South Africa’s first data science training academy has become a reality thanks to an investment of over R50-million by BCX.
The investment has largely been fuelled by the growing demand for big data analytics and BCX’s recognition of the need for this skillset within the country.
The Explore Data Science Academy aims to meet the burgeoning demand for data analytics in the digital economy – a demand that far exceeds current supply. Through the academy, BCX will sponsor 300 interns over the next three years, as well as future-proofing executives in this scarce skill, through the provision of additional courses. The Academy is believed to be the first institution in the country focused on data science.
Kicking off the initiative was the announcement of 100 free internships to successful applicants of the Academy’s one-year Accredited Skills Data Science Programme, commencing January 2018. These internships will be fully sponsored by BCX, which has come on board as founder partner of the Academy for the next three years. BCX has committed its support after recognising the huge need for data science skills within corporates in South Africa.
There are no restrictions to entry for the one-year course, nor are formal qualifications required. Applicants should be between 17 and 35 years of age and must pass a challenging aptitude test on the academy’s website.
The Explore Data Science Academy is the brainchild of founders Shaun Dippnall, Dave Strugnell and Aidan Helmbold, all highly qualified data scientists with actuarial qualifications and experience in lecturing, research and consulting.
Dave Strugnell was former head of UCT’s Division of Actuarial Science. Dippnall was previously an actuarial lecturer at UKZN, but more recently served as both a Chief Actuary and Chief Data Scientist at some of the largest corporates in South Africa. Both Helmbold and Strugnell have also held executive positions in their roles as actuaries and data scientists.
“Ours is a unique, one-of-a-kind course in that it is free, practical, has real-world relevance and provides work experience. We also like the fact that it is open to anyone with aptitude,” said Dippnall.
By comparison, equivalent university programmes, such as a Masters in Data Science, come at a significant cost to a student, which prevent many people from applying. They also tend to focus on theory rather than practical application.
“The support from BCX allows our interns crucial access to real-world challenges. What’s more, the spectrum of programmes we offer, simulate the teamwork required when working with data in a corporate environment,” Dippnall added.
Ian Russell, CEO of BCX, said: “In a rapidly changing business landscape, data science has become a core skill for corporates who are looking to digitise their operations and leverage big data. We look forward to welcoming the first interns to BCX as a result of this programme.
“Data science is integral to the future of our business and many others. For this reason we have committed, through our agreement with the Explore Data Science Academy, to sponsor a minimum of 300 interns over the next three years,” Russell added.
The course, which will be held at the academy’s premises in the Bandwidth Barn in Cape Town’s trendy Woodstock, incorporates cutting edge training material, leveraging the latest in data science and artificial intelligence research. The Academy will be designated as a Seta Accredited Skills Programme, with the expectation that it will receive accreditation by the end of the year.
Commenting on the decision to establish the country’s first academy devoted to data science, Strugnell said: “The acceleration of the digital economy means that every industry will need data science skills. There is an estimated global shortfall in data scientists of two million. Likewise there is huge demand for these skills within corporate South Africa, which far outweighs current supply.”
The field has been ranked as the ‘sexiest’ career choice of the 21st century and is also one of the highest paid.
“We are particularly excited to be the first institution to offer a focused, comprehensive and free year-long accredited skills data science programme in the country that will build the relevant digital skills within our youth, so that they can thrive in the new economy,” Strugnell added.
Dippnall and his team aim to complete the recruitment of 100 interns by October 31, 2017 from the flood of applications expected. While prior education and exposure to mathematics and computing will be an advantage, applicants will be selected primarily on their ability to complete an online aptitude test. The course will start in January 2018.
“Anyone from any background with an aptitude for mathematics, statistics, problem solving and analytics may qualify for our course,” Dippnall said.
“Data science, at its core, is about solving real world problems. We will teach our interns how to solve these by applying the latest techniques – from prediction models and artificial intelligence – to the growing amount of data available in businesses,” Helmbold said.
“Our design principle is to build an agile, digital, peer-to-peer, modern education programme that is Seta-accredited and teaches students new economy skills that current platforms do not offer. We are also extremely gratified to have the support of BCX as founding sponsor for our first intake,” he added.
Successful candidates will spend the year between the classroom, on-the-job training and team-based project work.
“We designed a course that closely mirrors the demands of the workplace. Included in the curriculum are tools such as Python, Tableau, SQL and Scikit-learn, which are routinely required when building data science applications. We have also added job immersion and self-paced project work, which both involve team dynamics and interaction,” Dippnall said.
While job placement at the end of the year is not guaranteed, Dippnall is confident that uptake of candidates will be strong given the shortage of skills. Stipends are available to cover the living expenses of successful candidates who are in financial need.