Big Data to tackle grand challenges: A look at IBM Research Africa’s projects

17 May is World Telecommunication and Information Society Day with the theme “Big Data for Big Impact.” ITU and our members are exploring how Big Data can help solve the world’s biggest challenges. 

IBM Research Africa in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo via IBM Research Flickr.)

IBM Research Africa is currently working on a wide range of development projects across Africa, using Big Data to make headway towards achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

IBM has launched research facilities including one in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013 and another in Johannesburg, South Africa, which was officially inaugurated in August 2016. The innovation labs conduct research in conjunction with academia and offer education and internship opportunities to talented students.

The innovation hubs are not only making big strides in Big Data research, but also in skills development.

“The big motivation for us is addressing Africa’s grand challenges and bringing skills to the continent… both generating skills locally and encouraging Africans to come back to the continent and to contribute to its growth and transformation,” Chris Sciacca, EMEA Communications Manager at IBM Research, told ITU News.

The labs are helping to boost skills development, including recruiting young talent and promoting an online learning platform. The company invested $70 million to launch a Watson-powered platform for 25 million African youth. The online learning platform will offer free skills development programs on topics including big data analytics and cloud computing.

And IBM Research Africa is doing innovative work to address some of Africa’s biggest challenges in areas such as healthcare, environment, entrepreneurship, and urban ecosystems.

Groundbreaking research on cancer and malaria

Geoffrey Siwo, a research scientist at IBM’s lab in Johannesburg has recently been recognized as a 2017 Quartz Africa Innovator for his work to develop an algorithm that can potentially help identify the gene variant, more common among Africans, that encourages metastasis in cancer patients.

The lab is also conducting research in malaria and has successfully used the model and data from World Health Organization (WHO) to analyze and measure “sensitivity” of malaria. The findings can help the government to better predict malaria incidence and control spread of the disease base on the data of climate and environmental conditions of the region, in terms of implement preventative measure deploy medical resources more efficiently.

Tackling SKA’s big data challenges and bringing new skills to Africa

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope co-located in Africa and in Australia, is expected to be operational by 2024. The volume of data that the SKA telescope will generate is much larger than what is on Internet today. The challenge is to store these data as cost- and energy-efficiently as possible.

IBM is helping SKA-South Africa to tackle the Big Data challenge and is opening up new opportunities for young talent.

“IBM scientists and SKA-South Africa are training students to develop machine-learning techniques to filter out the useful data from the noise,” said Sciacca, “these skills will eventually be applied for more than just searching for E.T. but also big data challenges in healthcare and finance.”

Foster entrepreneurship and transform the economy

IBM ThinkLab located within IBM’s Research Lab in Nairobi. Photo via IBM Research Flickr.

IBM’s Nairobi THINKLab is committed to transform the business environment in Kenya. For example, in collaboration with Kenyan government, the lab helped simplify the way entrepreneurs start business in the country. Using machine-learning technologies, researchers have successfully simplified the process of starting a business by reducing the number of interactions with government from 11 to 3 steps.

The effort has helped Kenya advance on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Ranking, from 136th in 2015 to 92nd. It is also ranked the world’s third most-reformed country in starting business. Currently, the lab is resuming the joint effort with the Kenyan government to reach the Top 50 by 2020.

Digitize the urban ecosystems – wildfire assessment and traffic-light infrastructure

Unreliable traffic infrastructure is one of the main causes of traffic congestion in the city of Johannesburg, IBM Research has develop a technology using data extracted from Twitter and TomTom to develop a traffic optimization recommendation tool to solve that problem. It allows city officials to be more informed about traffic incidents and more efficiently dispatch volunteers to take care of the problem.

Another example of IBM Research’s Big Data solution to urban challenges is Cape Town’s wildfire assessment system. Due to its unique topography and vegetation, Cape Town is one of the most fire-prone cities in South Africa. IBM lab has designed a cognitive dashboard that uses data from The Weather Company and Cape Town’s open data portal to assess fire incidence risk and severity. The technology has assisted government officials to advance the city’s emergency response and deployment system.

RELATED: Big data for social good: How Telenor is using big data to tackle big problems

Don’t Forget! Tune in to our live webcast of an expert #WTISD panel discussing Big Data for Big Impact on 17 May – more information here

By: Nicole Jao, ITU News

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