BRIDGING THE SKILLS GAP
A R50-MILLION INVESTMENT IN EMPLOYABLE SKILLS PUTS BCX AND OTHER SIMILARLY CLEVER CORPORATES IN THE LEAD FOR TOMORROW’S ECONOMY
BCX has a recruitment problem and the solution is data science
In 2011, the international management consulting firm Mckinsey & Company estimated that the US would face a shortage of almost 200 000 workers with deep analytical skills by 2018. That same report also predicted a shortage of 1.5-million managers and analysts who know how to employ big data effectively. By 2015, the US had seven million job listings that required some computer programming or general coding skills, and that job market is growing 12% faster than any other. International market analyst firm Gartner puts the growth in demand for data scientists at about three times that of statisticians and business-intelligence analysts.
When the Explore Data Science Academy (EDSA) opened its doors at the end of 2017, South Africa was already behind the curve. The estimated global data science skills shortfall was already estimated at two million jobs. A R50-million war chest, courtesy of BCX (Telkom’s enterprise arm), will fund 300 candidates over three years. Three hundred doesn’t really sound like a particularly high number of candidates when considering those shortfall numbers, but it definitely makes for great employment forecasting.
IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW QUITE
how important data science has become to society, the recent Facebook controversy probably wised you up to this field of study. When Cambridge Analytica gained access to 50 million Facebook users’ personal data, it took the diligent work of a few dedicated data scientists to identify the targets, which could then be attacked using various strategies, all to advance the Trump campaign’s agenda. Opposition politicians were discredited through real-world bribery methods such as, for instance, staging a trap where they could engage in online affairs. On a low level, the campaign could then directly target potential voters with more tailored messaging.
All it took was for about 270 000 people to interact with an application known as thisis your digital life, and this breach was possible through a loophole in data-access policies.
“It’s no longer good enough for an educated person to say: ‘I didn’t think of it,’” says EDSA student Fortunate. She came to the programme by way of an industrial- engineering degree, a year’s worth of industry experience and then a year of teaching English in Thailand. Her commentary is aimed at the data industry, as well as the professional responsibility that comes with it.
“Unless you have the money to cut yourself off and live on a small island, and not carry a smartphone or have social media accounts, you can’t stop your government or your company from tracking you. Even if they don’t know your name or personal details, they still have data about someone like you. They can still identify you without knowing your name. I don’t think that’s healthy, although the reason I got into industrial engineering and data science is to find out more about how machines or systems relate to humans. A lot of the big tech stories have been examples of where another human simply wasn’t considered in the big picture of things. Now you can build something for Cape Town and it can scale to reach a place like Kathu, but in the same breath, a lot of people who built that solution will say that they never thought that it would get that far. They don’t think about the people involved in using the systems.”
She mentions Kathu specifically, because that’s where a fellow student named Andries is originally from. His EDSA path started with a master’s degree in bioinformatics. “I’ve been working with data, but in a completely different sense almost, from a biological point of view, but data is data,” he explains of his career trajectory. “At the moment, we’re working in a completely different field to what I’m trained in.
“I’m hoping that in the future I can go back into biology. I think the skills are so general that you can go anywhere and apply your knowledge to it. That’s also why I’m here. I think my passion is more the computer-science part – biology was like a nice side project that I comfortably slid into,” he says. “I started with a degree in genetics because it’s kind of the programming of biology. My passion for computer
science only grew during that. There were very few courses to choose from when I started out, but now it’s kind of blooming.”
EDSA was launched in October of 2017 and the class of 2018 couldn’t do more to challenge the perceptions of the South African IT industry. Visitors to the academy will be shocked to find a suspicious lack of the stereotypical white male computer nerd. BCX put up the R50 million for 300 candidates to complete a free year-long course and internship over three years. Simple arithmetic dictates that the class of 2018 is 100 strong. Eighty-six students are non-white, 42 are female, 54 are under the age of 25 and 42 only have a matric certificate.
Ticking all of those aforementioned boxes is Sharné, a 2017 matriculant from Mitchell’s Plain. “I was part of an organisation that teaches coding for girls, called Code for Cape Town. I did that since grade 10,” she says. “When they find out about tech-related things, they tell us. They sent me a link to apply and it sounded like something that I wanted to do. At first it was very scary because all the other people had degrees and stuff, but I’m getting it now. I had to learn everything.”
CODE4CT is a widely acclaimed initiative that introduces girls to basic web building skills and exposes them to opportunities in the ICT (information and communication technologies) industry. The organisation is currently anticipating 75 000 coding-related jobs to come online in South Africa by 2020, with the bulk of those jobs projected to come in the country’s fastest-growing economic sectors.
“Before I actually went to high school, I knew I wanted to do something with computers, but I didn’t know what. When I got to high school, I wanted to be a programmer. But, ever since being here, where you’re doing more than just programming, I’ve found that there are more aspects to it. I love solving problems, and this course gives me the
ability to come up with an idea and build it myself.”
A big factor in the rising demand for data analysis is the current internet of things (IOT) boom. Wide deployment of sensors that constantly feed back information to central servers makes for mountains of data that needs to be sorted through. But there aren’t enough humans on the planet to do that kind of slog work, so the role of the data scientist then turns to informing the systems and processes that can easily deal with those tasks.
Andries hails from iron- ore country out in the Northern Cape and feels hopeful about the future application of technology in his home town. “We are in a very fortunate position in the world right now with everything being connected. Kathu is a mining town, mining iron ore, so there are very practical applications for data science, such as optimising ore extraction or transport routes. But, for the general population, there’s a trend for most people carrying smartphones.
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with Strava,” he continues. “They release heat maps every year. With everyone carrying a smartphone, everyone has the potential to be monitored all the time and with that comes potential benefits like being able to track your health. That’s where we tie into it. Now we can write a simple app, monitoring how someone sleeps or how their heart is functioning, and put all that data together and help people.
“There are other machine-learning techniques that can be implemented, like you take a photo of yourself over time and get a medical opinion. I think there isn’t this barrier anymore where residents of a small town far away can’t get access to technology. What applies to someone in Cape Town versus what applies to someone living in a rural area is now the same.”
The first task EDSA students were exposed to was helping the Western Cape government deal with the city’s crippling water shortage. As Popular
Mechanics has covered in the past, a big part of COCT’S (City of Cape Town) messaging was the quality of their reference data. Fortunate gives some insight into how the task teams dealt with the analysis:
“With the last project we had – the Cape Town water crisis – we were
discussing how institutions choose to share data that is available. Some people were saying that you can’t do this because it’s too political, but as the world moves toward being more connected, each company and data scientist has a responsibility to understand what the implications are in saying, ‘ This community is using too much water,’ or, ‘ This person is doing this.’”
That project is now complete, and EDSA was due to present its findings to the City as this magazine went to print. Key findings were that COCT doesn’t report well on its data and that was a drawback for the project. Dealing with annual consumption data forced too many assumptions. On the upside, COCT’S model was very pessimistic, with Day Zero probably following about a month after the dates that were specified – this is a good safety net for planning purposes.
Andries’ group (students split up into task teams of about eight in a group) found that water isn’t reaching the dams efficiently and attributed that to a variety of reasons, including drought and invasive alien plants.
Fortunate identified that the data reporting omitted decimals, which can massively affect the real readings. She was satisfied with the reduction in leaks and how the city upped its game to bring down those losses to around 20%, but less happy with the fact that just the 20% water loss through leaks translates to 10 litres of water per person per day.
“It’s those kind of insights that are just sort of sitting there, which you can’t really unearth unless you have the skills that we are learning now,” says Fortunate. “The only information you have outside of that is that your suburb is using this much water and that number is pretty much meaningless to you, but with everything else like the supply and demand factors coming together, it tells a very compelling story.”
Sharné points to another anomaly in the way suburbs were reported. “Some years, the City had extra suburbs, and it makes it difficult to compare annual data, because sometimes the suburbs are added and other times not.”
The students are mature enough to understand the gravity of the things they are unearthing. They are aware of others who also possess these skills and the broader implications of the damage that could be caused by a rogue agent conducting similar research with malicious intent.
“We need to be aware of the responsibilities we have,” says Fortunate. “The Western Cape government has a responsibility to be as pessimistic as possible, because the people have elected them to look after the best interests of the province and the only thing they can do is scare them, and currently that’s the model being used. But, having done that, they need to follow through with visible officiating, such as meter readings, or else it undermines the scare tactics because now more than ever, you can get the numbers and disagree with them. For the people who have the data, that responsibility comes back to talking to people like adults.”
And that may be the biggest impact proliferation of data analysis skills will have: It will empower more people to digest data more intelligently. Having knowledge of a situation is all we could ever ask for as citizens, because that knowledge will inform our decisions. Without that knowledge, you are a passenger in the process; you can only listen to what is told to you.
One of the suggestions that EDSA came up with when working on this project is to crowdsource data. “If you, as a home owner, could do your own readings and submit it on an app, then the City has better data on water usage and then a clearer picture of where the water is going,” Andries explains.
We’ve heard a lot about how selfabsorbed millennials are, but spending time with younger South Africans and
even baiting them into making snap judgements about the way the older generations went about things reveals a very thoughtful youth.
“It’s difficult to compare today’s generation and their ethical responsibilities with those of our parents. It sounds corny, but with great power comes great responsibility. Our lives are optimised in a way our parents and grandparents could never have imagined,” says Andries when probed about the failings of his forefathers. “I can go on my phone and see traffic is bad and it would take me longer to drive to work than to walk. That was never an option for my parents.
“Personally, I’m willing to make some sacrifices to pay for all of these optimisations. You have to be careful to not acknowledge the fact that times are changing. In the Dark Ages, you couldn’t walk outside your castle without someone coming up to kill you; it’s just a completely different way of being killed with your privacy being compromised. We simply need to adjust.”
The team behind EDSA is a group of former actuaries, programmers and business analysts who want to give back. Shaun Dippnall is the defacto figurehead, and he comes to the project by way of the University of KZN, where he was an actuarial lecturer, and an impressive CV that lists Old Mutual as one of his more senior positions.
“It’s going brilliantly. We had 100 at the start and only two have left for good jobs. The energy has been good. Our KPI (key performance indicator) is how many kids are in the lab on a Friday night; it’s a big marker of engagement. And it’s pretty much full every Friday after 5 pm,” says Shaun. “The Cape watercrisis project was delivered and it looks really good, with great outcomes and insights.”
Twenty teams presented findings on the water- crisis project and the management team then aggregated that into a single presentation that will be given to the City. The next hurdle for the students is to get to grips with machine learning, and then dive straight into a six-week practical project from the end of July. Thereafter is three months of work experience.
“We’re busy talking to corporate South Africa to sponsor us a project where they can take ten students to solve the problem or do the project in their work environment. That way, there’s strong hope that the students can impress and get a job.”
The tricky part is ensuring that the employment opportunity forecasts match the actual skills needs felt by corporate South Africa. And that has been the tightrope that all booming industries needed to walk.
But that’s year one done. Year two starts recruiting in July and the hype machine is in full swing. “We get emails daily asking when applications start for 2019,” says Shaun. EDSA anticipates in excess of 10 000 applications and the current idea is to get more companies to sponsor more students, with a hope to get another couple of hundred and expand the programme to Joburg.
“We were deliberately very tough and most people have felt overwhelmed,” he explains about the curriculum. “Within that, we’ve had to stream a cohort and give them extra programming because that can be difficult. There are about 20 students being supplemented with more programming stuff for about a month. Other changes were to make the block periods four weeks long instead of three, so that they don’t burn out.”
EDSA is an intelligently designed programme with tangible outcomes in one of the sexiest job markets right now. But what exactly do the students actually want to gain from it, and how do they see their careers beyond the programme?
Sharné has two options in mind after EDSA. “Either I go to varsity and study, or I’m working as a data scientist for a company. But that’s for me to decide during this course, because it all depends on which company I get placed with, and why. I also want to build things because it really helps people. I was part of a project two years ago that helped rural pregnant people track when they would most likely give birth.”
Andries has his eye on something particularly interesting: a position at Google Deepmind. “I would love to go into proper machine learning, and do algorithms or development of the algorithms. At the moment, we’re still on the user side of those algorithms and understand it, but I want to be on the other side and build them.”
Fortunate wants to help out with grassroots-level food production and community development.
The hope here, of course, is that all these bets will pay off and that South Africa can emerge as a new breeding ground for influential data scientists.
Left to right: EDSA sudents Sharné, Andries and Fortunate
Of the 100 students, 86 are non-white, 52 are female and 54 are under the age of 25.
Shaun Dippnall is the de facto head of the academy and a seasoned actuary and actuarial-sciences lecturer.