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Newton Fund supports second Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Big Data Careers day in South Africa

24 October 2016

The second Square Kilometre Array (SKA SA) Big Data Careers day was held in Kimberley on 7 and 8 September 2016, giving students from Sol Plaatje University (SPU) an opportunity to network with industry partners.

Held over the two days with the participation of 75 students in Data Science at the University, the Big Data Careers Day involved talks by partners such as Microsoft SA, Statsoft (Dell), the State Information Technology Agency (SITA), IBM Research - Africa, Barclays Africa, Siatik Systems/Google Cloud Platform, Nokia, the South African National Research Network (SANReN), Cisco, the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Stellenbosch, the South African Medical Research Council, Tracker; and the Centre for High Performance Computing.

The event, made possible by funding from the UK-SA Newton Fund, was opened by Professor Yunus Ballim, Vice-Chancellor of SPU delivering a welcome message. 

From left to right: Richard Atkinson, Science & Innovation Officer at British Consulate General Cape Town; Professor Yunus Ballim, Vice-Chancellor of Sol Plaatje University; and Dr Bernie Fanaroff, former SKA SA Project Director and currently the Strategic Advisor to the Projectaption


“Sol Plaatje University is the first truly South African university, as opposed to an Apartheid-era university. Our vision is to establish an institution where smart young people chooses SPU for a unique qualification. With the SKA, SPU could reproduce the mining metaphor in South Africa,” said Ballim. 

SPU, after opening its doors in 2014, was the first university in the country to offer a BSc degree in Data Science. 

The students were also welcomed by Dr Bernie Fanaroff, former SKA SA Project Director and currently the Strategic Advisor to the Project; and Richard Atkinson, Science and Innovation Officer at the British Consulate in Cape Town. 

The programme for the two days consisted of presentations by the partners on careers in their respective industries and a networking session at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley on day one; and more presentations and practical project sessions for the students hosted by Cisco, Siatik and Microsoft SA on day two. 

Dr Rob Adam, SKA SA Managing Director, addressed the partners at the networking session at the McGregor Museum. 

“Big Data is seen as the area with the largest potential for wider benefit from South Africa’s involvement in MeerKAT and SKA. SKA South Africa’s Big Data Africa initiative aims to tackle a range of challenges in the manipulation, storage and transfer of very large data sets and to develop skills in these “big data” areas on a large scale as part of an Africa-wide, multi-disciplinary programme that bring together universities, governments and industry,” said Dr Adam. 

“South Africa can and should play a leading role in the global big data economy. South Africa can and should be a world-leading centre for research and machine learning and cognitive computing. The key to becoming a world leader in big data and cognitive computing is to train our best young people in these areas,” Dr Adam continued.

Students had three hours on day two to participate in the practical projects. Representatives from Cisco worked with second year Data Science students in a project that focussed on introducing students to the Internet of all Things. It involved a hardware and software component for students to understand how computers “talk” or connect to devices. 

Partners from Google worked with first year Data Science students and introduced them to the new Google analytical-cloud based-software for analysing large data sets called “Big Query”. 

Microsoft worked with first year mathematical and computer science students and introduced them to Microsoft’s PowerBi and Azure Machine Learning software.   

“I am intrigued by science and I see it as a great opportunity to explore and do something new. This programme is amazing and I have gained a lot of insight into things that I didn’t know existed, such as bioinformatics,” says Siphesihle Sishi, a 20-year old first year Data Science student at Sol Plaatje University.

Siphesihle Sishi


Hailing from KwaZulu-Natal, Siphesihle says that she would like to become a data scientist and work for the SKA once she has completed her studies.

Andisani Nkosi, a 32-year old first year Data Science student, has previous work experience in Information Systems and studied at the University of Cape Town, but felt that he was not applying his knowledge to his work in operations. 

Andisani Nkosi

“I wanted to start afresh and I am looking forward to getting into the field of data science. I wish that initiatives such as the Big Data Careers day would be longer because the knowledge imparted here is invaluable. I would like to become an entrepreneur and build my industry know-how,” said Andisani. 

The Big Data Careers Day was established under the Strategic Partnerships unit of the Human Capital Development programme of SKA SA. The first such event was launched in September 2015 in partnership with Sol Plaatje University. 

The initial event was hosted in Cape Town with the participation of 25 students who were enrolled for the Data Science degree. As a result, some of the students were sponsored through funding by some of the partners, an initiative which has been rolled out to more students since then. 

“The second Big Data Careers Day was a tremendous success with participation from a wide range of partners from industry and the national research institutions. SKA SA is excited to bring this event to Kimberley, which has not only inspired the students participating in the event, but has initiated a number of fruitful ideas for future collaborations in the area of Big Data and data science,” said Dr Bonita de Swardt, Project Officer, Strategic Partnerships for Human Capacity Development at SKA SA. 

“We envision that the Big Data Careers Day will be an annual event in the SKA SA calendar moving forward, in the hope of inspiring the much needed data scientists of the future,” De Swardt concluded. 

For another delegate's perspective on this two day event please click here