Makerere’s good week shows it can still build for the future

Sunday May 12 2019

 

By Bernard Tabaire

Makerere University’s potential remains huge. Despite the rather frequent staff and student strikes, and the general malaise that troubles the place, Makerere every so often dusts itself up and unleashes its latent intellectual power.

The university just picked up close to Shs5 billion to monitor air quality in Kampala. It was a competitive process and Makerere was one of 20 organisations from around the world, and the only one from Africa, to emerge tops in the Google Artificial Intelligence Impact Challenge. Some 2,602 applications came in from organisations in 119 countries.

Essentially, Google.org sought ideas for projects that can use artificial intelligence or AI (“ability of a computer to act like a human being”) to address societal challenges. The successful applications, among others, had to present ideas for projects with “potential for impact, scalability, feasibility and the responsible use of AI”.

The Makerere idea is described by Google.org thus: “Air pollution is a major contributor to poor health and mortality in developing countries. Tracking spatial and temporal pollution patterns is essential to combating it, but can be difficult in low-resource environments. Researchers from Makerere University will apply AI to data from low-cost air sensors installed on motorcycle taxis and other locations around Kampala to help improve air quality monitoring and forecasting and inform future interventions.”

On top of the pile of cash, the researchers behind the idea from Makerere’s College of Computing and Information Sciences will, among others, also receive coaching from Google’s AI experts, and participate in a customised six-month Google Developers Launchpad Accelerator programme to jumpstart their work.

I see a regional, even continental, centre of excellence on all things computing emerging around the College of Computing at Makerere. Someone needs to nurture it.

If you want to know how thus far the College of Computing became “a place with an impressive number of skilled researchers who have created and sustained a vibrant and robust computer science base”, google up a 2018 paper titled, The Rise of Computing Research in East Africa: The Relationship Between Funding, Capacity and Research Community in a Nascent Field (Full disclosure: one of the five authors, G. Pascal Zachary, is a friend).

If I were to set a new challenge for the good geeks, it would be to use AI to reduce accidents on Uganda’s highways. So far it seems the researchers are focused on urban areas with their “robust traffic flow monitoring” work.

New research now shows that many more Ugandans are perishing on the roads than previously thought. Preliminary research findings released by Makerere’s School of Public Health — on the same day the university was soaking in the good news from Google — shows that 9,000 people die in traffic accidents on Uganda’s roads every year, a number three times higher than previously thought, based on police reporting. This study, in other words, did a more painstaking job tracking the numbers than police do because some deaths that occur after an accident are not reported to the authorities.

We may be many, reproducing at one of the fastest rates in the world, but that is no reason to die fwaa as if we are correcting for the rapid population growth Malthusian-style.

It was a very good week indeed for Makerere. It produced the kind of news one expects to hear regularly from a top university. And the basis of the news was work that actually seeks to address real problems — air pollution and deadly traffic accidents — affecting just about everyone in the country. That is called relevance.
Hats off.

Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.
bernard.tabaire@gmail.com
Twitter:@btabaire

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