Data Science in Africa Workshop 2015

data science workshop

The UN has estimated that across the world more people have access to mobile phones than to toilets. It is of course distressing to imagine what this means for many people’s exposure to disease and access to clean water, but the choice of mobile phone for the comparative statistic actually offers a great deal of hope. The mobile phone is part of a phenomenon where a new infrastructure is emerging, one that could bring the economic changes that enable those toilets to be built.

Our modern infrastructure is based on information. Since the 1950s, investment in data storage and distribution by companies and countries has been massive. Historically, data was centralised a single database. Perhaps one for representing the health of a nation, and another database for monitoring social security. However, the advent of the internet is showing that many of our existing data systems are no longer fit for purpose.

There is a shift in the emphasis from central to distributed computing. Distributed computing architectures are normally less vulnerable to failure and more accessible for everyday users. The modern computer is the mobile phone, and in this sector African countries are not far behind. In 2014 Kenya had an 82% penetration (pdf) for mobile phones, with 33.6m subscriptions in a population of 40 million. Access to the internet in the home is also becoming more common. In Kenya home broadband subscriptions are growing rapidly, but all of the growth is through systems that use the mobile telecommunications network. New protocols such as WiMAX have the potential to reduce the gap even further.

African countries may be coming late to the information revolution, but they will be able to exploit the lessons learned from those that have trodden the path before. The UK’s attempt to centralise its health system was an expensive failure. African countries don’t now need to spend £10bn to learn the lessons derived from that misguided effort. They could develop infrastructures for commerce, administration and health that exploit all the advantages of a distributed data system.

The modern information infrastructure is about movement of data. From data we derive information and knowledge, and that knowledge can be propagated rapidly across the country and throughout the world. Facebook and Google have both made massive investments in machine learning, the mainstay technology for converting data into knowledge. But the potential for these technologies in Africa is much larger: instead of simply advertising products to people, we can imagine modern distributed health systems, distributed markets, knowledge systems for disease intervention. The modern infrastructure should be data driven and deployed across the mobile network. A single good idea can then be rapidly implemented and distributed via the mobile phone app ecosystems.

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Data Science in Africa Workshop 2015

Via: Google Alert for Data Science

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