When I spoke with Professor Joseph Muliaro Wafula, the Director of JKUAT’s ICT Centre of Excellence and Open Data (iCEOD), one phrase he uttered distinctively stood out; “Data is the new oil, and there’s an impending data revolution coming.” His sentiments could never be truer especially in a generation so tech-savvy and which has witnessed countless advancements in Information Communication Technology.
That Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology is a trendsetter in technology is not news anymore. It’s no brainer, and you’ll agree with me that this is not a mere partisan opinion but a simple statement of fact. What should form an object of discussion and debate therefore is how has the University managed this far to achieve this milestone? And of even the most significance is what exactly the University is doing to ensure they don’t get complacent but further improve on this. This is exactly where Prof. Joseph Wafula comes in. Saying he has been very instrumental in streamlining the ICT landscape of the University would be a huge understatement and a disservice to his priceless contribution. It would therefore come as no surprise that in his efforts to ensure iCEOD fulfills its mandate, he recently became a recipient of the prestigious IBM Shared University Research Award to support his Open Data Cloud project.
Through the award, IBM is set to make available Software Specialists and Consultants to provide the best practices as pertains analytics capabilities focused on three main key areas; Platforms Setup and Support Services on Bluemix, Technical Resources and Documentation as well as Knowledge and Skills Transfer. So what exactly does this award mean to Prof. Wafula and what opportunities does it bring to the University community and the country as a whole?
What has been your core mandate at iCEOD?
The Centre has three key goals. One is to ensure we offer state of the art skills and technology in ICT, and we do this through collaboration with industry partners such as IBM, Microsoft, Google, Huawei and many others. We especially invest in these industry partnerships because ICT is a dynamic field which evolves everyday thus not everything can be covered through the academic syllabus. Our goal therefore is to ensure that by the time our students graduate, they are ready to fit in the job market. This trainings are usually not only for students but members of staff as well. Some of the areas of focus in these trainings include cyber security, big data analytics, and mobile application technologies among others. We train and certify people in these areas.
What are the current efforts of the Centre as pertains Open Data?
In the research efforts of the Centre, we are currently pushing very hard to be frontiers in opening up data, because data has actually become the new oil and the beauty of it is that this new oil is renewable. We’re living in a time that data is so abundant but is not fully harnessed. As a Centre we are championing principles of open data and we’re working to bring on board several people so as to fuel a data revolution. We’re working with experts and several stakeholders to accomplish this.
Has there been any success so far in these efforts?
First I have to mention that as a country we do not have an open data policy at a national level and this has a trickle-down effect where institutions are dragging their feet as pertains to embracing these new approaches. On the brighter side and to answer your question, I’m glad to report that iCEOD has taken leadership and initiative by driving the process of drafting an open data policy, which was adopted February this year. This is called JKUAT Open Research Data Policy (JORD). This means now its mandatory for anyone upon publishing their research work to post their data on this platform. So I can cite this as a major success because in the vacuum of national instruments, we have been able to see the vision and importance of this, and the University has embraced it.
You were recently awarded by IBM following your Open Data Cloud Project. How does this fit in your personal efforts and the mandate of iCEOD?
Well, first let me say this has been a very big honour to me, and I have to express my sincerest gratitude to IBM and the University management for making this possible. Through the award, we are now going to set up, in partnership with IBM, a cloud set up, the first one of its kind in the whole world, for research data. We are going to be the first University to use this and store our data with unlimited space. On this platform there will be the latest analytics tools for data, infinite data storage for various research areas, and ability to use and reuse data among many other provisions. I envision many people being able to do more research because this is basically going to be a complete data ecosystem. It will also ensure that there will be no more repetitive mark timing when it comes to research.
What does this platform mean to the students and staff fraternity of JKUAT?
It means they can now not only publish their research works and data on this platform, but also have access to unlimited data to facilitate their work as well as relevant latest analytic tools. This means we will be expecting more quality research work, not only from students but also other researchers. This will also see more publications by the University, which shall further improve its ranking. Every graduation we see thousands graduate, all of whom accomplish various research works. This platform will ensure their work live on. It will also significantly contribute towards ensuring the University lives up to its identity as a global institution of higher learning.
What is the timeline for making this cloud platform a reality?
We expect the platform to be up and ready by the end of July this year because everything has already been put into motion.
Will any training be necessary for people be able to use the cloud data platform and are there any plans to that effect?
Definitely yes. We want to do a lot of trainings and sensitization for the scientists and potential users of this platform. We want to structure and furnish people with skills on how to work on it. Aspects like data curation, data planning, analyzation, preservation and so many other aspects are very key to enabling people use the technology effectively.
What do you envision for the ICT landscape in the University going forward as pertains to the quality of knowledge, skills and exposure given to the students?
As I’d mentioned in the beginning, we have put in place several measures to ensure our students get the very best, but I believe we can always do better. There’s always room for improvement because this University subscribes to quality and nothing else. Once this cloud data platform is up we are going to have regular scheduled hackathons, where the students will be able to spearhead solutions to various social problems, and this platform will be one of convergence, bringing on board people from various disciplines and careers.
The IBM award is usually awarded to a researcher in an institution which has IBM academic initiative. The highly competitive award is usually given on merit after proof that a research work has a lot to gain from a collaboration with IBM in terms of resources and technical backstopping. Prof. Wafula is now a two-time recipient of this award, having received the first award in 2014 to train on mobile development and cyber security. The current award will now entail the building of the cloud data infrastructure.