The Intelligence Group: Driving Data Science in South Africa

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Data science as a topic is growing in popularity in South Africa, a prime reason why the Intelligence Group came into existence: to build a community around an existing body of research and knowledge, and attract those interested in what it has to offer. The Group is emphasized as an institution-independent collective that’s open to anyone – academics, researchers, students, startups, big corporates and even consultancies.


The Group is currently the only data science interest group in South Africa, but it is aiming to attract a wide variety of those interested in both data science and its applications. In fact, there should be topics for everyone, according to Dr Benjamin Rosman who is one of the minds behind the concept of the Intelligence Group, and is currently a researcher with the CSIR, working with mobile intelligent autonomous systems. Aside from this he holds a PhD in Machine Learning and Robotics from the University of Edinburgh, and is in the Computer Science department at Wits University.


The Group takes the form of an online open Meetup group, from which the event logistics and planning is done. At present, there are over 500 members on this group, from all facets of the technology, computer science and even business industries in South Africa. From this group, in-person sessions are organised at various locations which thus far have been well attended. The sessions offer talks in a “TED Talk” format of fifteen to twenty minutes, each of which are delivered by a wide assortment of experts, researchers, hobbyists, students and others interested to share what they know. They hail from industry, South African research institutions and universities such as Wits, UJ and recently Harvard. Even several startup founders have had their chance to speak on topics they’re interested in.


Data Science: Intelligence Group
Quantum computing is part of the Intelligence Group’s planned discussion repertoire. Shown here is a quantum computing processor by D-Wave systems.


On this note, the topics covered to date (and some planned for future Intelligence Group sessions) have been exciting and varied. In the data science vein, the use of big data in business has proven to be a topic of interest, as well as how to handle databases for big data applications. Techniques for visualising big data and assigning meaning to it are within the Group’s scope, but recently it’s been the South African applications of data science that have made the most interesting discussion topics. These applications include property evaluations with large data sources and analysing crime trends based on Tweets. More cutting-edge research such as deep learning, quantum computing and even brain-computer interfacing also form part of the Group’s repertoire for current and future sessions.


Dr Rosman tells us that the most exciting part of the sessions is the open discussion at the end of the talks. As they’re fairly short, the talks themselves often don’t go into too much technical details – the topics presented are usually at an overview level. This is why the post-talk discussions between Group members are so valuable – they dig deeper into the topics, and philosophical debates even crop up! In amongst the discussions, there’s also opportunities for business partnerships between interested members, collaboration deals, and even job hunting and recruiting.


The idea of “topics for everyone” seems to ring true for Intelligence Group members, as a variety of fields are represented at each meet up session. The majority of the attendees and group members are in engineering, mathematics and statistics as well as computer science, but that hasn’t stopped those in property and marketing and other business fields to find a topic that fits their interest.


The Meetup group site of the Intelligence Group is the central place to find out more about the initiative


The model of a community that’s institution independent is important to Dr Rosman and the other organisers of the Intelligence Group. Aiming for this independence allows both for building a community as well as creating a consistency of brand. This also creates a reliability – a sense that what’s discussed isn’t biased by an institutional sponsor or something similar. The meet-ups happen at different venues, at universities, public conference centres and even some corporates’ conference venues. As well as enforcing the aforementioned independence, holding the meetups at different places each time make it easier for members to attend at least some events, even if they can’t make others because of distance problems. The flexibility of the Group is also a strong suit: anyone part of the group is welcome to organise a meetup and share the details with other members.


Having institution independence also has a positive side-effect: South Africa’s data science and academic research field is far too fragmented, so having an open approach to sharing developments and discussing the state-of-the-art means that the field as a whole is being driven forward in the country, by the meetup sessions.



Co-founders of the Intelligence Group: (Top) Harish Subramanian (Bottom) Dr Benjamin Rosman


Importantly, Dr Rosman and his co-organiser Harish Subramanian from the African Leadership Network are looking to make the concept of the Intelligence Group a “community of practice”. That is, the project hopes to be self-sustaining and self-governing, to expand beyond Gauteng province to the rest of the country, beginning in the major cities (Durban, Cape Town).The momentum will be driven by the passion of the attendees to make the meetups productive and enjoyable, much like the momentum found in recent years by maker- and hackerspace collectives. If this initiative is less successful than expected, Dr Rosman argues at least everyone involved has met some interesting people and made good connections. If it is a success, of course, the benefits to both the fields of data and computer science as well as academia and research in the country will be worth the effort. Computer science is cool, says Dr Rosman, and everyone attending the Intelligence Group has something exciting to share about their work or research – especially for students.


To find out more about the Intelligence Group, or if you’re interested in joining or even hosting a meetup group click here or leave a comment below.

You also can find the Intelligence Group on Twitter, or find out more about Mr Subramanian or Dr Rosman. 

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