IBM Research - Africa
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IBM scientists in Africa. From left to right Anne Onsarigo, Nathan Wangusi and Komminist Weldemariam.

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IBM & Cognitive In The News

IBM Research – Africa Launches the Nairobi THINKLab

This week, IBM Research – Africa launched a new state-of-the-art facility: the THINKLab in Nairobi, Kenya to transform the way the staff interact with clients and partners, and demonstrate hands-on innovation.

The Nairobi THINKLab — one of a growing number of IBM facilities around the world — will allow clients and partners from across the Middle East and Africa region to gain hands-on experience of IBM’s latest cognitive, cloud, big data analytics and mobile technologies. Fitted with some of the most advanced interactive technologies, the THINKLab will provide IBM’s Africa-based researches with a stimulating environment to demonstrate the lab’s latest solutions in key areas such as education, healthcare, water management, public safety and financial inclusion. The facility will also help IBM’s scientists engage with community representatives, inviting them in to be part of the research and development process.

With a Galaxy display comprising a wall of interactive flat-panel screens, motion sensors, a mobile experience lounge and Africa’s first permanently installed hologram, the THINKLab is the most technologically advanced facility in Africa.

Through the Galaxy interactive display, IBM researchers will be able to use motion, gesture and voice control to access multi-media content which demonstrates the company’s research programmes from Africa and across IBM’s 11 other global research labs. The THINKLab’s hologram is set to be a major differentiator for IBM in the Middle East and Africa region. IBM researchers are already using the hologram to explore future modes of human-machine interaction where 3D visualizations may help to overcome issues with literacy in some parts of Africa and become a powerful new way to deliver services in areas such as healthcare and financial inclusion.

“Innovation is a much overused word these days. What is key is originality. Original solutions are those which set the basis for imitation and have the unbridled potential to leapfrog the status quo. Through the THINKLab, we have a world-class facility to explore and demonstrate truly original approaches to our clients and partners,” Kamal Bhattacharya, Vice President, IBM Research – Africa.

At the launch event this week in Nairobi for a select group of IBM staff, clients and partners, IBM’s research scientists demonstrated the powerful role of the THINKLab facility. For example, IBM Research – Africa’s mobility team used film content and interactive displays to showcase their recent ‘Living Roads’ project with Nairobi City County. With smart devices mounted on 10 of the county’s waste collection vehicles, IBM’s researchers are gathering realtime data — not only about the fleet — but about the condition of Nairobi’s streets and the location of traffic delays due to the existence of potholes, speedbumps, flooding and other obstructions on the roads.

One of IBM’s partners to experience the THINKLab first hand was Evans Ondieki, Executive Committee Member, Nairobi City County: “Through the Nairobi THINKLab, we can be part of IBM’s research process and experience first-hand the power of technologies to address our challenges and transform the way we operate.”

The Africa lab’s lead water researcher Kala Fleming demonstrated a new solution called EZ Farm to help small-scale farmers to better manage their water resources. Using the Galaxy display, IBM research scientists showed how they are using Big Data and Internet of Things technologies to help small scale farmers better manage the water resources needed to irrigate and grow crops.

Cognitive technologies are a significant focus area of the Nairobi THINKLab facility and will be embedded into many of the solutions demonstrated.

“Today, cognitive computing is about to unleash a whole new wave of innovation across Africa and around the world. Humans and machines are collaborating in sensible and meaningful ways,” added Uyi Stewart. “At the THINKLab we will demonstrate the role of machine learning in capturing key pieces of insight which can be used by leaders, government officials and even whole communities to drive transformation and positive change.”

My government is proud that Kenya, and Africa will benefit from the presence of one of the most advanced research facilities, with some of the world’s most talented people, using some of the most powerful technologies to develop solutions in Africa for Africa.

His Excellency, the President of Kenya, Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta

Solving Africa’s grand challenges

The lab's research agenda includes the development of cognitive computing technologies that can be applied to address issues in public health, education and agriculture. A number of projects are already underway in the areas of energy, water, transportation, agriculture, healthcare, financial inclusion and human mobility and public safety.

Reducing traffic congestion through mobile phones

Traffic congestion is a major problem in Nairobi. In association with Kenyan internet service provider Access Kenya, IBM has developed a pilot solution to enable commuters in Nairobi to use their mobile phones to get advice on driving routes through the city depending on estimates of traffic congestion.

Using deep analytics and specialized algorithms to translate visual data received from CCTV cameras positioned around Nairobi, citizens can use their mobile phones to receive updates on road conditions and suggestions for alternative routes. With only 36 cameras currently installed around Nairobi, IBM researchers have augmented data using mathematical network analytics allowing the system to predict traffic in parts of town where no data feeds are available.

Dubbed Twende Twende – meaning 'Let's Go' in Swahili - the system works on traditional phones via SMS-based query system and on smart phones via an app through which users can view a map of the city showing route options and potential traffic hotspots. IBM's researchers are currently working to extend the capabilities of the solution to include data on public safety, weather conditions and road works to create a localized view of human mobility.

Digital advertising for small businesses

With over 30 million subscribers on Kenya's mobile phone networks covering 77 percent of the population, the mobile phone has emerged as a powerful tool to reach groups without access to financial and value added services.

In partnership with local firms Flashcast and Kuza Biashara, IBM has developed a solution that offers small businesses without budgets for large advertising campaigns, to engage their customers through their mobiles.

Matangazo – the Swahili word for 'advertising' - uses GPS and mobile technology to allow micro enterprises in Nairobi to advertise to over 500 million public transport users, allowing for location-based, geo-targeted ads.

Through an interactive multimedia mobile phone app and SMS service, IBM has enabled 25 small businesses in Nairobi to leverage Flashcast's advertising platform using a solution that allows for multimedia, location-based ads to be delivered directly to mobile phones of users who opt in for the service.

Addressing the skills gap

IBM views creating science and technology leaders of the future as a key part of its research mission. However, a skills shortage is hindering innovation and leadership of new industry in Africa. In order to help universities produce highly-qualified and technically skilled graduates, IBM Research – Africa has established a new resident scientist program for schools in Kenya and other African countries. These applicants are top-tier scientists and researchers from pre and post-doctoral backgrounds, as well as from academia, government or industry, and work side- by-side with IBM researchers in the lab.

Dedication to Africa

IBM has had a direct presence in Africa for more than 60 years that today spans 20 countries, including Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. IBM Research – Africa is just one of many ways in which IBM is investing in Africa and developing its economic capacity.

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