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Opinion & Analysis

Failure to exploit data will cost Africa dear

Data analytics promises unprecedented productivity improvement and leapfrogging of lagging countries. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Data analytics promises unprecedented productivity improvement and leapfrogging of lagging countries. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The lead story in the Economist of May 6 – 12, 2017 was titled, “The World’s Most Valuable Resource.” It was about the increasing significance of data and the lack of effective regulatory mechanisms.

Africa’s failure to pro-actively manage the resource is threatening to take Africa back to her pre-independence period when most countries did not have the human resource capacity to manage newly independent nations.

According to the article, “Smartphones and the internet have made data abundant, ubiquitous and far more valuable. Whether you are going to run, watching TV or even just sitting in traffic, virtually every activity creates a digital trace – more raw materials for data distilleries.

“As devices from watches to cars connect to the Internet, the volume is increasing… Meanwhile, Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques such as machine learning extract more value from data. Algorithms can predict when a customer is ready to buy, a jet engine needs servicing or a person is at risk of a disease.”

Africa cannot afford to ignore advances in AI and data analytics as there are far too many problems in Africa that require these new technologies.

From monitoring weather systems, disease outbreaks, management of the increasing chronic diseases, data is crucial in sustaining the continent’s competitiveness.

It is imperative that the continent moves to take advantage of data, otherwise the continent will continue to be dependent on developed nations to solve her problems which is not only expensive but a sure recipe for lagging behind every other part of the world.

To demonstrate the importance of data and other supporting technologies, look no further than Africa’s ballooning chronic diseases.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), in a report titled Facing the facts: The Impact of Chronic Disease in Africa, estimated that chronic disease-related deaths in 2005 were about 2.5 million. By 2015, this number had jumped to about 28 million.

Diabetes accounted for most deaths as it increased by 42 per cent. Some of these deaths were preventable if appropriate monitoring was in place.

Although the report says, “At least 80 per cent of premature heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and 40 per cent of cancer could be prevented through healthy diet, regular physical activity and avoidance of tobacco products,” modern monitoring techniques using wearable gadgets are known to prevent premature deaths from chronic diseases.

Research now says that wearables such as smartwatches can collect vital data that can be used to predict disease or even detect the same.

Leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) technology, personal data on, for example, sugar levels can be continuously relayed to a medical facility.

In turn, the doctor can use the data to inform the patient of their condition before it gets worse.

Most unfortunate is the fact that techies talk about IoT, but rarely address its use cases for the public to begin to understand some of the solutions to their pressing problems. Indeed there are many other use cases of IoT in healthcare that patients need to be aware of.

It is argued that use of such technologies could help people extend their lives for at least 10 more years. The biggest debate around data today is how to protect individual privacy, verification of authentic data and how to put in place an enabling regulatory mechanism.

We fail if we don’t create a balance between use of data to solve some of the problems we have and the rights of individual liberties. Perhaps we need to learn from the European users’ consent model. More important, we must develop data analytic capacities.

Unleashing data for digital and economic transformation is happening, but more slowly. Developing countries are even in a worse state of preparedness to leverage Data for development.

Data analytics promises unprecedented productivity improvement and leapfrogging of lagging countries.

However, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we understand its impact. We can only making assumptions. Different people have a different understanding of this transformative concept.

It is an obvious anomaly that can be corrected if we look into the past and learn from the diffusion of other technologies.

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