• Home
  • /
  • Computing
  • /
  • Government-led data science programme gets into gear

Government-led data science programme gets into gear

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 15 May 2019
Training the future workforce requires collaboration with various players.
Training the future workforce requires collaboration with various players.

Communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is making good on government's promise to equip a million young people with data science and related skills by 2030, announcing plans to kick-start training for the first cohort on 1 June.

Speaking at the induction session of the Presidential Commission on the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) yesterday, Ndabeni-Abrahams said the first steps to embark on the elaborate programme have begun, with recruitment of students currently under way.

According to Ndabeni-Abrahams, the DOC has partnered with the Media, Information and Communication Technologies Sector Education and Training Authority (MICT SETA) to train the first thousand young people in data science, cloud computing, 3D printing, cyber security, digital content creation, drone piloting and software development.

Ndabeni-Abrahams told the members of the 4IR commission, announced last month after more than a year in the making, that training the future workforce requires collaboration with various players.

"Our premise as government is that as we develop initiatives to position South Africa for the fourth industrial revolution; no one must be left behind. That means we must ensure in earnest that we do not widen the digital gap between the haves and have-nots, the urban and rural communities.

"I therefore look forward to gaining insight from the commission on further skills development interventions in areas such as data analytics, IOT [Internet of things], blockchain and machine learning, as this will enable training of young people to develop and operate new technologies."

Capable 4IR army

It is well known that SA faces a digital skills gap, with government, organisations and industry veterans all calling for an increased focus on skills development to take SA through the next digital revolution.

Since her appointment, Ndabeni-Abrahams has dedicated attention to all things Industry 4.0, coining the now-popular phrase "building a capable 4IR army". She believes it is important to build capacity for the 4IR by making sure the workforce is ready for the revolution.

President Cyril Ramaphosa also designated Ndabeni-Abrahams's department to coordinate government's 4IR programme.

Further, government is looking to the president-elected 4IR commission to identify relevant policies, strategies and plans that will position the country as a competitive global player. Its key objective is to coordinate the development of SA's national response through a comprehensive action plan to deal with 4IR.

Becoming the chosen partner for this first phase of the training programme gives MICT SETA a much-needed lifeline.

MICT SETA is a skills development institution established in terms of the Skills Development Act of 1998, with a mission to generate, facilitate and accelerate the processes of quality skills development at all levels in the MICT sector in South Africa.

Over the past few years, it has become a corruption-tainted organisation, with its former leadership named in corrupt and fraudulent activities that saw the entity lose millions.

However, newly-appointed CEO Mdu Zakwe has promised to overhaul MICT SETA's core processes to ensure corruption will be a thing of the past at the organisation.

Zakwe has said some of the programmes the entity is still offering are outdated and need a fresh approach. As a result, he promised to ensure the training programmes MICT SETA provides are relevant for today's needs.

According to Zakwe, MICT SETA will put more emphasis on areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, cyber security, data governance, blockchain, drone technology and automated vehicles, among others.

Unlocking SKA data

As the demand for data scientists within the business and research fields grows exponentially, SA is under immense pressure to address this skills gap. Globally, the shortfall for data scientists is projected to be between five million and 10 million.

Data science is the foundation of the 4IR, and key projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and MeerKAT require data science skills to interpret and analyse the vast amount of data that will be produced by the radio telescopes.

Scientists will use the SKA to try and understand how the universe evolved, how stars and galaxies form and change, as well as unravelling the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy.

It is not only government that recognises addressing the shortage of data science skills is a priority.

Explore Data Science Academy (EDSA), launched in Cape Town last year, is one of the first institutions in the country focused on data science, and aims to produce data scientists at scale.

There are plans to launch another EDSA campus in Gauteng this year that will be able to accommodate 400 students and then eventually 1 000.

Last month, SAP Next-Gen launched the local chapter of Women in Data Science (WiDS) at Wits University's Tshimologong Precinct in Johannesburg. WiDS is an initiative that seeks to educate female data scientists and encourage them to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Launched in partnership with Stanford University, the WiDS initiative is part of a global movement that aims to inspire and educate data scientists worldwide.

As one of the host countries of the SKA project, SA needs data scientists to analyse all the data that will be produced by the radio telescope. [Photo source: SARAO]
As one of the host countries of the SKA project, SA needs data scientists to analyse all the data that will be produced by the radio telescope. [Photo source: SARAO]