The Africa Data Challenge launch

Last November, the Planet Earth Institute ran a competition which identified two African data-driven projects to receive funding. Today, the official launch of these projects in the House of Lords, in London, included a roundtable discussion amongst the winning organisations, global data experts and a range of individuals involved in Africa development.

The two winning projects are targeted at very different individuals. TReND in Africa aims to train scientists in genomics from Open Source data. This should create a “network of African scientists” says Dr. Jelena Aleksic and build “a generation of data scientists who know how to use the free information”. In turn this should drive health benefits to ordinary people via the most educated.

AWP Network Agropreneur Project on the other hand, seeks to help poor women farmers in rural Nigeria maximise their farming methods. Founder Mary Olushoga says she does not need her organisation to be “a school”. These farmers “are doing well” they just need to go to the next level to help build agriculture into the economy and help share that experience with a wider rural farming community.

Many of the areas discussed are well rehearsed and ultimately come down to the perennial problem of: how do you get well-intentioned ideas to work in practice? The core takeaways are listed below:

Technology is a people-centric solution

“The women [we trained] couldn’t even use the laptops,” says Mary Olushoga, Founder AWP Network. This meant to input data from the local women became a big operation.

Local language will always hinder technology initiatives

“Mobile is a buzzword but, language is a still the barrier,” adds Olushoga, whose network of women farmers mostly speak Hauser.  

Visual solutions are important to translate complex data

As data becomes more ubiquitous the real challenge is translating that into something meaningful any audience can understand. That may be peer-to-peer feedback for the rural poor, or useful statistics to enable aid agencies to provide help where it is really needed.   

The moral implications of data collection are far reaching

At present there is a huge commercial desire to collect African data for marketing purposes. This is driving a lot of involvement in the continent, but should this resource be tapped to fund worthwhile projects that lack money? Nobody directly engaged with this question when it was presented by one charity practitioner, but Richard Pilling from Intel provided the best answer.

His view is that technology is developing far quicker than laws and “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should”.

The ongoing trouble of political corruption

In the run-up to the Nigerian election on March 28th many politicians are handing out “free rice” explains Olushoga. This is imported, “not always the good stuff” and can hinder local farmers who hope to sell their own produce. We want to “tell stories of farmers and use that to change policy”, she says, but acknowledges this is not always easy when a variety of people have different agendas.

Solutions need to come from within Africa

The challenges of data collection and representation are the same across the globe. Yet local African problems make it extremely important that any solutions are built on the ground with real-life issues in mind. “African-led is going to be very important,” concludes Sir Christopher Edwards in his closing remarks.

“Africa needs help but it needs to hold its head high”.


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