Since 2011, the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) has funded over 200 projects that use astronomy as a tool to address challenges in communities and achieve SDGs. OAD’s Dana Ficut-Vicas and Maria Alejandra Diaz write on the changes these projects are creating in their communities.
In this article we would like to showcase the role astronomy can play in knowledge and skills development for a sustainable world. This particular project, the “Big Data Hackathons”, is an example of how incredible individuals and their teams, with small initiatives, create great impact to people and communities.
Inspired by the dark skies of South Africa, Dr. Nikhita Madhanpall, born in Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, followed her interest in physics and astronomy from early childhood up to a PhD level. Then she combined her scientific career with her passion for helping people and found fulfillment in Astronomy for Development. She is coordinating, since 2020, the “Big Data Hackathons” Project, the most representative project of the OAD flagship theme no. 3: Knowledge and Skills for Development.
Challenge & Context
The “Big Data Hackathons” Project is a partnership between DARA (Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy) Big Data, OAD and IDiA (Inter-university Institute for Data intensive Astronomy) through which, Hackathons are organized in the SKA partner countries in Africa. The Project targets university level students, mostly postgraduate, who have experience with programming and already have basic computer skills in Python. Astronomy, with its state-of-art instruments producing ‘astronomical’ amounts of data, is one of the engines driving the development of Data Science. Indeed, Data Science goes beyond the needs of astronomy and has applications in many fields of research and industry. It is one of the jobs of the future, leading to high levels of interest and many prospects in pursuing knowledge in this field.
“There is a desperate need for Data Science skills development on the African continent that would enable Africans to take part in the 4th industrial revolution by keeping up with the scientific and technological advancements”, explains Dr. Nikhita Madhanpall. The challenge which the “Big Data Hackathons” Project tries to address is the creation of a critical mass of people on the African continent able to use Data Science skills to solve Africa’s problems.
The “Big Data Hackathons” project aims to increase awareness about the broad applications of Data Science in academia and industry, but its achievements go beyond this initially set goal. This project has ignited interest for Python programming and Data Science among university students across Africa. In many cases, this project has been a unique resource for improving and advancing Data Science as a field of study in African Universities.
The DARA project has been running since 2017 and targets university level students, mostly postgraduate students who have experience with programming and already have the basic skills in the Python language. The project revolves around two main activities. The first is the Big Data Africa School, two week long events where participants attend lectures and workshops and have the opportunity to interact with invited speakers from academia and industry to fully explore the benefits of Data Science skills. This event, however has been disrupted in the past two years by the COVID19 pandemic. The other activity is the Big Data Hackathons, three day long events where participants work through tutorials with real data, solving real-world problems and then complete a hackathon team project. The “Big Data Hackathons” project comprises “hands-on” activities that immerse the participants into the reality of solving problems and inspire them to employ their knowledge and skills for a better world.
Over the past five years, around 400 students have participated in the events implemented by the DARA Big Data project, and many inspired by this project have continued specializing in this field of study. Some, later on returned as tutors in the “Big Data Hackathons”. In fact, 80-90% of the tutors are former participants. Although the participation is restricted to university level students, with a preference towards postgraduates, the participant can be from any faculty or specialization. This interdisciplinary approach exposed the participants to an even broader range of Data Science applications has and inspired them to use the knowledge in their own fields of interest.
The main results of the projects are:
- Growing the confidence of the participants in their ability to understand and implement Data Science and machine learning techniques.
- Increasing awareness about the broad application of Data Science in academia or industry
- Offering resources to study even if those particular courses are not available at the universities.
- Inspiring universities to broaden their curricula by including Data Science courses.
- Giving exposure to the career opportunities related to Data Science as a development skill.
The activities in this project were always met with enthusiasm for learning from the participants and many of them pursued their interest for Data Science well beyond the project. This reaction of the participants was responded to with updates of materials and resources of further study as well as the development of a community of Data Science enthusiasts (informal at first but currently taking shape as an alumni group) that can maintain the legacy of the “Big Data Hackathons” project.
The “Big Data Hackathons” Project and UN Sustainable development Goals
This project aimed to contribute to quality education (SDG 4) and socio-economic development through better job opportunities (SDG 8) but it achieved so much more.
SDG 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Target 4.5 By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and children in vulnerable situations.
Target 4.7 By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.
It contributed to high quality education by increasing awareness of the importance of Data Science to address developmental challenges in Africa and for better job opportunities. “We cannot do skills development in three days but we can give exposure”, Dr. Nikhita Madhanpall explains. And most of the time exposure is all that is needed to start the wheels turning. This project was sometimes the first contact that participants had with the field of Data Science. It also provided inspiration to adapt the curriculum at university with the current technological advancements in order to prepare students for the jobs of the future.
SDG 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Target 8.5 Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.
It contributed to SDG 8, by offering the participants skills that helped them qualify for better paid jobs. Empowering students with Data Science skills is essential not only for the career development of the participants but also has potential to be applied to the socio-economic development in the region.
SDG 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Target 5.5 Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life.
SDG 10. Reduce Inequalities within and among countries
Target 10.2 By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.
This project carefully selected its participants and constantly searched for ways of becoming more accessible to all student categories including female students. Between 2017 and 2020, only 20% of the participants were female, but starting from 2020 the percentages have increased to 50% female participation at each event, bringing a positive contribution to SDG 5, target 5.5. This project made a contribution to Reducing inequalities, hence to SDG 10, target 10.2., through increasing female participation and through bringing Data Science to communities that would not have otherwise had access to this opportunity.
SDG 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development
Target 17.6 By 2030, Enhance North-South, South-South and triangular regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation and enhance knowledge sharing on mutually agreed terms, including through improved coordination among existing mechanisms, in particular at the United Nations level, and through a global technology facilitation mechanism.
Finally this project has been possible because of the partnership between OAD, IDiA and DARA Big Data. This partnership contributed to knowledge sharing and cooperation for access to Science, technology and innovation in the developing world. (SDG 17, target 17.6).
Although the need for Data Science and machine learning skills in Africa has not been completely solved, this project has contributed to addressing it. The feedback collected from the participants at the end of the project events shows that 90% of the audience understood the importance of Data Science in their fields of study and for their own personal and professional development and the job opportunities that open up with mastering such skills.
The “Big Data Hackathons“ project lives on beyond the funding timeline, through the database of the “organise your own hackathon” resources that is now available as an open resource for anyone who wants to replicate or further develop Big Data Hackathons anywhere in the world. Former participants return as tutors making a substantial contribution to the number of direct and indirect beneficiaries impacted by the project. This sort of impact will be mirrored by the alumni group in the years to come, however the legacy of this project already stands high as one more example that small initiatives can have surprising ripples of impact.
Contact the project: Dr. Nikhita Madhanpall, firstname.lastname@example.org
By Dana Ficut-Vicas