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SA ICT leads region but global rank falls

South Africa has seen a drop in its global ranking for information and communications technology, despite being described as being at the forefront of the region.

South Africa has dropped from 88th place in global ICT development index (IDI) to 92, according to the ninth edition of the annual Measuring the Information Society Report. The report was released this week by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the United Nations Specialized agency for information and communication technology (ICT).

This is despite the fact that the report states that South Africa is at the forefront of the region’s technological development with the latest broadband technologies and wide coverage.

“This has been enabled by a suitable regulatory framework and a competitive private sector-driven market,” says the ITU. “Cost remains an issue due to significant duplication in backbone networks, with a need to move to a cost-based open access regime.”

However, South Africa lags behind Mauritius (72) and Seychelles (90) in the IDI rankings.

Globally, says the ITU,  concurrent advances in the Internet of Things, big data analytics, cloud computing and artificial intelligence will enable tremendous innovations and fundamentally transform business, government and society – ultimately serving to improve livelihoods around the globe.

“This revolution will unfold,” the report states, “over the coming decades with opportunities, challenges, and implications that are not yet fully known. To harness these benefits, countries will need to create conditions supportive to the deployment of next-generation network and service infrastructures. They will also have to adopt policies that are conducive to experimentation and innovation, while mitigating potential risks to information security, privacy, and employment.”

“This year’s report shows that ICTs have the potential to make the world a better place and contribute immensely to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. “However, despite the overall progress achieved, the digital divide remains a challenge which needs to be addressed. This is important because information and communication technology and the digital economy have the potential to transform the lives of billions of men, women and children. The digital revolution can transform nations — entire continents – but only if digital resources are accessible. This report will help to support countries to do just that.”

“It is my hope that this report will be of great value to the ITU membership, particularly for  policy-makers, the ICT industry and others working towards the building of an inclusive global information society,” said Brahima Sanou, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, which produces the report each year. “Fully harnessing the economic and social benefits of the digital revolution requires efficient and affordable physical infrastructures and services, more advanced user skills, and internationally comparable benchmarks and indicators to support enabling public policies.”

SUMMARY OF REPORT FINDINGS:

ICT development index – country ranking

The ITU ICT Development Index 2017 (IDI 2017) featured in the MIS report is a unique benchmark of the level of ICT development in countries across the world. Iceland tops the IDI 2017 rankings. It is followed by two countries and one economy in the Asia and the Pacific region, and six other countries in Europe, which have competitive ICT markets that have experienced high levels of ICT investment and innovation over many years.

The IDI has up to now been based on 11 indicators. However, recent developments in ICT markets have led to the review of those indicators. As a result of that review, in 2018 the index will be defined by 14 indicators that should add further insights into the performance of individual countries and the relative performance of countries at different development levels.

Measuring ICT development

The latest data on ICT development show continued progress in connectivity and use of ICTs. There has been sustained growth in the availability of communications in the past decade, led by growth in mobile cellular telephony and, more recently, in mobile-broadband. Growth in fixed and mobile-broadband infrastructure has stimulated Internet access and use. The number of mobile-broadband subscriptions worldwide now exceeds 50 per 100 population, enabling improved access to the Internet and online services.

In spite of the rapid expansion of ICTs, there are substantial digital divides between countries and regions. However, there has been registered progress in ICT growth by least developed countries, in terms of connectivity as well as the use of the Internet. Globally, more than half of households worldwide now have access to the Internet, though the rate of growth appears to have fallen below 5 per cent a year. There has also been significant progress in terms of bridging the gender digital divide across the regions.

Emerging ICT trends

The Internet of Things will greatly expand the digital footprint. In addition to connecting people, organizations and information resources, it will also connect objects equipped with digital information and with sensing, processing and communication capabilities. This ubiquitous infrastructure will generate abundant data that can be utilized to achieve efficiency gains in the production and distribution of goods and services, and to improve human life in innovative ways.

Big data analytics will extract useful knowledge from this flow of digital information. It will drive better understanding and predictions of ICT developments, as well as improved management and policy decisions. Making sense of proliferating information requires a workforce with appropriate analytical, computational, methodological skills and a high-capacity ICT infrastructure.

Cloud and other architectures will likely lower the entry barriers to scalable computing resources. They are starting to deliver flexible and on-demand computational services over the Internet, lowering the fixed-cost of ICT infrastructure, to the benefit of small- and medium-sized organizations. Realizing their full potential will depend on the availability of reliable fixed and mobile broadband connectivity.

Artificial intelligence will aid humans to make better decisions. In order to achieve this goal, each algorithm needs to be tailored carefully to existing data and the objectives pursued. This requires considerable human expertise in machine learning and large datasets to train algorithms.

All of these advanced ICTs contribute to realizing the critically important United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). Promising applications already exist in areas such as manufacturing, precision agriculture, government, education, health care, smart cities and smart transportation. As part of broader initiatives, ICTs can contribute to achieving  each of the 17 SDGs.

Harnessing the benefits of advanced ICTs requires appropriate infrastructures, services and skills. Networks will have to support diverse quality-of-service demands from applications and users while delivering robust and ubiquitous connectivity. This will require the roll-out of wireless Internet of Things platforms, and relying on network virtualization and improved fiber connectivity. Moreover, it will require the development of advanced ICT skills among users.

Advanced ICTs raise important concerns over next-generation digital divides. Network operators and users will have to adapt their business models to take advantage of the opportunities of the digital transformation. Thus, policy makers and regulators are called upon to create conditions facilitating entrepreneurial experiments and innovation.

Policy will also have to mitigate challenges to information security, privacy, employment and income inequality. Specific local and national needs also need to be taken into account. In many parts of the digital economy, low entry barriers can empower local entrepreneurs to develop innovative business models adapted to local conditions. It will be important to facilitate the development of culturally sensitive human-centered algorithms and applications.

Reliable and meaningful measurements of the deployment and use of advanced ICTs are critical. Fully harnessing the potential benefits of this progress requires reliable and meaningful metrics that go beyond existing data. This will require strong efforts of collaboration among various stakeholders and the development of new approaches to harvest information directly from digital infrastructures and applications.

Regional comparisons

There are considerable differences between geographic regions in the levels of ICT development as demonstrated by the IDI 2017. There is also significant variation in the experience of individual countries within each region – with these differences mainly associated with levels of economic development.

The average value for Africa in the IDI 2017 is 2.64 points. Mauritius, ranks in the upper half of the global IDI distribution. The region includes two of the three countries, which achieved the most dynamic improvements in their IDI value over the year – Namibia and Gabon.

The United States and Canada top the IDI 2017 ranking in the Americas region. The majority of countries in the region fall within the two middle quartiles. The most significant improvements in the Americas region were recorded by middle-ranking countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean.

The Arab States region is also very diverse in terms of IDI 2017 performance. This region includes a number of, high-income economies, including three countries Bahrain, Qatar and United Arab Emirates. The strongest improvements in this region were seen in middle-income countries, whose average value rose by more than twice that of countries at the top and bottom of the regional distribution.

Seven economies in the Asia and the Pacific region have IDI 2017 values above 7.50 points and rank within the highest quartile, including the Republic of Korea which is ranked second overall. Six countries improved their IDI values by more than 0.40 points, led by the second most dynamic country in IDI 2017, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), only one country in the region, Belarus, is in the top quartile of the IDI 2017 ranking. The most dynamic countries in terms of IDI value were those at the bottom of the regional rankings – Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Europe has the highest average IDI 2017 value among world regions (7.50 points). As many as 28 of its 40 countries rank within the highest quartile. The most substantial improvements in value were recorded by Cyprus and Turkey.

Country profiles

This year’s report features – for the first time – country profiles highlighting the ICT market structure and the latest developments in 192 economies worldwide. Each profile includes an overview of the policy and regulatory initiatives undertaken as well as the current status of network roll-out and service uptake. These profiles are presented in Volume II of this year’s report.

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Now IBM’s Watson joins IoT revolution in agriculture

Global expansion of the Watson Decision Platform taps into AI, weather and IoT data to boost production

IBM has announced the global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI technology tailored for new crops and specific regions to help feed a growing population. For the first time, IBM is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase in arable land [1]. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

Roric Paulman, owner/operator of Paulman Farms in Southwest Nebraska, said: “As a farmer, the wild card is always weather. IBM overlays weather details with my own data and historical information to help me apply, verify, and make decisions. For example, our farm is in a highly restricted water basin, so the ability to better anticipate rain not only saves me money but also helps me save precious natural resources.”

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in the Africa, U.S. Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as new markets across Europe and Australia.

Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions at IBM, said: “These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment. Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analysed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.” 

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036 [2]. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers. The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with start up Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Company data, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops. IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.

[1] The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision”

[2] Business Insider Intelligence, 2016 report: https://www.businessinsider.com/internet-of-things-smart-agriculture-2016-10


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What if Amazon used AI to take on factories?

By ANTONY BOURNE, IFS Global Industry Director for Manufacturing

Amazon recently announced record profits of $3.03bn, breaking its own record for the third consecutive time. However, Amazon appears to be at a crossroads as to where it heads next. Beyond pouring additional energy into Amazon Prime, many have wondered whether the company may decide to enter an entirely new sector such as manufacturing to drive future growth, after all, it seems a logical step for the company with its finger in so many pies.

At this point, it is unclear whether Amazon would truly ‘get its hands dirty’ by manufacturing its own products on a grand scale. But what if it did? It’s worth exploring this reality. What if Amazon did decide to move into manufacturing, a sector dominated by traditional firms and one that is yet to see an explosive tech rival enter? After all, many similarly positioned tech giants have stuck to providing data analytics services or consulting to these firms rather than genuinely engaging with and analysing manufacturing techniques directly.

If Amazon did factories

If Amazon decided to take a step into manufacturing, it is likely that they could use the Echo range as a template of what AI can achieve. In recent years,Amazon gained expertise on the way to designing its Echo home speaker range that features Alexa, an artificial intelligence and IoT-based digital assistant.Amazon could replicate a similar form with the deployment of AI and Industrial IoT (IIoT) to create an autonomously-run smart manufacturing plant. Such a plant could feature IIoT sensors to enable the machinery to be run remotely and self-aware; managing external inputs and outputs such as supply deliveries and the shipping of finished goods. Just-in-time logistics would remove the need for warehousing while other machines could be placed in charge of maintenance using AI and remote access. Through this, Amazon could radically reduce the need for human labour and interaction in manufacturing as the use of AI, IIoT and data analytics will leave only the human role for monitoring and strategic evaluation. Amazon has been using autonomous robots in their logistics and distribution centres since 2017. As demonstrated with the Echo range, this technology is available now, with the full capabilities of Blockchain and 5G soon to be realised and allowing an exponentially-increased amount of data to be received, processed and communicated.

Manufacturing with knowledge

Theorising what Amazon’s manufacturing debut would look like provides a stark learning opportunity for traditional manufacturers. After all, wheneverAmazon has entered the fray in other traditional industries such as retail and logistics, the sector has never remained the same again. The key takeaway for manufacturers is that now is the time to start leveraging the sort of technologies and approaches to data management that Amazon is already doing in its current operations. When thinking about how to implement AI and new technologies in existing environments, specific end-business goals and targets must be considered, or else the end result will fail to live up to the most optimistic of expectations. As with any target and goal, the more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results. Once specific targets and deliverables have been considered, the resources and methods of implementation must also be considered. As Amazon did with early automation of their distribution and logistics centres, manufacturers need to implement change gradually and be focused on achieving small and incremental results that will generate wider momentum and the appetite to lead more expansive changes.

In implementing newer technologies, manufacturers need to bear in mind two fundamental aspects of implementation: software and hardware solutions. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, which is increasingly bolstered by AI, will enable manufacturers to leverage the data from connected IoT devices, sensors, and automated systems from the factory floor and the wider business. ERP software will be the key to making strategic decisions and executing routine operational tasks more efficiently. This will allow manufacturers to keep on top of trends and deliver real-time forecasting and spot any potential problems before they impact the wider business.

As for the hardware, stock management drones and sensor-embedded hardware will be the eyes through which manufacturers view the impact emerging technologies bring to their operations. Unlike manual stock audits and counting, drones with AI capabilities can monitor stock intelligently around production so that operations are not disrupted or halted. Manufacturers will be able to see what is working, what is going wrong, and where there is potential for further improvement and change.

Knowledge for manufacturing

For many traditional manufacturers, they may see Amazon as a looming threat, and smart-factory technologies such as AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a far off utopia. However, 2019 presents a perfect opportunity for manufacturers themselves to really determine how the tech giants and emerging technologies will affect the industry. Technologies such as AI and IoT are available today; and the full benefits of these technologies will only deepen as they are implemented alongside the maturing of other emerging technologies such as 5G and Blockchain in the next 3-5 years. Manufacturers need to analyse the needs which these technologies can address and produce a proper plan on how to gradually implement these technologies to address specific targets and deliverables. AI-based software and hardware solutions will fundamentally revolutionise manufacturing, yet for 2019, manufacturers just have to be willing to make the first steps in modernisation.

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