Media release

SARAO upskilling Africa’s bright young minds in big data

17 October 2019

The 2019 Big Data Africa School was hosted by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), from 6 to 16 October 2019, at the Lagoon Beach Hotel in Cape Town.

Twenty-five young science and engineering graduates from South Africa, and the eight SKA Africa partner countries, were selected out of 200 applicants to take part in the 10-day School. The School, which is an initiative of the UK-South Africa Newton Fund Partnership, is part of the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) Big Data project.

The aim of the School was to teach the students important techniques when working with large data sets, so that they can then apply what they had learnt to their own postgraduate research. To achieve this objective, students were provided access to “real-life” astronomy, healthcare and sustainable agriculture data sets, which they were required to use to answer “real-life” problems.

Professor Bruce Bassett, Manager of Data Science at SARAO, welcomed students to the School explaining that what they learnt, and more importantly who they met, at the School,  could lead to career-defining opportunities.

“Twenty-four years ago, I went to my first international conference and met amazing people, many  of whom I still collaborate with. These networks are the most important connections you can build over the next few days. In 10 or 15 years from now, you may look back and think ‘Wow, those ten days changed my life, it was the foundation of my career,” said Bassett.

The range of students who participated in the School included graduates and undergraduates in Astrophysics, Bioinformatics, Computational Biology, Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Physics and Applied Mathematics, and represented South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

The 2019 Big Data Africa School was hosted by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), from 6 to 16 October 2019, at the Lagoon Beach Hotel in Cape Town. Twenty-five young science and engineering graduates from South Africa, and the eight SKA Africa partner countries, were selected out of 200 applicants to take part in the 10-day School.

“In order to compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), Africa must develop the relevant skills now, and the Big Data Africa School (the third one in as many years) has proven to be an effective initiative in training young people in the context of the 4IR. The structure of the programme provides the participants with relevant problems to solve, under the guidance of local and international big data experts. Students are required to work in teams, and then present their solutions to their peers,” said Dr Bonita de Swardt, organiser of the Big Data Africa School and SARAO Programme Manager for Strategic Partnerships for Human Capacity Development.

Takalani Nemaungani, Director of Multiwavelength Astronomy, in the Department of Science and Innovation, echoed this: “I am pleased to see that the SKA project is contributing to big data training in Africa. The fact that this 3rd Big Data Africa School has brought together students from the eight SKA African partner countries, from different fields, is a testimony that astronomy can contribute to the broader societal needs of the continent. I am grateful that our partnership with the UK through the Newton Fund and the DARA initiative, is equipping a new generation of data entrepreneurs, data scientists and data professionals.”

The other teams worked in projects in healthcare, radio astronomy, sustainable agriculture; and astronomy.

Awards were also given to five individual students for their leadership skills, showing the most improvement; and for being an effective communicator.

Karina Santana, an Honours student in Physics at the University of Pretoria, was the recipient of an Effective Communicator Award. “I was happily surprised to receive the award. I am honoured to be chosen out of a group of brilliant people for my communication and leadership skills. I’d like to thank the organisers and judges for selecting me, I really appreciate it and all that they have done throughout the School,” said Karina.

Mercy Mwikali Zacchaeus received a Leadership Award: “The Big Data Africa School is the best school that I have attended so far. Since I have no background in machine learning it was initially a challenge, but also interesting. With the mentors and the whole team ready to help, I was able to pick up the challenge. I was surprised and delighted to receive a Leadership Award and I am grateful for being selected and I will do my best to merit this recognition,” she says. Mercy recently completed a BSc degree in Physics and Mathematics at Rongo University in Kenya.

“This has been one of the most helpful and interesting Data Schools that I have ever attended. There has been so much emphasis on understanding methods, achieving group learning outcomes and results. It has really been a safe space to ask and grasp any concept. The willingness to share information and help each other progress is encouraging,” said Chileshe Mutale from the University of Zambia, the winner of the Most Improved Award.

This year’s Big Data Africa School was followed by a two-day industry session giving students exposure to data science careers, from leading experts from a variety of industries such as higher education, cloud and data services, supercomputing, research and radio astronomy.

For more information

Dr Bonita de Swardt

Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capacity Development

Email: bonita@ska.ac.za