IBM Research has opened its second research location on the African continent and announced several new project collaborations in the areas of data driven healthcare, digital urban ecosystems and astronomy.

As part of a 10-year investment programme through the Department of Trade and Industry, and working closely with the Department of Science and Technology, the new research lab is based at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

“The launch of the IBM Research laboratory is an exciting milestone in the move towards a new era of globally competitive research, innovation and entrepreneurship that will be emerging out of the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein,” said Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits, Professor Adam Habib.

“Wits is delighted to be collaborating with IBM. We look forward to seeing top talent congregate to address the continent’s most intractable problems and work on the world’s next game changing technologies,” continued Prof Habib.

The two-level, 900 square metre lab is located in the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein and has a DIY maker space with electronic design equipment and a 3D printer.

The new lab features an Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) platform based on OpenStack connected to IBM Storwize for efficiently provisioning 80TB of storage for research projects.

Agile work spaces provide a collaborative environment for IBM scientists to train and mentor Wits students and local start-ups.

Developer communities across Africa will also have access, at no charge, to a LinuxONE Community Cloud located in Johannesburg, which acts as a virtual R&D engine for creating, testing and piloting emerging applications via the cloud.

IBM researchers in South Africa with backgrounds in machine learning, mathematics, computer science, robotics, genomics and computational biology, will further explore the use of cognitive computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data to support South Africa’s national priorities, drive skills development and foster innovation-based economic growth.

“South Africa is a tremendous growth and transformation story, yet its increasing population and healthcare delivery shortfalls continue to pose challenges in the country,” said Director, IBM Research – Africa, Solomon Assefa.

“With the ability to detect patterns and discover new correlations, cognitive and cloud computing and the IoT can provide potential solutions,” continued Assefa.

The lab’s team of scientists is already collaborating extensively with local universities, research institutions, innovation centres, start-ups and government agencies. This will help foster South Africa’s emerging technology ecosystem and develop and scale new innovations.

Aligned with areas of strategic national importance, the lab’s focus areas include a number of eHealth projects.

In support of the WHO’s End TB Strategy, IBM scientists are designing wearable sensor technology connected to the Watson IoT to trace the spread of highly infectious, communicable diseases. This innovation will help healthcare organisations and health officials develop prevention strategies and respond effectively.

IBM scientists are also developing cognitive learning approaches to transform cancer reporting, prevention and precision medicine in Africa. In a proof of concept study, IBM scientists have discovered a basic molecular link between cancer causing genes and those associated with metastasis, the cause of 90% of cancer related deaths. Preliminary results from this work have been presented recently. Using anonymous, unstructured data provided by the National Cancer Registry in South Africa and in collaboration with the University of Witwatersrand Medical School, the team is developing cognitive algorithms to automate the inference of national cancer statistics in South Africa. This technology is expected to reduce a five-year time lag in cancer statistics reporting to real-time.

With the support of the City of Johannesburg, IBM scientists have also collected 65 samples of microbes and bacteria from 19 bus stations across the city as part of the global Metagenomics and Metadesign of the Subways and Urban Biomes (MetaSUB) international consortium. Once the samples are processed the results will be available to city planners, public health officials and scientists who will use the data to help officials predict and prepare for future disease outbreaks and discover new species and biological systems.

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