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The School of Natural and Applied Science (NAS) at Sol Plaatje University (SPU) has launched its Centre for Applied Data Science (CADS) at the SPU South Campus. The launch took place on Tuesday 1 November 2022.

The CADS seeks to promote interdisciplinary research and collaboration within the University and with external communities, and also to promote teaching, learning, and training of applied data science to solve developmental challenges faced locally, nationally, regionally, and globally.

Speaking at the launch, Professor Aifheli Gelebe, Head of the NAS School, said the CADS will adhere to SPU’s values by promoting a culture of collaboration and multidisciplinary work, ethical behaviour and integrity, non-hierarchical-based work, and innovation and disruptive thinking. 

Prof Gelebe welcomed officials and emphasised the importance of being a research-active university which seeks to address the world’s sustainability goals while also reducing poverty and inequality. “The School of NAS is deeply committed to the advancement of the South African social project through the provision of first-class education in a first-class way, and to the development of a reputation as a bold, courageous, relevant and research-led international School of scientific, academic excellence.”

He also said the CADS aims to be a world-class research centre for applied data science that empowers society to make informed decisions. “The centre will motivate focus and coherence to how data is sourced, generated, managed, and used to advance the four niche areas in NAS, as well as other disciplines within the institution.”

The four niche areas in NAS are biodiversity conservation and agriculture in arid zones; emerging technologies, data science and cyber security; environmental science, climate change and renewable energy; and sustainable resource management for sustainable livelihoods.

Professor Andrew Crouch, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of SPU, delivered the keynote address and provided background information on the project and an overview of the University’s strategic plan. “In 2019 SPU received a R4.5million investment from Absa to support the University’s and the Northern Cape’s endeavour to develop the field of data science,” Prof Crouch said. He went on to highlight the importance of building on partnerships, which are part of the University’s sustainability matrix, and thanked Absa for their partnership on the centre. “They had the foresight to invest in the University. I trust this partnership and relationship will be a long, enduring one.”

Prof Crouch provided statistics on how data science as a subject has grown at SPU. “Since its inception in 2015 with 26 students, the programme has grown steadily over the years to an enrolment of 91 students in 2022, and an overall total of 454 enrolment in the eight years of the programme running. A total of 54 students have graduated since 2017, and this is equivalent to 14% of the overall total graduates in the School since the beginning of the University.”

A BSc Honours in Data Science was introduced in 2019 to provide continued growth in the field for SPU students and other people in the field.

Dr Silas Verkijika, Acting Director for the Centre for Applied Data Science at SPU, highlighted the importance of data science. “We live in an era where all aspects of modern life contribute to data generation at an unprecedented rate a single day… We can sit back and recite numbers about the amount of data available, or make decisions to use these data and data-driven analysis to transform our world and contribute to its sustainable development,” he said.

Various stakeholders and funders attended the launch, including Prof Hossana Twinomurinzi, Director of the Centre for Applied Data Science at the University of Johannesburg (UJ); Dr Thomas September, Head of Regional Segment High Value and Premium Central Region at Absa; and Professor Kelvin Bwalya, Deputy Dean: Research at UJ. Prof Twinomurinzi pledged UJ’s support to SPU, saying, “Let’s collaborate, let’s work together; from this marriage there is a vision.”