Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 109

The institute aims to ensure South Africa is ready not only
to ride the big-data wave, but to drive it, says Taylor.
Big data refers to the large, complex data sets – created
and collected through technology – that are set to affect
every aspect of life. But the SKA poses a particular
challenge: tasked to collect data from deep space-dating
back to the very start of the universe 13 billion years ago,
the SKA will collect around 1.5 exabytes of data a year –
that is, roughly one and a half billion gigabytes.
South Africa, as co-host (with Australia) of the SKA, is thus
uniquely placed to lead the global response to big data – an
opportunity we dare not miss.
Preparing for data sharing
It is this precise situation the IDIA seeks to avoid. “At
IDIA, we are essentially laying the groundwork – in
terms of both infrastructure and human resources – to
be ready when the SKA turns,” says Taylor.
The real challenge, explains Taylor, is not just to
build a big pipe to manage the data, but to
store it in a way that enables the global
collaboration required for a project
of this magnitude.
“Teams in Africa, Europe, Asia,
Australia and North America
all want to work together
on this data. So the issue is
not only how to store and
manage the data, but how
to enable collaboration
on a big data set that
nobody can actually
have on their desktop,” he
says. “What this means, in
practice, is that we need to
build new cyber-infrastructure
The first of these platforms is
the Africa big data Research Cloud
(ARC), the first phase of which is housed
in UCT’s cloud-based data centre. The ARC
gives researchers the ability to develop collaborative
research environments in which they can share data,
computational capabilities and other tools, unimpeded
by the restrictions of time and space. It is envisioned to
grow to include the eight African partner countries on
SKA, and a number of SKA partners in Europe.
Developing data scientists
IDIA is also focused on building the skills needed
for the new digital world of big data. “Big data will
fundamentally change the way we do science,” says
Taylor. The world is witnessing a global shortage of data
scientists – a job description that didn’t even exist just a
decade or two ago. IDIA is set to remedy this shortage:
firstly, through the recruitment of graduate students and
postdoctoral researchers to work on the data challenges;
and secondly, by putting in place programmes to train
people in this new specialisation. From 2017, UCT will
offer a master’s degree in data science, while Sol Plaatje
University in the Northern Cape recently created a
dedicated undergraduate degree in data science.
The sexiest job of the 21st century
The Harvard Business Review has described ”data
scientist” as “the sexiest job of the 21st century”.
This skill set is sought after in just about every
industry the world over, from tourism to marketing to
astrophysics. A study by McKinsey projects that by
2018, the United States will face a 50% gap between
supply and demand for individuals with strong
data-analysis expertise. By offering this data-science
speciality, South African universities seek to fill not
only a niche created by the SKA, but a
global skills shortage.
South Africa stands to gain a great
deal from taking full advantage
of the SKA and the big-data
challenge. A large part
of the rationale for this
country’s comprehensive
investment in the SKA
project is the benefits
that will accrue as a
result of the project,
which extend far
beyond just the
“There are three elements
of development in the
SKA,” says Taylor. “The first
is the development of the
technology to build the project;
then there is that of the scientific
outcomes, and the ownership of these
outcomes; and finally, the development of skills
that comes from the requirement to utilise such
sophisticated equipment.”
Such skills are primarily in information and
communication technologies, and investment in these
skills is a long-term investment, he explains. For South
Africa to reap the rewards, we need to engage fully.
“At the core of it,” says Taylor, “IDIA is about building
the capacity to ensure that we in Africa are ready to
engage in and benefit from one of humanity’s most
ambitious science projects to date – taking place here,
within our borders.”
By Natalie Simon. Image by SKA South Africa.
Industry, innovation and infrastructure 104


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