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Data Mining

IBM opens second Africa research lab in Jo'Burg

During apartheid the Braamfontein area of Johannesburg was the heart of large-scale commercial development. Post-apartheid it rapidly declined into an urban slum. Now it is on the up again and has become a trendy centre for arty hipsters, open-air coffee shops and boutique clothing stores.

What is lacks, however, is a technology hub. And Prof Barry Dwolatzky – who was stabbed in Braamfontein while leaving his office in 2008 – has big plans for the area and is determined to see it develop a thriving entrepreneurial community.

Dwolatzky heads up the JCSE at Wits University and has put his recent efforts into developing the Tshimologong Precinct (‘new beginning’ in Sesotho). His vision is to transform the old Inc nightclub into a (nearly) 15,000 square feet shared workspace… with the former mezzanine and dance floor neatly converted into a hive of technological exploration.

It is here, in this not yet complete new complex, that IBM plans to open its second African research lab. “Our first lab was in Nairobi,” explains Ethiopian born Solomon Aseffa - who is moving from New York to lead the initiative - over the phone from South Africa. “This will be the expansion of the brand on the continent” and the main aim as to “foster innovation”.

IBM has its fingers in many pies across Africa. It launched an Ebola initiative in October, started a cancer registry earlier last year, and probably most famously has been involved in the Square Kilometre Array project. This is all just the tip of the iceberg of course, and Assefa tells me that the decision on where IBM’s second lab was to reside was a tough one.

In the end it came down to the “availability of skills” along with local “challenges that need innovation”. He is cagey, however, on the subject of whether the company has plans to open labs in West Africa next.

Personally, I think IBM’s work in Africa is extremely interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, as the company grandiosely puts it, these research hubs use “PHD level scientists to tackle grand challenges of global importance”. Secondly, although Big Data is a global phenomenon, it is exceptionally pertinent in Africa.

This comes down to the simple fact that at present a lot of data that we take for granted just doesn’t exist. In Cameroon for example, hospitals don’t keep health records. Instead, they charge patients for a physical book to record their own ailments. This sheer lack of quantifiable information means that it will take the might of a giant, like IBM - with the inclination and resources - to own the African data footprint.

IBM is well on the way to doing this. Every move it makes appears to be a savvy push in that direction. And it has no other real contenders in the space. The new research centre in South Africa is part and parcel of this drive and will include initiatives in healthcare, local projects with students, work to help set the academic curriculum [interesting pitch at ‘The Africa Data Challenge’ last year], Big Data projects for the purpose of scientific discovery, along with concerted efforts to improve the urban environment.

Aseffa sees digital civic renewal as especially exciting as it should be a way to “experiment” with different ways to make things more efficient in the city. This will include mobile technologies, cameras and sensors to “re-imagine the delivery” of services like transportation.

It will be fascinating to see how this pans out in practice because in the past, tech projects aimed at the greater good of society have tended to fail in South Africa due to lack of concerted nurturing. Yet Aseffa assures me that “our interests are long term” and work across the country will aim to provide a “gateway to other parts of Africa”.

It is little surprise that IBM has chosen South Africa as the base for its second research lab. What will be interesting to see will be how many of these facilities open over the next five years, how this will directly translate to social improvement… and ultimately, what will happen to all the data collected.

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