of the small town of Wakkerstroom, which straddles Mpumalanga and kwaZulu-Natal provinces, have had their 2G feature phones upgraded to 3G devices.

The initiative is a result of Vodacom partnering with BPG Langfontein, a farming business that employs the majority of the people living in Wakkerstroom. It is now the first smartphone-only town in South Africa. This is a model the network provider says it hopes to replicate across the country as part of its mission to connect people who live in deep rural areas and are still dependent on 2G networks.

Wakkerstroom, is the second oldest town in Mpumalanga province, on the KwaZulu-Natal border, 27 km east of Volksrust and 56 km south-east of Amersfoort.  

“There are growing expectations for big corporates the size of Vodacom to serve a social purpose, and for us to use our resources and core capabilities to make a significant contribution in transforming the lives of ordinary people,” says Zakhele Jiyane, Managing Executive for Vodacom Mpumalanga. “We are helping to remove communication barriers, so that citizens in the area can be part of the digital revolution and reap the associated benefits. By moving the more than 1400 farm workers from 2G to 3G devices, this will also free much needed spectrum and this spectrum can be re-farmed to provide for faster networks such as 3G and 4G.

“Crucially, the move opens a new world of connectivity for farm workers in Wakkerstroom. As a result, most people in the area will now be able to use the Vodacom network to connect on the net and access online government services, eHealth services such as Mum&Baby and eCommerce. Learners can now surf the internet for the first time and access Vodacom’s eSchool free of charge and those who are actively looking for jobs can start using their smartphones and tablets to apply for jobs over the internet on Vodacom’s zero-rated career sites. This will be key for driving growth to the benefit of people living in this area.”

Vodacom has already deployed 4G base stations in Wakkestroom as part of this initiative.

For the next phase of this project, says Vodacom, it is going to educate the farm workers about data and the benefits of the Internet. Vodacom will also look at various ways in which it can help empower members of this community in areas of education, gender-based violence and health.

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Facebook fact-checking goes to 10 more African countries

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Facebook today announced the expansion of its Third-Party Fact-Checking programme to 10 additional African countries, which now join  Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Senegal in the project,

In partnership with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the France 24 Observers, Pesa Check and Dubawa, this programme forms part of its work in helping assess the accuracy and quality of news people find on Facebook, whilst reducing the spread of misinformation on its platform.

Working with a network of fact-checking organizations, certified by the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network, third-party fact-checking will now be available in Ethiopia, Zambia, Somalia and Burkina Faso through AFP, Uganda and Tanzania through both Pesa Check and AFP, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire through the France 24 Observers and AFP, Guinea Conakry through the France 24 Observers, and Ghana through Dubawa.

Feedback from the Facebook community is one of many signals Facebook uses to raise potentially false stories to fact-checkers for review. Local articles will be fact-checked alongside the verification of photos and videos. If one of our fact-checking partners identifies a story as false, Facebook will show it lower in News Feed, significantly reducing its distribution.

Kojo Boakye, Facebook Head of Public Policy, Africa, said: “The expansion of third-party fact-checking to now cover 15 countries in a little over a year shows firsthand our commitment and dedication to the continent, alongside our recent local language expansion as part of this programme. Taking steps to help tackle false news on Facebook is a responsibility we take seriously, we know misinformation is a problem, and these are important steps in continuing to address this issue. We know that third-party fact-checking alone is not the solution, it is one of many initiatives and programmes we are investing in to help to improve the quality of information people see on Facebook. While we’ve made great progress, we will keep investing to ensure Facebook remains a place for all ideas, but not for the spread of false news.”

When third-party fact-checkers fact-check a news story, Facebook will show these in Related Articles immediately below the story in News Feed. Page Admins and people on Facebook will also receive notifications if they try to share a story or have shared one in the past that’s been determined to be false, empowering people to decide for themselves what to read, trust, and share.

Providing fact-checking in English and French across eight countries, Phil Chetwynd, AFP Global News Director said: “AFP is delighted to be expanding its fact-checking project with Facebook. We are known for the high quality of our journalism from across Africa and we will be leveraging our unparalleled network of bureaus and journalists on the continent to combat misinformation.”

Eric Mugendi, Managing Editor from Pesa Check who will provide fact-checking services in Swahili and English added: “Social networks like Facebook haven’t just changed how Africans consume the news. Social media is often the primary access to digital content or the ‘Internet’ for many Africans. They shape our perceptions of the world, our public discourse, and how we interact with public figures. This project helps us dramatically expand our fact-checking to debunk claims that could otherwise cause real-world harm. The project helps us respond more quickly and directly. We’re seeing real positive results in our interactions with both publishers and the public itself. The project also helps our fact-checks reach a far larger audience than we would otherwise. This has helped us better understand the information vacuum and other viral dynamics that drive the spread of false information in Africa. Our growing impact is a small but tangible contribution to better informed societies in Africa.”

Caroline Anipah, Programme Officer, Dubawa (Ghana) said: “Dubawa is excited to be in Ghana where the misinformation and disinformation have become widespread as a result of technological advancement and increasing internet penetration. Dubawa intends to raise the quality of information available to the public with the ultimate aim of curbing the spread of misinformation and disinformation and promoting good governance and accountability.”

Derek Thomson, editor-in-chief of the France 24 Observers, said: “Our African users are constantly sending us questionable images and messages they’ve received via social media, asking us ‘Is this true? Can you check it?’ It’s our responsibility as fact-checking journalists to verify the information that’s circulating, and get the truth back out there. Participating in the Facebook programme helps ensure that our fact-checks are reaching the people who shared the false news in the first place.”

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