From Astronomy to Covid-19: Big Data Kenya 2021 Hackathon

Participants of the Big Data Kenya 2021 pose for a group photo.

The Big Data Kenya 2021 Hackathon ended on 30th July 2021. The 5-day event organised by Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA Big Data), Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) in collaboration with the University of Manchester (UoM) was hosted at the Technical University of Kenya (TUK), Nairobi. The event brought together 16 undergraduates, graduates and young professionals across different fields such as astronomy, engineering, mathematics, economics, and statistics. The selection process was highly competitive and attracted nearly 400 applicants. Although the opportunity was only open to Kenyans, it also attracted interest from people worldwide, including Ethiopia, India and Nigeria.

The Big Data Kenya 2021 Hackathon is part of a series of similar events that DARA Big Data, OAD and IDIA have been organising across the continent to capitalise on the skills and techniques learned from astronomy to address challenges in areas such as agriculture, health [Covid-19] and application in related fields such as remote sensing. Similar events have been held in Mozambique, Zambia and a virtual event was held in collaboration with the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) in Accra, Ghana. 

The hackathon began on 26th July with presentations about big data from Prof Anna Scaife (University of Manchester), Dr Kagonya Awori (Microsoft Africa Research Institute-MARI), Prof Carolina Odman-Govender (IDIA) and Daniel Laah Ayuba (Solution Social Network). Before the talks, the principal investigator for the DARA Project Kenya, Prof Paul Baki, opened the event to discuss the synergy between data, artificial intelligence, and astronomy. Day one ended with an in-person discussion by Dr Samuel Chege (MARI), who doubled up as one of the judging panellists.

Equally, day two was graced by academic and industrial titans, Dr Tawanda Chingozha (OAD) and Ian Jones, the CEO of Goonhilly Earth Station, UK. These talks were followed by a series of tutorials organised and prepared by Linzi Stirrup (UoM) and Dr Nikhita Madhanpall (OAD). The lectures were delivered by the tutors, Roger Odipo, Carringtone Kinyanjui and Bonface Osoro.

The event was competition-based, and the participants engaged in hands-on tasks to collect, pre-process and prepare data before applying machine learning algorithms to solve their chosen research question around Covid-19. Furthermore, the topic of interest was narrowed to Covid-19 contrary to the previous hackathon, which entailed thematic areas such as astronomy, health, and agriculture. Finally, the students in their groups presented the outcome of the hackathon to the panellists, which consisted of Linzi Stirrup, Dr Nikhita Madhanpall, Dr Samuel Chege and the three tutors.

The hackathon’s theme was relevant as Kenya, and the rest of the world is still dealing with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was reflected by the participants that developed research questions around the perception of vaccines, sentiments about Covid-19 and its impact on mental health. This is in line with DARA Big Data and OAD’s long-term mission of leveraging the skills learned in analysing astronomy data to other areas such as health and agriculture and addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Similar sentiments were echoed by the Vice-Chancellor of the Technical University of Kenya, Professor Francis Aduol, who encouraged the participants to apply those skills in related areas and develop a pool of skilled workforce for academic institutions such as TUK. Astronomy is at the crosshairs of engineering, mathematics and data science. Therefore, it is an excellent catalyst for spurring socio-economic development, as demonstrated by projects supported by DARA Big Data and OAD.

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