Part II: How “SMAC” Technology is Transforming the African Continent

This is the second in a three-part series on how Social, Mobile, Analytic, and Cloud (SMAC) technology is transforming the African continent. Read Part I here. 

“I work for the best company in the world.”

Phil Pillsbury sits on the dais, addressing a group of students at the University of Cheik Anta Diop known as “UCAD II” in Dakar, Senegal.

“I work for the best company in the world that sells the world’s best analytics solutions.”

Coders4Africa Team (Phil Pillsbury is at 11 oclock)

Phil Pilsbury (second from right) and IBM team members.

Phil is a leading Sales Manager for IBM North America who believes deeply in the ability of analytics to transform nations, and even history.

Phil is one of a team of 14 IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC) participants providing one month of pro bono service to local organizations and government institutions in Dakar this fall. Others on the team worked with the Directorate of Analysis and Forecasting of Agricultural Statistics (Directorate de l’Analyse et de la Prévision des Statistiques Agricole) or DAPSA, a directorate within Senegal’s Ministry of Agriculture that seeks to collect, centralize, and analyze national agricultural indicators to enable better outcomes for various governmental and development activities. DAPSA, responsible for national agricultural monitoring, produces quantitative data analysis on annual agricultural production to develop and evaluate new and existing agricultural projects, programs, and policies.

Data Feeds a Better World

Up to now, DAPSA has conducted all of its information gathering in paper booklets, which are then manually entered (twice) over the course of a three-month time period into CSPro. In 2014, DAPSA has partnered with Africa Rice to adapt its information gathering approach to include tablets that will automatically deposit information gathered in the field into Mongo DB. This new infrastructure will have a transformative impact on the speed, accuracy, and potential visibility of DAPSA’s statistics and analysis, but an effective technical transition will require meticulous planning and analysis.

DAPSA Team

DAPSA seeks to increase widespread awareness of its analyses and services offered to public and private organizations in order to drive better and more precise decision-making in the agriculture sector. The CSC team’s work, along with the Africa Rice partnership, was part of a broader effort by USAID to invest extensive resources in improving Senegal’s agricultural statistics and analysis infrastructure.  The IBM team sought to assess DAPSA’s current information gathering and dissemination infrastructure, develop a plan to help DAPSA improve the collection, exchange, and dissemination of its information and analysis, and to provide recommendations that would enable DAPSA to gain higher visibility.

IBM Cloud Ad

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Senegal is not alone in its quest for more accurate and timely statistics. In every corner of the world, effective analytics is being sought at a new premium, and the standards of accuracy and timeliness are rising.  Aqua Clara International (ACI), a Michigan-based nonprofit, seeks to sustainably enhance access to clean drinking water in developing countries. The Dow Sustainability Corps assigned three technical experts to work alongside ACI to develop a mobile application and comprehensive database system that would expand ACI’s information technology capabilities.

Rather than entering survey data manually into spreadsheets, as ACI did before, the mobile application enabled maintenance personnel to enter data directly into the database system to track water quality and health and behavior outcomes.  The mobile application cut ACI’s estimated six month data processing timeframe down to two months.

In South Africa, another IBM CSC team worked in partnership with UN Women earlier this year to develop the architecture for a relational database that would assess the impact of investments in women-run micro-enterprises. The platform will give UN Women the ability to accurately measure the profitability and impact of their investments.

The benefits of platforms and mechanisms like those employed by DAPSA, ACI, and UN Women, are twofold. First, they enhance the visibility of decision-makers into the impact and efficacy of their past choices. But they also provide a coherent (and timely) landscape of what to expect.

The Data Endgame

The increasing availability and user-friendliness of data analytics tools have created a data-analytics frenzy. Within the international development space, “measuring what matters” has become a pervasive trope. Funders and program managers alike have begun to place a growing emphasis on performance and impact measurement.

Yet, what many non-technical people tend to overlook is that cloud computing is the silent partner of effective analytics tools. Without it, enhanced analytics are simply a glorified Excel spreadsheet. What’s more, broadband internet access is an essential pre-requisite for effective cloud access. According to the World Bank’s Little Data Book on Information and Communication Technology, between 2005 and 2010, mobile phone subscription rose from 12% to 44% across Sub-Saharan Africa, and households with internet access at home more than doubled from 1.1% to 3.6%. Awareness of the expansion of mobile phone networks is ubiquitous—the number of mobile phones on the planet will exceed the world’s population in 2014—but many decision-makers, especially those in the West, overlook the fact that constraints to access to computers and smart phones still persist.

As organizations across Sub-Saharan Africa begin to adopt more insightful and responsive analytics capabilities, broadband internet access must be considered as a supporting concern. Additionally, while solutions that are made possible through public sector funders like USAID and the United Nations have the potential to move the needle in targeted contexts, eventually private sector solutions, like MongoDB, will be required to drive sustainable adoption of new solutions.

Ultimately, however, analytics is only useful if it supports better outcomes for the end user, the data source.

 IBM “Smarter Marketing” video

 

At the same conference at UCAD II earlier this month, Susanne Janssen, the head of communications, marketing, and citizenship at IBM Switzerland, another member of the IBM CSC team, gave a talk on new innovations in analytics and their implications for marketing worldwide.  Companies have begun to correlate demographics, shopping habits and lifestyle choices of their customers that might lead stores to personalize their offerings accordingly. In such contexts, a synergy of social behavior, mobile technology, complex analytics, and cloud computing—SMAC—combine in game-changing ways to empower large institutions to know who does what, when, and in so doing, to at least venture a guess as to why.

These evolutions in technology are not yet mainstream in many less developed areas of the world. But measurement counts—both literally and figuratively—for the sake of accuracy, clarity, impact, and profit. Once more advanced mobile devices and broadband internet extend their reach—and it is not a question of if but when—these transformative technologies have the potential to raise the standard of living, and in so doing, change lives in less developed corners of the world.

The African Renaissance Monument, pictured in this story’s feature photo, was created amidst some controversy, to commemorate Africa’s rise in the 21st century. 

Stay tuned for Part III of the series out next week.

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  1. […] In turn, a growing number of organizations and institutions have turned their attention to the power of analytics. Organizations like Senegal’s Directorate of Analysis and Forecasting of Agricultural Statistics are seeking ways to improve their analytical foundation in ways that will enhance their efficiency a… […]