Big Data skills honed as 27 students from 8 African countries get together in Cape Town.

Last week saw the DARA Big Data Africa School 2018 take place in a scenic mountainside resort near Cape Town, South Africa. 27 young scientists, most of them master’s students in fields as diverse as mechanical engineering or physics attended the school, part of the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) Big Data programme, a joint initiative between the UK and South Africa.

In addition to expert lecturers from world leaders in big data in science and industry, the students formed diverse and international teams, each taking on a different big data research project for the duration of the school. For some of the students, this meant learning an entirely new skill set, or learning new science, which they did with the help of their peers and the tutors present. “I expected to gain technical knowledge in a field completely out of my comfort zone. My expectations have been greatly surpassed, as I gained many new perspectives and so much more than I had anticipated”, said André Bezuidenhout, a student from Namibia. The students came to the school from Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

The projects were in turn scientific and technical, and reflected the diversity of big data applications found in research and in industry. From reproducing results from a scientific research paper to analysing hacker attacks, medical imagery, or even traffic data, students got exposed to the pervasive nature of big data, one of the aspects precipitating the fourth industrial revolution.

“The skills acquired by the students at this school are useful in many different contexts”, said Dr. Bonita de Swardt, coordinator of the school and Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capacity Development at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. “We see this every day with the MeerKAT telescope”, she said, underlining that one of the student projects was directly linked to one of the big data challenges faced by the telescope every day. The 64-dish MeerKAT telescope is currently the most advanced radio telescope in the world and was inaugurated last July in the Northern Cape by Deputy President David Mabuza.

“The students’ ability to acquire new skills, work together and present their work was impressive. It is inspiring to work with such talented students”, said Professor Anna Scaife, from the University of Manchester in the UK, one of the initiators of the DARA Big Data Africa School.

The projects were run on a research cloud computing facility developed by the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA), which is designed to enable researchers and students to work with scientific data in the age of the big data deluge. “Enabling students and researchers to work with the new type and scale of data generated by modern science is one of the key goals of the institute”, said Associate Professor Carolina Ödman from IDIA. “Access to such facilities is essential for building capacity in South Africa and in the African partners countries of the Square Kilometre Array” added Scaife.

“The Big Data Africa school was a fantastic learning experience, not just for the students attending, but for me as a facilitator as well. It was exciting to see how the students tackled the problems presented to them. And, more importantly, it was very heartening to witness the effort that the students put into establishing new working relationships with people from different backgrounds and from all over the African continent.” said Dr. Tana Joseph, a South Africa radio astronomer currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manchester in the UK and one of the lecturers at the school.

The 27 students, after presenting their projects are going back to their studies, but not without newly acquired knowledge and skills, and friends from across the continent. Some of the projects are likely to continue beyond the school, as they represent real-life big data challenges, the tackling of which is now well within the capacity of at least 27 young African scientists.

About DARA Big Data

Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) is a joint UK-South Africa Newton Fund human capital development project to help drive economic development in Africa. The Newton Fund is part of the UK’s official development assistance and aims to promote the economic development and social welfare of its the partner countries. It does so through strengthening partner country science and innovation capacity.

DARA Big Data is an extension to the DARA programme and is designed to build on the data intensive side of radio astronomy. In addition to the DARA Big Data Advanced Training Programme, which funds MSc and PhD studentships in the UK for students from AVN countries, the programme supports the DARA Big Data Africa schools.

Historically, radio astronomy has been at the forefront of technological development for data and the future of radio astronomy looks no different, with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) forecast as one of the world’s biggest Big Data engines. The DARA Big Data programme focuses on the data intensive aspects of science: data analysis, data visualisation & data systems and tools. Skills in these areas can have impact across a range of research fields. Consequently, DARA Big Data also looks at translating data intensive techniques between different fields where Big Data expertise is needed.

The student projects at the DARA Big Data Africa School covered the following subjects: Cybersecurity (Information Technology), Diabetic Retinopathy (Health sciences), Radio Frequency Interference (Radio astronomy), Road traffic data (Public Safety), Stellar Rotation (Astronomy).

About the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO)

SARAO is a National Facility managed by the National Research Foundation. It incorporates radio astronomy instruments such as the MeerKAT and KAT-7 telescopes in the Karoo desert and the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) located near Johannesburg.

The SARAO Human Capacity Development programme was established in 2005 and has created world leading research groups in universities in Africa, through supporting science and engineering undergraduate and postgraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and academics, and collaborations with leading international universities. In parallel, the programme is addressing the capacity requirements for the maintenance and operations of radio telescope facilities, by supporting young people to obtain relevant technician and artisan qualifications, and technical skills and experience. To date, SARAO has provided over 1000 grants, including postdoctoral fellowships, and bursaries to postgraduate and undergraduate students doing science and engineering degrees and research at universities. The DARA Big Data Africa School is a new pioneering initiative undertaken by SARAO’s human capacity development programme in partnership with Manchester University and various industry partners.

About the SKA, MeerKAT and AVN

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, with a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area and is one of the most ambitious science projects in the word today.

MeerKAT is a South African project, a precursor to the larger international Square Kilometre Array. It is managed by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, where most of the specialised hardware and associated software was designed and built in cooperation with industrial partners. The telescope’s 64 antennae, or dishes, are located in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. Eventually, MeerKAT will be incorporated into Phase 1 of the international SKA telescope.

The African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN) is a radio astronomy programme with a pan-African focus. The AVN builds a network of interlinked radio telescopes on the African continent and develops skills and capacity needed in SKA partner countries across Africa. The AVN involves partners in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia. AVN aims to bring new science opportunities to Africa on a relatively short time scale and develop radio astronomy science communities in the SKA partner countries.

About the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA)

The Inter-university Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) is a partnership of three South African universities, the Universities of Cape Town, of the Western Cape and of Pretoria. IDIA also has an industry partner in SAP. IDIA is the co-proposer of the DARA Big Data Programme with the University of Manchester.

The overarching goal of IDIA is to build within the South African university research community the capacity and expertise in data intensive research to enable global leadership on MeerKAT large survey science projects and large projects on other SKA pathfinder telescopes, leading to leadership on SKA phase 1 Key Science programs.

IDIA has set up a data-intensive research cloud facility to service its scientific community. Currently, IDIA is the primary platform to service five out of eight MeerKAT large survey projects that are led or co-led by South African scientists.


Professor Anna Scaife
Head, Jodrell Bank Interferometry Centre of Excellence, University of Manchester, UK.
Director of Business Engagement & Innovation for the School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Manchester, UK.

Dr. Bonita de Swardt
Programme Manager: Strategic Partnerships for Human Capacity Development, South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

Associate Professor Carolina Odman
Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of the Western Cape, South Africa.
Associate Director, Development and Outreach, Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy