The term “data science” was coined by scientists working at the social networks LinkedIn and Facebook in 2008. A few years later, they dubbed it “the sexiest profession of the 21st century”. This relatively new, interdisciplinary field is a blend of statistics, computer science, mathematics, engineering and subject matter knowledge. In fact, any and all subjects qualify. Its proponents believe it will transform every aspect of society. Many of the disruptive, game-changing innovations that are grounded in data science are intended to improve people’s quality of life as well as the efficiency of processes and services. Examples include autonomous vehicles; precision medicine and precision agriculture; smart cities and financial technology.
Academic institutions in Africa have only recently begun to catch up. Some are creating structures, networks and training programmes to stimulate research and capacity development in the subject. Examples include the African Center of Excellence in Data Science in Rwanda, the AI & Data Science Research Group at Makerere University in Uganda, Data Science Africa, and the Deep Learning Indaba. But with a time lag of at least half a decade, the question is whether Africa is bound to be trailing.As the acting director of the new School for Data Science and Computational Thinking at Stellenbosch University, I would argue that the answer is a resounding no. If African universities are mindful of the continent’s specific needs and realities, they have a unique opportunity to blaze new trails in what is still largely uncharted territory.
These opportunities lie particularly in two areas. The first involves creating data science programmes for people who aren’t on campus. The second relates to partnering with governments and businesses to address Africa’s most important societal challenges and capitalise on opportunities for growth. It is not that the continent’s youth are uninterested in a higher education degree. Many are simply unable to afford full-time on-campus studies. So, if students can’t come to the university, the university must come to them. The internet and a myriad of distance learning platforms make this possible.
Only 40% of Africa’s population has access to the internet. That’s compared to 61% for the rest of the world. But the internet penetration rate is increasing faster on the continent than anywhere else. Bite-size online content can be taken as standalone modules or cumulated into a certified degree. Either way, online distance education formats can be offered at a lower cost. They are also more scalable than traditional classroom teaching.
In this way, Africa’s youth has the chance to earn a degree while maintaining informal or formal employment. This makes it a financially viable proposition. They can also stay physically connected to their social networks of families and friends. This is important in preventing internal brain drains and exacerbating socio-economic disparities within and between African countries. Data science lends itself particularly well to being taught through online learning programmes. This is because thriving in a virtual classroom requires the same creative, solution-oriented mindset that characterises the best data scientists. And much of the programme’s content – like managing and analysing data, writing code and deploying software solutions – happens from behind a laptop which is connected to the Cloud.