Julius Akinyemi: Africa needs to harness big data to really innovate

Africa needs to start using big data to solve its issues. But before this can happen, it needs to understand how to leverage this data to its advantage.

That’s the word from Massachusetts Institute of Technology-based thought leader Julius Akinyemi, who today spoke about the importance of harnessing big data on the African continent at the SA Innovation Summit in Cape Town.

Akinyemi’s recently also cut the ribbon to introduce the continent’s latest tech cluster for innovation, Workshop17, of which he is a co-founder.

Apart from pointing out the importance of collaboration and communities, Akinyemi spoke about the need to for Africa to not only harness big data but also know how to use it so we can create meaningful insights.

“Big data is simply small data from different sectors put together,” he said. “It’s that simple”.

“But big data for Africa is different. Some of the small things we need to add for the bigger picture, we never had. If you look five years ago, you will not have had enough information on Africa than what you have today.”

The former global director of emerging technologies for PepsiCo then pointed out that mobility has changed the way Africans live their lives as much as it’s contributing to the greater knowledge economy.

An increase in mobile phone penetration over the past few years enables us to gather enormous amounts of information about societies unattainable until modern times.

Read more: Are South Africa’s banks really ready for big data?

“If we want to grow our current economy, we have to have the tools to do so,” he said. “Big data is part of that. But not only that, we need to look at smart data or informed data.”

Akinyemi then demonstrated an example of how big data is being used smartly. In partnership with US telecom giant AT&T, MIT’s Media Lab tracked smartphone users in order to map the population’s movements.

Over time, patterns began to emerge and they found that people are essentially split into four groups or tribes that share common trends. For instance, each tribe’s people shared their own day-to-day habits from commute hours to areas of travel.

This kind of insight is critical for various institutions. Whether that be financial, insurance or public, understanding the dynamics of the environment one operates is crucial.

Read more: Big Data is changing the future of insight: here’s how

Akinyemi went on to showcase how publicly available data can be leveraged in South Africa to create powerful maps about society’s complicated dynamics. Presenting an interactive map of the Gauteng province, the speaker demonstrated how easy it is to map different demographics.

“The ability to create and analyse big data is the one thing Africa lacks,” he said. “Big data is not smart data if people don’t have the tools to make it useful. If you don’t have the information, you cannot analyse. And if you cannot analyse, you cannot diagnose. If you cannot diagnose, you can’t find the solution”.

Image via Fund Forum International



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