NUST-DARA Data Science School
Dr Lameck Amugongo was a DARA Big Data PhD student between 2018 – 2021. He studied at the University of Manchester where he focussed on using image-based data mining techniques, analysing the effects of radiotherapy on lung cancer tumours. Lameck has long been a passionate believer in the power of technology and the benefits it will continue to bring to his home country of Namibia, calling himself a ‘tech activist’. He recently wrote this Newton Fund blog post where he makes a strong case for Namibia to introduce compulsory coding lessons in schools, to ensure that young people grow up and enter the workforce with strong technology skills (this article was also published in national newspapers The Namibian and the New Era). He originally wanted to be a lawyer but ended up studying software engineering instead at the Namibian University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Windhoek.
After successfully gaining his doctorate he returned to Namibia and to NUST, but this time as a lecturer in the Dept of Computer Science, using his extensive data science skills to educate university students. He is currently in the process of developing a data science and analytics honours course and is contributing to the development of a new master’s program in data science, the first of its kind at NUST.
Lameck has been keen to organise a workshop that would give young Namibians a thorough grounding in data science concepts. He previously worked as a tutor at several DARA Big Data workshops which gave him experience in communicating data science concepts and methods. Earlier this year he started planning in earnest for the NUST-DARA Data Science School, a week-long event to be held on campus featuring presentations, tutorials and a hackathon. The school was open to students and young professionals across Windhoek who had some Python experience and who were keen to develop it further. The event was also organised with the support of academics from the University of Namibia (UNAM), making it a cross-institutional event.
Almost 200 people applied for a place at the School, showing a huge amount of local interest in building data science skills. For practical reasons there were only 30 places available so a selection process was used to identify participants (who were equally gender balanced). Lameck put together a varied and challenging programme for the week and recruited speakers and tutors to take part in the event. He also put all of the event requirements in place himself, including catering, a photographer to capture the event and having DARA Big Data t-shirts and mugs produced for participants. He managed to get space for the event in an impressive venue on campus, the brand new High-Tech Transfer Plaza Select (HTTPS), which is well equipped with technology, spacious lecture rooms and breakout spaces, perfect for hackathon teams.
The event started on Monday 21st April with a welcoming speech from NUST Vice-Chancellor Dr Erold Naomab. A YouTube livestream was set up so that those who didn’t get a place could still benefit from the presentations. Prof Michael Backes and Dr Eli Kasai (of UNAM) gave talks on astronomical data science and an introduction to machine learning. Former DARA Big Data PhD student Dr Edward Salakpi gave a remote presentation on data science and agriculture and talked about his new post-doctoral research position at Forth ERA, where he works on environmental data and analytics. Dr Eliana Vasquez-Osorio, who was Lameck’s PhD supervisor at Manchester, also presented remotely on data science in healthcare.
On Tuesday Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dr Colin Stanley opened the day and was followed by Dr Carla Sharpe of SARAO, who had travelled from Cape Town to Windhoek for the event. Dr Sharpe works as the Africa programme manager and spoke extensively on what the SKA Telescope will mean for Africa and the many opportunities it will present to the continent. The talks then switched to an industry focus; Charlton Pieters (Standard Bank Namibia), Fideria Ndapopile and Ella Shiimi (both of MTC) all spoke about working as data scientists and engineers in large business organisations. All speakers were thanked by Prof Fungai Bhunu-Shava, the Acting Executive Dean of the Faculty of Computing and Informatics.
The rest of the event was a mixture of tutorials, hackathon team work and regular ‘fireside chats’, a concept Lameck had learned from technology companies such as FaceBook. This is a time where everyone gathers together for open and informal conversation, increasing engagement with each other and with the themes of the event. These chats were very successful and led to some strong connections being formed between participants and key insights being discussed and shared. The hackathon itself, hosted on our partner IDIA's Ilifu Cloud Computing platform, consisted of an NLP/sentiment analysis project, an image classification project and a flood detection project. Participants were allowed to form teams themselves (in groups of 5) and choose their own projects. Teams were so enthusiastic that many of them continued their hackathon work in the evenings! The hard work paid off as all teams put together impressive presentations at the end of the week, showing a strong grasp of various aspects of data science. Team SPRINTS came in 3rd place and Team KANNC took the 2nd place; both of these groups tackled the flood detection project. In 1st place was Team Veritas who took on the sentiment analysis project and even built their own app capable of quickly analysing public sentiment using Twitter data; this could potentially be used to determine national or local policy based on the strength of public opinion.
Dr Amugongo was very pleased with the progress of all participants and felt that the inaugural Data Science School had been very successful. He hopes to host similar events regularly to continue equipping Namibia’s youth with key technological skills.