The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) hosted the Big Data Africa School after more than three years of pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 4th Big Data Africa School was funded by the UK Newton Fund under the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) Big Data project.
As released by SARAO, this year’s school hosted 25 participants in Cape Town from 5-11 March 2023, with participants hailing from diverse African regions. The participants ranged in age between 19 and 39 years of age with seven Doctoral degree students, ten Master’s degree students and eight Bachelor of Science (Honours)/Engineering students. The countries represented at the 4th Big Data Africa School are Algeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The Big Data Africa School introduces fundamental data science tools and techniques to science and engineering graduates at various academic levels of their studies. Apart from introductory lectures in data science, the school focuses on students getting hands-on experience by working on real-life data sets, which forms a large component of the school’s programme.
The thematic area for the 4th Big Data Africa School was healthcare/biomedical imaging, where SARAO joined forces with experts in this area from partnering institutions, including IBM Research Africa, University of Barcelona, Namibia University of Science & Technology (NUST), African Network for Artificial Intelligence in Biomedical Imaging (AFRICAI), University of Basel and the University of Cape Town (UCT). These institutions provided relevant projects, data sets, and mentors who continuously worked with the participants throughout the week. In addition, the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) provided the Cloud infrastructure and computational resources needed for the projects.
According to SARAO, this year’s school offered a range of exciting projects in the healthcare domain, which included detecting out-of-distribution samples in healthcare:
- Malaria as a use case (IBM Research Africa); 3D Vertebrae reconstruction from 2D X-ray imaging (University of Basel, UCT);
- Explainable AI of medical images using SHAP and LIME (NUST);
- Combating data scarcity in medical imaging – using AI to generate synthetic images using breast mammograms as a use case (University of Barcelona); and
- Application of deep learning techniques to automate the process of cardiac disease diagnosis, which can be generalised across different clinical centres, imaging conditions and scanner vendors (University of Barcelona).
At the welcoming ceremony, Carla Sharpe, SARAO Africa Programme Manager, spoke highly of how young people used advanced skills and brilliant minds to solve fundamental on-the-ground problems. Furthermore, the invited speakers at the school included ;
- Prof. Yves Wiaux from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, is the Head of the Biomedical and Astronomical Signal Processing (BASP) Group.Prof. Wiaux’s presentation focused on data calibration techniques used in radio astronomy imaging which can be applied to medical imaging, drawing synergies between the radio astronomy and biomedical imaging communities.
- Prof. Tinashe Mutsvangwa
Prof. Yves Wiaux’s presentation was complemented by guest speaker Prof. Tinashe Mutsvangwa from UCT, who presented on 3D bone reconstruction from 2D X-ray images. Prof. Mutsvangwa also gave an overview of the South African environment for his work and its challenges within an African setting.
The participants were given guidance in formulating their final presentations by Mark Johnson from SARAO’s Commercialisation unit. Johnson undertook the “Skills for Industry” component of the school, giving participants insight into formulating a pitch for a panel of potential funders and how to view their projects as viable businesses. With invaluable insight from SARAO’s Commercialisation unit, these sessions were offered to students in the evenings in preparation for their final presentations.
Another important activity at this year’s school included celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March 2023. This was significant to the programme as this year’s segment consisted of a female majority, according to the Programme Manager, Dr De Swart. The women participants at this year’s school comprised 18 out of the 25 participants, making over 70% of participants female. De Swardt added how it would be interesting to observe the dynamics of participants in an environment that is not commonly seen in STEM. De Swart added how the organisation would continue to include women and girls in programmes to include them in the digital revolution.
Participants were treated with a cake that celebrated the anniversary of the publication of SARAO’s Women in Data Science report and its achievement in attaining the first school with apparent gender equity. In addition, the in-country Director for Women in Tech South Africa, Melissa Slaymaker, joined participants on Friday, 10 March 2023, as part of the week’s Women’s Day celebrations. Slaymaker presented the work being carried out by Women in Tech in Africa and globally and informed participants how they could become part of the network of women making a difference in access and participation in STEM activities.
The final group presentations were held on Friday, 10 March 2023, followed by a social networking evening and a prize-giving dinner. The panel of judges included Dr Nikhita Madhanpall (OAD), Prof. Karim Lekadir (University of Barcelona), Prof. Wiaux, Prof. Mutsvangwa, Nathi Ndlovu (CSIR), Johnson and Sharpe.
The group and individual prizes were announced in the evening, with the OOD Red Star team (out of distribution samples in healthcare: Malaria as a use case) taking first place, followed by the Golden GANS (Combating data scarcity in medical imaging – using AI to generate synthetic images using breast mammograms as a use case) being runners up.
Individual prizes went to Refiloe Shabe from Lesotho for showing the best team leadership, Rancy Chepchirchir from Kenya for showing the most progress during the week of the school, and Emmanuel Hansingo from Zambia for embodying the ‘spirit of the school’.
The prize-giving dinner was attended by Chris Austin, Development Director at the British High Commission in Pretoria, who commented about how there is no right way or wrong way to approach problems, but the collective way, thinking about what evidence there is, what data there is and what you can do with it is super exciting. He added that It was fantastic to hear what the participants have been working on throughout the programme, where clever people were brought together from all over Africa. The UK government has been delighted to support the DARA programme over several years, and they hope this legacy will continue.
De Swardt spoke of the importance of great partnerships in running the schools.De Swart added that it was good that SARAO, a radio astronomy observatory, can host these skills training events in broader scientific areas than our mandate as an organisation. The programme manager thanked the partner institutions for their commitment to these programmes.
The final day of the school involved a scenic tour of the Cape Peninsula, where participants got to see some of Cape Town’s iconic marine life and landscape, such as the African penguins, Cape Point Nature Reserve and seal island.
4th Big Data Africa School participant, Maziko Mphepo from Malawi, provided his thoughts on the school from a student’s perspective: “From the informative and engaging sessions to the well-planned social activities, everything was flawlessly executed. I enjoyed connecting with like-minded individuals and learning from industry experts in an immersive and inspiring environment. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to attend this year’s school and gain new skills and knowledge in my field of interest. SARAO and its partners’ efforts and hard work have significantly impacted my personal and professional development, and I cannot thank you enough. I appreciate SARAO’s hard work and commitment to providing a top-notch educational experience. Again, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this program, and I’m sure that all the students share my sentiments.”