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Study to focus on computer science and innovation in Kenya, Uganda

Jameson Wetmore
September 25, 2013

A grant announced this month from the National Science Foundation seeks to understand how African computer science is developing in Kenya and Uganda and the role it plays in supporting innovation in those countries.

Over the past decade, a significant computer science research community has been quietly emerging in sub-Saharan Africa, and with it the potential to fuel new and transformative innovation. Computer science and engineering underlie numerous innovations – from mobile phones to geographic information systems – that are reshaping critical infrastructure in Africa for communication, banking and transportation. This, in turn, is reshaping the everyday lives of Africans living in both urban and rural areas.

Jameson Wetmore, principal investigator on the NSF project and associate professor from the School for Human Evolution and Social Change, wants to help chart the transition from Africans simply absorbing advanced science and technology to building some of their own. Why choose to study computer science first? “Computer Science is a technical field that doesn’t require big labs and costly equipment,” Wetmore says. “So it may be possible for African countries to develop local capacity for CS at a faster rate than some other scientific fields. This means that CS could have a big impact on innovation and technology in sub-Saharan Africa in the coming years.”

An experienced team

The study analyzes important developments in the construction of an African computer science capacity by examining prominent computer science departments in two countries in East Africa: Makerere University in Uganda and University of Nairobi in Kenya. The project team has extensive experience conducting research in sub-Saharan Africa and has a network of contacts in both countries.

Co-principal investigator Gregg Zachary has been studying innovation in sub-Saharan Africa for more than ten years. Recently, he identified the emergence of computer science at Makarere University, in Kampala, Uganda, as an important potential example of how local science programs could produce innovations with a distinctive African character.

“African innovators still battle negative stereotypes,” says Zachary, a professor of practice in ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. “While computer science is important as a formal academic discipline and a source of innovation, this study also provides a valuable new way of thinking about African innovation capabilities.”

ASU is partnering with Concordia University in Montreal on this project. Matthew Harsh, a co-principal investigator, has analyzed the innovation system surrounding agricultural biotechnology in Kenya, with a focus on national policy frameworks. He has undertaken similar surveys of innovation systems on how digital technology has changed science communication and collaboration in Kenya. Harsh is an assistant professor in the Centre for Engineering in Society at Concordia.

Making connections, sharing knowledge

The main goal of the research is to understand how computer science capacity is being built in Kenya and Uganda and how this capacity is connected to socially and economically relevant innovation.

Researchers often report on the success of knowledge and technological infrastructure that is created internationally and brought to Africa, mainly by private companies. Evidence suggests, however, that computer science expertise and innovative capacity are being created locally. And according to recent studies of science and technology policy, local capacity is critical for the creation of relevant and long-lasting innovations and economic benefits.

“Usually when researchers go to Africa, it is to provide aid, or to bring over a technology that has been developed in the West,” says Zachary. “What we want to do with this project is look at how knowledge is being created in Africa first. We want to study their system and we hope to find lessons there that we can take back with us, instead of the other way around.

“By combining our research program with the knowledge that is being created in sub-Saharan Africa today, we hope to gain a better understanding of how local CS identity is being created and also to build lasting connections to such an exciting and burgeoning innovation system,” he adds.