By Charity Wayua, Ph.D.
I come from a family of educators. So when it came to choosing a career, it was natural for me to go into education. My vocation, though, is research. I study educational systems so that I can help re-imagine what they can be.
Few places can benefit as much from this kind of research than Africa, where I grew up and now work as a scientist at IBM’s new Research lab in Nairobi, Kenya. Africa is a paradox. It has seen tremendous growth during the past decade.
And yet half of the children in Africa will reach adolescence unable to read, write or do basic math. Two-thirds of those who don’t receive schooling are girls, because many of them have to stay home and take care of their younger brothers or sisters.
These children need help now so that they can reach their potential and choose their own vocation. And so that countries in Africa can advance more quickly and inclusively on the positive path they’re charting now. This urgency is why my company is applying the most advanced computing approach to Africa’s greatest business and societal challenges, including education. IBM Watson, the first cognitive computing system, is coming to Africa as part of a 10-year, $100 million initiative.
Called Project Lucy, this effort is bringing together IBM researchers, business and academic partners, and Watson technologies to study and pull insights out of big data to develop solutions to Africa’s grand challenges in healthcare, education, water and sanitation, energy, and agriculture.
This is a big bet on Africa’s transformation, one that I’m wholeheartedly a part of. During the next decade, we want to bring about massive breakthroughs in the economies and societies of Africa. Cognitive computing and big data have major roles to play in Africa’s development challenges, whether it’s understanding food price patterns or anticipating disease. The key is turning data into insights we can act on.
These goals are ambitious, which is why the project is named after the discovery in 1974 in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley of Lucy: the remains of one of the earliest known human ancestors. At IBM Research – Africa, we believe that big data analytics and cognitive computing will provide breakthroughs that are just as significant and will change our understanding of Africa and the world.
Education is one of the chief development challenges we’re tackling. Big data can play a huge role in helping pinpoint the nagging issues that prevent children from getting the education they deserve. The key is pulling practical knowledge out of that data and putting it in the hands of teachers and administrators.
With Watson technologies, we want to take a holistic approach. One that pulls together and makes sense of data that wasn’t gathered or was ignored before. The benefit is in using seemingly disparate data sources to create insights that link issues together where we might not ordinarily made the connection. Watson provides the potential to expand beyond analyzing school data about student performance, teacher expertise, attendance levels, or learning materials in silos with few variables. With cognitive computing systems, we’re going far beyond systems programmed to answer specific questions to a technological approach that can learn, discover answers to complex questions, and suggest solutions by sifting through huge amounts of data.
For example, Watson could identify the link between a contaminated water borehole, an epidemic of cholera, and low levels of school attendance in a region. Or Watson could pinpoint links between how children are performing in the class and cultural traditions, such as the childcare responsibility placed on older siblings.
Watson could help teachers take advantage of the data generated in the teaching process itself. Imagine a teacher responsible for 50 children in a class. By using algorithms that model or study their particular teaching process, data could be gathered about the way the student is interacting with learning content and performing in assessments. By then applying analytics, the same algorithms could help draw out insights that teachers could use for a very tailored intervention for a struggling child or in the modification of the next lesson plan. I believe Watson could be the difference between a child destined to remain stuck in her circumstances and one who has the education that gives her choices she never had before.
With Project Lucy, my company is bringing together the foundation, skills, passion, ecosystem and technology to root out the causes and provide crucial answers to Africa’s fundamental, structural problems. Our aim is to use the ability to learn from patterns and pinpoint correlations that Watson provides to help Africa achieve in two decades what today’s developed markets achieved over two centuries.