AI: A Force for Good

Published on 4th May 2021

Despite ongoing discussions around minimising the risk of bias in the technology, artificial intelligence (AI) can help address some of Africa’s most pressing issues. Whether it is in healthcare, education, sustainability, or even social development in general, Kelly Lu, Lead on Advanced Analytics and Artificial Intelligence, ‎SAS in South Africa, believes that AI can be a force for good on the continent.
“Data by itself is meaningless. This is where innovative technology like AI can awaken data’s true potential. Using sophisticated algorithms, it is possible to transform the raw data into intelligence much more efficiently than in the past. In turn, this can be used to empower and inspire people across Africa,” says Lu.
Benefitting healthcare
For instance, a mental health centre in Canada is using predictive analytics to improve care and streamline operations. It does so by capturing meaningful information about the state of mental illness to better measure and improve health outcomes. Amongst other things, it analyses emergency department visits to better predict activity and devises the right care models and process optimisation projects to accommodate future needs.
“Now imagine if hospitals across Africa can inject the same level of AI-driven predictive analytics into their care facilities to support patients better. Of course, there are still significant infrastructure challenges to overcome, but the potential is there to radically improve the quality-of-care patients receive across the continent,” says Lu.
Access to education
In certain parts of Africa, much attention continues to be placed on higher education and the costs associated to it. However, an initiative such as SAS Viya is designed to provide educators and students with free access to advanced analytics software for teaching and learning data science skills. Learners have access to a full suite of cloud-based software that supports the entire analytics lifecycle from data to discovery to deployment.
“Upskilling and reskilling people for a data-driven environment will be one of the most critical challenges to address not only in developing countries across Africa but more advanced markets as well. Globally, there is a dearth in skilled data professionals and programmes such as SAS Viya can help address this need,” adds Lu.
Defending Africa’s wildlife
AI can even potentially help protect animals from extinction by recreating some of the skills used by indigenous trackers. There is much to be learned by monitoring the footprints of endangered species like the cheetah, for example where are they going or how many are left.
Lu explains, “With deep learning, given enough data, a computer can be trained to perform human-like tasks such as identifying footprint images and recognising patterns in a similar way to indigenous trackers. However, it has the added ability to apply these concepts at a much larger scale and more rapid pace. Analytics underpins this and can potentially give insights into species populations that are critical to ensure they are kept safe.”
Life changing solutions for people
Data analysis is also crucial to the level of response humanitarian organisations can provide. When the Nepal earthquake struck in 2015, an international aid organisation needed to provide shelter to thousands of displaced families. Data collection and analytics allowed responders to assess conditions across hundreds of evacuation centres, and identify which camps were the most vulnerable and in need of food, medicine, education, and shelter.
“Given many of the humanitarian challenges faced in Africa, insights like these can often mean the difference between life and death. AI is therefore more than just a technology that helps analyse information at scale. It has the potential to fundamentally enhance people’s lives through any number of potential initiatives,” concludes Lu.

By Kelly Lu, 
Lead on Advanced Analytics and Artificial Intelligence, ‎SAS in South Africa,


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