‘Problem shopping’ and networking at IST-Africa’18 in Gaborone

There are several local and regional conferences in (Sub-Saharan) Africa with a focus on Africa in one way or another, be it for, say, computer science and information systems in (mainly) South Africa, computer networks in Africa, or for (computer) engineers. The IST-Africa series covers a broad set of topics and papers must explicitly state how and where all that research output is good for within an African context, hence, with a considerable proportion of the scope within the ICT for Development sphere. I had heard from colleagues it was a good networking opportunity, one of my students had obtained some publishable results during her CS honours project that could be whipped into paper-shape [1], I hadn’t been to Botswana before, and I’m on sabbatical so have some time. To make a long story short: the conference just finished, and I’ll write a bit about the experiences in the remainder of this post.

First, regarding the title of the post: I’m not quite an ICT4D researcher, but I do prefer to work on computer science problems that are based on actual problems that don’t have a solution yet, rather than invented toy examples. A multitude of papers presented at the conference were elaborate on problem specification, like them having gone out in the field and done the contextual inquiries, attitude surveys, and the like so as to better understand the multifaceted problems themselves before working toward a solution that will actually work (cf. the white elephants littered around on the continent). So, in a way, the conference also doubled in a ‘problem shopping’ event, though note that many solutions were presented as well. Here’s a brief smorgasbord of them:

  • Obstacles to eLearning in, say, Tanzania: internet access (40% only), lack of support, lack of local digital content, and too few data-driven analyses of experiments [2].
  • Digital content for healthcare students and practitioners in WikiTropica [3], which has the ‘usual’ problems of low resource needs (e.g., a textbook with lots of pictures but has to work on the mobile phone or tablet nonetheless), the last mile, and language. Also: the question of how to get people to participate to develop such resources? That’s still an open question; students of my colleague Hussein Suleman have been trying to figure out how to motivate them. As to the 24 responses by participants to the question “…Which incentive do you need?” the results were: 7 money/devices, 7 recognition, 4 none, 4 humanity/care/usefulness, 1 share & learn, and 1 not sure (my encoding).

    Content collaboration perceptions

    information sharing perceptions

    With respect to practices and attitudes toward information sharing, the answers were not quite encouraging (see thumbnails). Of course, all this is but a snapshot, but still.

  • The workshop on geospatial sciences & land administration had a paper on building a national database infrastructure that wasn’t free of challenges, among others: buying data is costly, available data but no metadata, privacy issues, data collected and cant ask for consent again for repurposing of that data (p16) [4].
  • How to overcome the (perceived to be the main) hurdle of lack of trust in electronic voting in Kenya [5]. In Thiga’s case, they let the students help coding the voting software and kept things ‘offline’ with a local network in the voting room and the server in sight [5]. There were lively comments in the whole session on voting (session 8c), including privacy issues, auditability, whether blockchain could help (yes on auditability and also anonymity, but consumes a lot of [too much?] electricity, according to a Namibian delegate also in attendance), and scaling up to the population or not (probably not for a while, due to digital literacy and access issues, in addition to the trust issue). The research and experiments continue.
  • Headaches of data integration in Buffalo City to get the water billing information system working properly [6]. There are the usual culprits in system integration from the information systems viewpoint (e.g., no buy-in by top management or users) that were held against the case in the city (cf. the CS side of the equation, like noisy data, gaps, vocabulary alignment etc.). Upon further inquiry, specific issues came to the surface, like not reading the water meters for several years and having been paying some guesstimate all the while, and issues that have to do with interaction between paying water (one system) and electricity (another system) cause problems for customers also when they have paid, among others [6]. A framework was proposed, but that hasn’t solved the actual data integration problem.

There were five parallel sessions over the three days (programme), so there are many papers to check out still.

As to networking with people in Africa, it was good especially to meet African ontologists and semantic web enthusiasts, and learn of the Botswana National Productivity Centre (a spellchecker might help, though needing a bit more research for seTswana then), and completely unrelated ending up bringing up the software-based clicker system we developed a few years ago (and still works). The sessions were well-attended—most of us having seen monkeys and beautiful sunsets, done game drives and such—and for many it was a unique opportunity, ranging from lucky postgrads with some funding to professors from the various institutions. A quick scan through the participants list showed that relatively many participants are affiliated with institutions from South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, but also a few from Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Angola, and Malawi, among others, and a few from outside Africa, such as the USA, Finland, Canada, and Germany. There was also a representative from the EU’s DEVCO and from GEANT (the one behind Eduroam). Last, but not least, not only the Minister of Transport and Communication, Onkokame Kitso, was present at the conference’s opening ceremony, but also the brand new—39 days and counting—President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi.

No doubt there will be a 14th installment of the conference next year. The paper deadline tends to be in December and extended into January.

 

References

(papers are now only on the USB stick but will appear in IEEE Xplore soon)

[1] Mjaria F, Keet CM. A statistical approach to error correction for isiZulu spellcheckers. IST-Africa 2018.

[2] Mtebe J, Raphael C. A critical review of eLearning Research trends in Tanzania. IST-Africa 2018.

[3] Kennis J. WikiTropica: collaborative knowledge management in the field of tropical medicine and international health. IST-Africa 2018.

[4] Maphanyane J, Nkwae B, Oitsile T, Serame T, Jakoba K. Towards the Building of a Robust National Database Infrastructure (NSDI) Developing Country Needs: Botswana Case Study. IST-Africa 2018.

[5] Thiga M, Chebon V, Kiptoo S, Okumu E, Onyango D. Electronic Voting System for University Student Elections: The Case of Kabarak University, Kenya. IST-Africa 2018.

[6] Naki A, Boucher D, Nzewi O. A Framework to Mitigate Water Billing Information Systems Integration Challenges at Municipalities. IST-Africa 2018.

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