Collaborations to address data scientist shortage

Read time 3min 30sec
Data scientists will be needed to interpret the vast amounts of data that will be produced by the SKA telescope.
Data scientists will be needed to interpret the vast amounts of data that will be produced by the SKA telescope.

SA's Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is collaborating with the Research Data Alliance (RDA) to help develop skills for students interested in pursuing a career in data science.

Data scientists' skills will be required to interpret and analyse the vast amount of data that will be produced by the SKA radio telescope.

Current stats show SA will need up to 200 data scientists to participate in collecting and analysing data when the SKA is live. However, the Department of Science and Technology's director of global projects, Takalani Nemaungani, says for the past three years only 15 post-grad students have qualified with a data science degree each year on average.

Dr Bonita de Swardt, project officer of strategic partnerships for human capacity development at SKA, says collaborations will allow SA to make inroads in the field of data science analysis.

Strategic partnerships

De Swardt says the tie-up with the RDA ? an organisation made up of researchers and innovators sharing data across technologies, disciplines and countries ? will help SKA SA set up short courses for interested post-grad students.

"This course will be at a level where the students have some computing knowledge and will receive some sort of certification at the end of the course," she says.

The SKA short courses will be designed for data science in astronomy and astrophysics, and students will receive lectures from some of the best data scientists to develop their skills, De Swardt notes.

She says, although the Sol Plaatje University in the Northern Cape is the first to implement a degree structure for data scientists at an undergraduate level, SKA is also trying to collaborate with other universities to set up courses in data science.

Other institutions like Wits University have also recognised the urgent need to develop programmes in the area of big data to enable SA to be globally competitive in SKA research.

The university recently introduced big data as its first major programme at the new school of computer science and applied mathematics for post-graduate students. The school will also run courses that include data management for the SKA.

Nemaungani explains that a new Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy is being established in partnership with South African universities and SKA SA.

He says the goal of the collaboration is to train data scientists and meet the need of South African scientific leadership in the SKA project.

"This new institute plans to provide training in SKA-driven data science research for up to 100 young data scientists over the next five years," says Nemaungani.

According to De Swardt, SKA SA has also partnered with the Banking Sector Education and Training Authority to host a "Big Data Careers Day" for first year data science students registered at Sol Plaatje University.

The event, planned to take place at the SKA offices in Cape Town from 6 to 8 September, will showcase a variety of different careers in big data and applications of data science to various industries.

Global shortage

ICT veteran Adrian Schofield notes the shortage of data scientists is worldwide, and not only in SA. Data scientists are important because of the sheer volume of data that will be collected by the SKA project, he says.

"I have no idea how many students are looking at data science as a career. We need as many local ones as we can get. The low numbers are because it is a relatively new science and our education system does not address the need," he says.

The Sol Plaatje University currently has 26 first year data science students studying towards a degree in data science.

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