Enabling data science education in developing countries
The North-West University (NWU) is one of South Africa's premier tertiary education institutions, thanks to its Centre for Business Mathematics and Informatics (BMI), which focuses on the fields of quantitative risk analysis, actuarial science and business analytics. The Centre for BMI, which has produced around 350 master's degree graduates in the past 15 years, differentiates itself from other places of learning by providing graduates with an industry-relevant curriculum and the opportunity to gain real life experience in dealing with genuine industry challenges.
The Centre for BMI has close links to industry, which allows it to ensure that during the final six months of its courses, masters students have the chance to work at an organisation while completing their thesis. By combining theory with practice in this manner, graduates are not only forced to deal with the reality of data analysis, but also the intangibles of organisational politics and the soft skills required in working with other people.
Murray de Villiers, Senior Manager: Global Academic Programme at the SAS Institute, says that it is due to the NWU's focus on 'academia meets reality' that SAS has chosen to work closely with the institution.
He explains that the model that NWU is using is similar to the very successful Advanced Analytics Programme run by the North Carolina State University (NCSU).
"One of the keys to long term success is learning from other international institutions. NWU has adapted its model from NCSU and is now taking this model to other regions. Because of the realisation that the importance of strong data science qualifications is an international need, NWU and SAS are now expanding this concept to the broader African continent and beyond," he says.
"Based on the NWU's success, Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Centre for BMI to assist it in building a data science academy to provide these skills to Eastern Africa."
De Villiers states that as part of the MoU, the NWU will provide guest lecturers to deliver courses at this new institute, bringing its academic expertise and experience on data science topics to the table. For its part, he adds, SAS will provide the necessary analytics software, as well as guidance, positioning, industry links and an introductory business intelligence train-the-trainer course."
He adds that NWU and SAS are involved in similar engagements elsewhere in the world, with the institution holding discussions with Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey, which is a private university under the guidance of one of the country's leading family foundations, the Sabanci Group.
"This is a university that has links with the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, and yet it is also linking with NWU on data science. It's a wonderful feather in our local institution's cap."
Other engagements the NWU is involved in include an exchange programme for both lecturers and students with the Albstadt Nimeringen University in Germany, and discussions taking place with the Kenya School of Monetary Studies in Nairobi.
Furthermore, continues De Villiers, NWU is working closely with the National Economics University in Hanoi in Vietnam, in association with the Vietnam Prosperity Bank - this is similar to the manner in which NWU works with Absa.
"For an educational institute that comes from a rather unfashionable area of South Africa to have universities of this calibre from across the globe wanting to work and partner with, is simply incredible."
"The desire to build tertiary education capabilities in data science in these developing markets is clearly very strong. With the work it is doing in this respect across the globe, the NWU remains a vital partner in assisting SAS to position itself within these regions. Such positioning is crucial, as these are markets in which we know we can make a massive difference," he concludes.