Technology has a remarkable potential to do good and solve real-world problems – and innovations in areas like AI are proving it. Let’s Talk About Sex and Open Kasi, for instance, are two of the latest solutions designed to help make a positive change in financial services and health in South Africa.
Let’s Talk About Sex (LTAS) is an AI-powered chatbot aimed at providing critical sex education and support to South Africa’s youth around issues such as HIV, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unplanned pregnancies and abortions, as well as around broader concerns such as low self-esteem and depression. It uses machine learning to answer any questions users may have, and carries out a sentiment analysis on all questions to help develop relevant and empathetic answers.
Open Kasi is geared towards helping small business owners in townships streamline their financial functions and documentation such as invoices so that they have a real-time, any-time view of how their business is performing. It provides vital insights that allows these entrepreneurs to start, run and manage their businesses even without an in-depth understanding of fintech or financial aspects such as invoicing.
The teams conceptualised and developed the prototypes of these life-changing solutions at Microsoft’s AI for the Financial Services Industry (FSI) and Health hackathon in June. The event brought together talent from varying disciplines to collaborate on creating unique solutions for real problems, particularly affecting the financial services and health industries, using AI and machine learning services in the Azure Cloud.
LTAS and Open Kasi emerged as the winners from the six teams chosen to participate. “There was significant interest in the topics – we had to narrow it down to six teams from 39 proposals – because these sectors are always top of mind and there is a massive potential for impact by providing solutions to real-life issues,” says Asif Valley, National Technology Officer at Microsoft South Africa.
Building for future needs through diversity and inclusion
As part of creating tangible impact, these solutions broadly focused on building diversity and inclusion into them – and the diversity of the teams involved in the hack ensured that the solutions have the ability to cater to the needs of South Africans across the spectrum inherently built into them. This speaks directly to the hackathon’s aim of innovating and creating for good.
Another key aim of the hackathon was giving teams the freedom to explore their own ideas of what solutions these industries needed most. Each team got to define their own interpretation of meaningful change and create a unique solution to drive that change. “We wanted to get fresh perspectives that might leapfrog traditional issues and provide solutions that we might not even have thought of that build for future needs,” says Valley.
There were, however, guidelines that teams needed to work within. Teams could, for example, use any operating system, development language, framework, tools and hardware – and while solutions can stretch across multiple cloud platforms, all machine learning or cognitive technology aspects of the solution must have used Microsoft Azure Machine Learning or Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services.
Although the Open Kasi and LTAS solutions are still just prototypes, they are now one step closer to becoming a reality. The teams will receive mentorship, guidance and training through Microsoft’s Head Start programme. Head Start provides access to digital courses and training, live events, meetings and mentorship, which help take the prototypes to the next level and make them more commercially viable.
“Ultimately, we’d like to see these solutions in action so we can see the concept of using AI for good in action,” says Valley. “The AI for FSI and Health hackathon truly showed the potential of AI to solve real-world problems, so we are looking to grow it to include other sectors such as agriculture as well as get key stakeholders involved so we can focus on collectively developing the principles and boundaries that govern the ethics of AI.”
Seedstars seeks tech to reverse land degradation in Africa
A new partnership is offering prizes to young entrepreneurs for coming up with innovations that tackle the loss of arable land in Africa.
The DOEN Foundation has joined forces with Seedstars, an emerging market startup community, to launch the DOEN Land Restoration Prize, which showcases solutions to environmental, social and financial challenges that focus on land restoration activities in Africa. Stichting DOEN is a Dutch fund that supports green, socially-inclusive and creative initiatives that contribute to a better and cleaner world.
While land degradation and deforestation date back millennia, industrialization and a rising population have dramatically accelerated the process. Today we are seeing unprecedented land degradation, and the loss of arable land at 30 to 35 times the historical rate.
Currently, nearly two-thirds of Africa’s land is degraded, which hinders sustainable economic development and resilience to climate change. As a result, Africa has the largest restoration opportunity of any continent: more than 700 million hectares (1.7 billion acres) of degraded forest landscapes that can be restored. The potential benefits include improved food and water security, biodiversity protection, climate change resilience, and economic growth. Recognizing this opportunity, the African Union set an ambitious target to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.
Land restoration is an urgent response to the poor management of land. Forest and landscape restoration is the process of reversing the degradation of soils, agricultural areas, forests, and watersheds thereby regaining their ecological functionality. According to the World Resources Institute, for every $1 invested in land restoration it can yield $7-$30 in benefits, and now is the time to prove it.
The winner of the challenge will be awarded 9 months access to the Seedstars Investment Readiness Program, the hybrid program challenging traditional acceleration models by creating a unique mix to improve startup performance and get them ready to secure investment. They will also access a 10K USD grant.
“Our current economic system does not meet the growing need to improve our society ecologically and socially,” says Saskia Werther, Program Manager at the DOEN Foundation. “The problems arising from this can be tackled only if a different economic system is considered. DOEN sees opportunities to contribute to this necessary change. After all, the world is changing rapidly and the outlines of a new economy are becoming increasingly clear. This new economy is circular and regenerative. Landscape restoration is a vital part of this regenerative economy and social entrepreneurs play an important role to establish innovative business models to counter land degradation and deforestation. Through this challenge, DOEN wants to highlight the work of early-stage restoration enterprises and inspire other frontrunners to follow suit.”
Applications are open now and will be accepted until October 15th. Startups can apply here: http://seedsta.rs/doen
To enter the competition, startups should meet the following criteria:
- Existing startups/young companies with less than 4 years of existence
- Startups that can adapt their current solution to the land restoration space
- The startup must have a demonstrable product or service (Minimum Viable Product, MVP)
- The startup needs to be scalable or have the potential to reach scalability in low resource areas.
- The startup can show clear environmental impact (either by reducing a negative impact or creating a positive one)
- The startup can show a clear social impact
- Technology startups, tech-enabled startups and/or businesses that can show a clear innovation component (e.g. in their business model)
Also, a specific emphasis is laid, but not limited to: Finance the restoration of degraded land for production and/or conservation purposes; big data and technology to reverse land degradation; resource efficiency optimization technologies, ecosystems impacts reduction and lower carbon emissions; water-saving soil technologies; technologies focused on improving livelihoods and communities ; planning, management and education tools for land restoration; agriculture (with a focus on precision conservation) and agroforestry; clean Energy solutions that aid in the combat of land degradation; and responsible ecotourism that aids in the support of land restoration.
The dark side of apps
Mobile device security threats are on the rise and it’s not hard to see why. In 2019 the number of worldwide mobile phone users is forecast to reach 4.68 billion of which 2.7 billion are smartphone users. So, if you are looking for a target, it certainly makes sense to go where the numbers are. Think about it, unsecured Wi-Fi connections, network spoofing, phishing attacks, ransomware, spyware and improper session handling – mobile devices make for the perfect easy target. In fact, according to Kaspersky, mobile apps are often the cause of unintentional data leakage.
“Apps pose a real problem for mobile users, who give them sweeping permissions, but don’t always check security,” says Riaan Badenhorst, General Manager for Kaspersky in Africa. “These are typically free apps found in official app stores that perform as advertised, but also send personal – and potentially corporate – data to a remote server, where it is mined by advertisers or even cybercriminals. Data leakage can also happen through hostile enterprise-signed mobile apps. Here, mobile malware uses distribution code native to popular mobile operating systems like iOS and Android to spread valuable data across corporate networks without raising red flags.”
In fact, according to recent reports, 6 Android apps that were downloaded a staggering 90 million times from the Google Play Store were found to have been loaded with the PreAMo malware, while another recent threat saw 50 malware-filled apps on the Google Play Store infect over 30 million Android devices. Surveillance malware was also loaded onto fake versions of Android apps such as Evernote, Google Play and Skype.
Considering that as of 2019, Android users were able to choose between 2.46 million apps, while Apple users have almost 1.96 million app options to select from, and that the average person has 60-90 apps installed on their phone, using around 30 of them each month and launching 9 per day – it’s easy to see how viral apps take several social media channels by storm.
“In this age where users jump onto a bandwagon because it’s fun or trendy, the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) can overshadow basic security habits – like being vigilant on granting app permissions,” says Bethwel Opil, Enterprise Sales Manager at Kaspersky in Africa. “In fact, accordingly to a previous Kaspersky study, the majority (63%) of consumers do not read license agreements and 43% just tick all privacy permissions when they are installing new apps on their phone. And this is exactly where the danger lies – as there is certainly ‘no harm’ in joining online challenges or installing new apps.”
However, it is dangerous when users just grant these apps limitless permissions into their contacts, photos, private messages, and more. “Doing so allows the app makers possible, and even legal, access to what should remain confidential data. When this sensitive data is hacked or misused, a viral app can turn a source into a loophole which hackers can exploit to spread malicious viruses or ransomware,” adds Badenhorst.
As such, online users should always have their thinking caps on and be more careful when it comes to the internet and their app habits including:
- Only download apps from trusted sources. Read the reviews and ratings of the apps as well
- Select apps you wish to install on your devices wisely
- Read the license agreement carefully
- Pay attention to the list of permissions your apps are requesting. Only give apps permissions they absolutely insist on, and forgo any programme that asks for more than necessary
- Avoid simply clicking “next” during an app installation
- For an additional security layer, be sure to have a security solution installed on your device
“While the app market shows no signs of slowing down, it is changing,” says Opil. “Consumers download the apps they love on their devices which in turn gives them access to content that is relevant and useful. The future of apps will be in real-world attribution, influenced by local content and this type of tailored in-app experience will lead consumers to share their data more willing in a trusted, premium app environment in exchange for more personalised experiences. But until then, proceed with caution.”