Africa Women in Data Science 2022
In March 2021 our partner organisation SARAO published a report titled ‘Women in Data Science’. This report used DARA Big Data as a case study to explore the lack of diversity in the technology field and carefully evaluated ways to address this. One of the recommended initiatives was to ‘organise data science events specifically targeted towards supporting women [that feature] sessions on women in technology and provide more details on opportunities for women.’ Based on this DARA Big Data and SARAO worked together to plan the first all-female event held by either organisation, to be held on the anniversary of the report’s publication (coinciding with International Women’s Day). Vital support was also provided by other partner organisations the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) and the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA).
In September 2021 a survey was circulated via email and Twitter to gauge interest and find out what female participants would want from such an event. The survey got many positive responses and it was determined that a day-long plenary session followed by a 2-day hackathon would be the best format. To ensure that women all over Africa could attend the event would be virtual, using both Zoom and YouTube. By the end of 2021 an impressive line-up of African female speakers working in and around data science had been put together and the event started to be advertised as widely as possible. The plenary session was open to anyone who registered but for practical reasons the hackathon had to be restricted; 28 women were put into cross-continental teams of 4.
The Africa Women in Data Science plenary session was held on Tuesday 8th March 2022 and was hosted by Dr Bonita de Swardt, a co-author of the SARAO report (along with Monushia Zimri) and a key organiser of the event. Over 160 participants joined the Zoom webinar with more watching a livestream on YouTube. Participants were able to address questions to speakers on both platforms. The event opened with welcoming speeches from Dr Amelia Marutle (South African Newton Fund Country Manager) and Khaya Sishuba from the South African Dept of Science & Innovation (DSI). Parts of these speeches can be read at the bottom of this article.
The first presentation was given by Potlako Makua, a young South African data scientist working in industry with big ideas on how to increase female participation in STEM across the continent. She was followed by keynote speaker Kathleen Siminyu from Kenya, a Machine Learning Fellow at Mozilla. She is working on building AI language tools using Kiswahili and as part of this she highlighted the gender challenges that need to be addressed in voice technology.
The next part of the day was a panel discussion between 6 women, chaired by Dr Carolina Odman-Govender of IDIA. This lively and important discussion explored many topics related to data science and women, such as increasing female representation and the many roadblocks women face in their careers. These 6 women represented a variety of fields intersecting with data science, including computing, research, humanities and manufacturing. They spoke extensively of their varied career experiences across several countries, their attempts to make the field more accessible for other women and their hopes for increasing African female participation in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The 6 participants were Dr Gugulethu Mabuza-Hocquet (CSIR, South Africa), Dr Araba Sey (University of Washington Information School, USA), Dr Cherise Dunn (South Africa Makes 3D4D Initiative), Dr Kagonya Awori (Microsoft Africa Research Institute, Kenya), Anelda van der Walt (Talarify, South Africa) and Potlako Makua (Accenture, South Africa).
The afternoon session was divided into two strands, the first featuring women who had been in the data science field for some years; Dr Caroline Zabarowski of Sonasoft in South Africa, Dr Celia Cintas of IBM Research Africa in Kenya and Dr Nebiha Shafi of Isazi Consulting in South Africa. The second strand featured women at an early stage of their data science careers; Christine de Kock from South Africa, currently studying a PhD at Cambridge University in the UK, former DARA Big Data PhD student Dr Zafiirah Hosenie from Mauritius (now working in the UK’s Microsoft Mixed Reality & AI Lab), and former DARA Project MSc student Fanamby Randriamahenintsoa, working at Voxcraft Analytics in Madagascar. All of these speakers explored their career paths to date and charted their personal journeys, giving great advice on how to succeed and routes to consider for others entering the field. Dr Nikhita Madhanpall of the OAD finished off the day’s talks with a look at the upcoming hackathon and details of how others could take part in it in their own time.
The next day was the start of the 2-day sentiment analysis hackathon (using Twitter data), with participants having already been introduced to their teammates via an online meet and greet session. Teams had dedicated tutors to guide them and answer their queries; the hardworking tutors were Sydil Kupa and Isaac Sihlangu (both of SARAO) and former DARA Big Data students Chelmis Thiong’o and Dr Zafiirah Hosenie. Teams worked through tutorials together for most of the first day and then moved to work on the hackathon task. Communication between teams was maintained via regular Zoom calls, WhatsApp group chats and Discord channels. There were some challenges with participants being spread out across 9 countries and 4 time zones, however teams worked well together overall and showed much enthusiasm and engagement. The final presentations were all excellent and displayed great progress and understanding of data science concepts. Two teams were selected as the winners; in second place Team MetaFour produced a thorough presentation on the public perception of the COVID19 vaccine across Africa. In first place were Team Eastern Women in Science who insightfully explored the impact of the COVID19 vaccine on work productivity.
It was evident from the feedback received after the event that it had been very successful and that many of the women in attendance felt inspired to forge ahead in the data science field. Connections were made between speakers and attendees and also between hackathon participants which could potentially be very beneficial. Many of the comments noted a need for mentorship; it is clear that there is a strong need for an African data science mentoring network to help women entering the field to live up to their potential. Many comments also noted the strength and the support that participants felt in an all-female environment.
Opening speeches; Africa Women in Data Science 2022
Dr Amelia Marutle
‘The DARA Programme is one of the flagship programmes under the UK-South Africa Newton Fund partnership. I’m very proud of all the achievements of all partners involved, as well as the many participants who have benefited from postgraduate training who are now leading the way into the future, equipped with critical and innovative STEM skills that the continent and the world needs in this time of transformation and the adoption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Promotion of gender equality is a key feature of all of our Newton programmes and is at the heart of shaping a better and shared future for all. Last year SARAO released their Women in Data Science report that highlighted what further measures could be implemented to support young African women in data science. A key finding was a lack of visible African female role models who are working in frontier areas of data science who could play a significant and active role in inspiring a young cohort of female data scientists and innovators. The report also identified the need for a women in data science event that could showcase and profile Africa’s female talent in emerging technologies in areas around data science as an excellent initiative to inspire and engage a younger generation of female students from across the continent. I am pleased therefore that one year on this is finally happening. I hope you all enjoy the day and find great inspiration listening to these remarkable women as they share and reflect on how they are forging new paths and avenues for the young women of today and the future. I would just like to end with this rally call for all of the young African women out there; please be bold and courageous, seek and take each opportunity to learn, hone your skills and share with your fellow female companions and your future and that of the continent will always be bright.’
Dr Khaya Sishuba
‘Cooperation, coordination and partnership will ever remain necessary and vital in the future advancement of mankind. After all science knows no borders and that expression finds meaning and is well illustrated in the DARA partnership activities across national borders. At the DSI we have been following closely the DARA partnership activities since the inception of the Newton Fund. We can say without equivocation that this is one of the collaborations delivering on our science promises and our policy strategies aimed at developing human capital. The DSI is particularly pleased with the impact of DARA cooperation activities, and its impact on women in research. The female participation in the DARA Big Data programme is really significant to the DSI, for bilateral relations but also for advancement of the frontiers of science as a global partnership making a difference in the lives of societies. This partnership is for us a blueprint for what the DSI seeks to achieve, thus taking down the border barriers for scientific partnership.’