Data science students innovate while learning

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Sixteen teams, comprising 65 students, showcased their innovative projects at the CSIR.
Sixteen teams, comprising 65 students, showcased their innovative projects at the CSIR.

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), in partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has to date trained 275 young data scientists, as part of theData Science for Impact and Decision Enablement (DSIDE) programme.

Introduced in 2014, the project is part of the DSI’s initiative to position SA for the fourth industrial revolution by providing young people with ICT skills to meet the demands of the digital economy.

The programme recruits undergraduates and MSc/PhD students to work with the CSIR, tackling some of SA’s challenges using a data science approach.

It forms part of government’s strategy to equip one million young people in data science, cloud computing, 3D printing, cyber security, digital content creation, drone piloting and software development, by 2030.

Last week, 16 teams, comprising 65 students, showcased their innovations at the CSIR. The projects sought to adapt a visual analytics framework with goals that included understanding data-sets through interactive visual exploration and model development.

The event was the culmination of an intensive, 12-week, mentor-guided training programme in data science, which stared last year.

Globally, the shortfall for data scientists is projected to be between five million and 10 million, and SA is under immense pressure to address its skills gap.

“As the demand for data scientists in various fields grows exponentially, the DSI and other stakeholders are working towards skilling one million individuals with data science skills by 2030,” says Zamokwakhe Dlamini, deputy director of information communication technology at the DSI.

“The DSIDE is but one of many initiatives across SA that together with programmes in academia and the private sector contribute towards this ambitious goal. For the past three years, we have trained on average 60 trainees annually; therefore, we are looking at training no less than this figure this year.”

The students who showcased their projects last week were either in their third or final year of undergraduate studies in the fields of engineering, computer science, business informatics and statistics at various universities across the country. They had spent three months learning data science-related skills, including programming, machine learning, data visualisation communication and software engineering.

Among the projects showcased was an ear recognition biometrics system, aimed at protecting children against identity theft and human trafficking. Current biometric systems like face recognition and fingerprinting are designed for adults and cannot be used for children, as their features are not fully developed and their fingers are too small.

Siphesihle Gama, Ruan Pretorius, Prince Ngema and Macdaline Mathye, all from the University of the Witwatersrand, and Vukosi Rikhotso from the University of Limpopo worked to refine the "ear detection" project that was conceptualised by the CSIR three years ago.

The CSIR's work focused on using three biometric pointers – shape of ear, fingerprints and iris measurements – to solve the challenge of identity theft in children. However, the project had its shortcomings, which the students sought to address through data science and developing a more user-friendly methodology.

Gama explains: “The model was too slow – it was not fast enough to be used by large numbers of people, particularly when information needs to be processed quickly. To strive for more expedient and accurate ear detection, it was necessary to look at a more advanced technological method, known as YOLO – you only look once."

Over the years, the DSIDE programme has delivered a number of exciting projects and has the potential to make a significant contribution to the country's future, according to the CSIR.

There are over 33 data science prototypes at the CSIR with potential for commercialisation.

"The idea has always been to expose students to a challenging environment and to let them work in teams to come up with interesting solutions that can take our country forward,” says Karel Matthee, principal researcher at the CSIR.

"It's a huge task to reach the one million target, and the DSI and the CSIR will not be able to achieve this on their own. It will take a concerted effort by government, the private sector, higher education institutions and online academies to upskill individuals."

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