Media release

Pioneering research and data management in Africa: a dual first

3 April 2017

The first Big Data Africa Summer School on the African continent was launched in Cape Town yesterday. This unique initiative, also the first partnership between the astronomy research organisation the Square Kilometre Array South Africa (SKA SA) and the Medical Research Council (SAMRC), will expose students from various academic backgrounds to the fundamentals of big data research by applying their knowledge to practical areas in astronomy, bioinformatics and health sciences; and the transfer of knowledge in the area of data science that builds on a multi-disciplinary approach.

“The challenge of managing big data sets is going to become increasingly important as we move into the age of omic and personalised medicine,” says Dr Richard Gordon, Executive Director of the SAMRC’s Grants Innovation and Product Development unit. “We consider the big data summer school as equipping African scientists with technologies that will place them at the forefront of research and data management.”

The proliferation of data across various sectors increases the demand for individuals, in South Africa and globally, who can manipulate, analyse and visualise complex data systems. The school is poised to contribute to creating critical data science skills in all areas of science research and aims to find solutions to the next data challenges facing all research disciplines.

“South Africa can and should play a leading role in the global big data economy, and can and should be a world-leading centre for research and machine learning and cognitive computing. At SKA SA we believe that the key to becoming a world leader in big data and cognitive computing is to train our best young people in these areas,” says Dr Rob Adam, SKA SA Managing Director.

To place the data challenges of the ground-breaking radio telescope in context, it is predicted that data collected by the SKA in a single day would take nearly two million years to play back on an iPod.

The SAMRC will feature its precision medicine programme as part of the curriculum. This progressive programme aims to build innovative tools and capabilities to create a precision medicine environment.

“Precision medicine affords us the skill and ability to analyse data across broad spectrums to enhance our understanding of patient health and well-being,” says President and CEO of the SAMRC, Professor Glenda Gray. “The accuracy associated with this new approach to prognosis will benefit the South African health care system as it has the potential to expedite health care service delivery,” Gray concluded.

The Summer School brings to life the reality of a data-driven society that is able to better plan and use its resources through effective and accurate data modelling. Exploring new innovative ways of data modelling will give new insights into challenges that society currently faces. The Summer School targets undergraduate and Master’s degree students who are at an early stage of their research careers. The knowledge and skills acquired will propel their careers as early career researchers.

This unique summer school is funded by four key partners:

  • 2017 School
    • Funded by Newton Fund through the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA)
    • R 1 004 218.00 (£ 60 000)
  • 2018 School
    • Funded by the SKA SA and the SAMRC
    • R 300 000.00 respectively

Note to the media

Funding partners:

The Newton Fund builds scientific and innovation partnerships with 16 partner countries to support their economic development and social welfare, and to develop their research and innovation capacity for long-term sustainable growth. It has a total UK Government investment of £735 million up until 2021, with matched resources from the partner countries. The UK and South Africa Newton Fund is managed by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and South Africa’s Department for Science and Technology, and delivered through UK and South African Delivery Partners, which include the Research Councils. For further information visit the Newton Fund website and follow via Twitter: @Newton Fund

The Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project seeks to provide people in the targeted countries with training to use radio telescopes. It also has an outreach programme to encourage young people to study the technological aspects of radio astronomy and pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. The project is funded by the Newton Fund.

The Grants, Innovation and Product Development (GIPD) unit manages external grant funding and innovation activities within the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). These activities are managed through a number of business units, platforms and programmes. The Strategic Health Innovation Partnerships (SHIP) unit, which forms part of GIPD, manages funding for translational research and product development in key health priority focus areas, including NCDs. Additional information on GIPD and SHIP can be accessed at:

The SKA project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The scale of the SKA represents a huge leap forward in both engineering, research and development towards building and delivering a radio telescope, and will deliver a correspondingly transformational increase in science capability when operational. The SKA telescope will be co-located in Africa and Australia. It will have an unprecedented scope in observations, exceeding the image resolution quality of the Hubble Space Telescope by a factor of 50 times, whilst also having the ability to image huge areas of sky in parallel. With a range of other large telescopes in the optical and infrared being built and launched into space over the coming decades, the SKA will augment, complement and lead the way in scientific discovery. Additional information on the construction of SKA in South Africa can be accessed at:


Edward Roman, British Consul General, Dr Rob Adam, SKA SA Managing Director; and Professor Richard Gordon, SAMRC Executive Director, at the Big Data Africa Summer School welcome event held in Cape Town on Sunday, 2 April 2017.


Lorenzo Raynard
Head: Communications & Stakeholder Relations
Cell: (+27) 71 454 0658

Aziel Gangerdine
Head: Corporate & Marketing Communications
Cell: (+27) 71 866 9887

Last Updated on April 4, 2017

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