Albert Einstein once said of problems; “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” He would later add, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”.
Einstein might not have realised it at the time but his comments are the foundation of the field of data science today – i.e. thoroughly interrogate the problem and then think about solving it in new and innovative ways.
“In the modern era, we have the ability to support human ingenuity with smart network technology, data and artificial intelligence to optimise problem solving through a co-ordinated and digitally efficient system,” says Stefan Steffen, Executive of Data Science at Telkom.
In this regard, says Steffen, Telkom is uniquely positioned to make a difference in South Africa using its data capabilities to solve the biggest challenges facing the country, whether in government or business.
It is this remarkable new ability to problem-solve that is attracting data scientists to Telkom, but their backgrounds may surprise you.
Jess Ferguson became a data scientist after a successful career as an occupational therapist. Tsholo Madi was an accountant and entrepreneur before she joined the Telkom team.
The reason? Being able to create solutions that can be scaled up.
“As an occupational therapist, I was able to help one patient at a time. Data science gave me a chance to make a difference in people’s lives – and for that to be scalable. It allows me to impact many more people through systemic change, not just individual change”.
Her colleague Tsholo agrees. “It’s about solving real-life problems. That resonated with me, as I’m a natural problem solver. Our role as data scientists is to innovate, to explore better possibilities and to provide data-driven solutions,” she says.
But the work isn’t just theory.
“Our artificial intelligence team is working in natural-language processing, building models to transcribe South African languages from voice into text,” says Steffen. “This lowers the barrier for access to education and healthcare services and addresses the inequalities learners face if English is not their mother tongue”.
Telkom is engaged in a range of projects making a difference across telecommunications and broader society.
An initiative as part of the Telkom Foundation focuses on promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) among high-school students.
“We use data to support school-subject programmes, digital skills, as well as learner wellness,” says Ferguson. “Data helps us identify trends, spot learners who may have learning challenges, and develop new modelling approaches.”
The Telkom data science teams also helped the Department of Health develop the COVIDConnect contact-tracing platform and they are working with BCX to build solutions for efficiencies in vaccine distribution.
However, the applications of data science solutions are also valuable to business.
“We do a lot of work across the Telkom Group in this area,” says Theo Scherman, Telkom data science lead. “It is 80% preparing data, and 20% actually getting results. If you get data quality right, the possibilities are almost limitless.”
And it is these limitless opportunities that could provide real business growth.
“Whether we are helping government to create procurement transparency to reduce corruption or supporting a company in reducing the risk of stock loss or fraud – there is no problem we are not prepared to tackle,” says Steffen.
But as Einstein pointed out, the trick is truly understanding the problem – and for that, you need the right people.
The development of Telkom’s data-science teams kicked off in early 2018, when Telkom partnered with the Explore Data Science Academy to support the training of aspiring applicants.
Since then, every year the Telkom Group hosts 100 interns supporting around 20 data science projects within the group environment and has employed more than 50 graduates across the organisation’s four data-science teams – data management, data engineering, analytics and artificial intelligence.
The data science revolution also supports Telkom’s Female Leadership Development Programme (FLDP), creating opportunities for dozens of women across the organisation with wide experience across adjacent sectors including Jess Ferguson and Tsholo Madi.
“Telkom has shown a great commitment to growing women leaders through the programme,” says Jess Ferguson, “Women leaders are empowered and it provides a strong foundation for ongoing development.”