DigitalSkills2023:Editor's Preface

The NEMISA Digital Skills Conference (Colloquium) 2023 and the associated events (Postgraduate Symposium and Technology Innovation session) were held between 15-17 February 2023 at the Coastlands Umhlanga Hotel & Convention Centre in Durban, hosted by the Durban University of Technology (DUT) in collaboration with the Knowledge for Innovation unit (K4I) at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa (NEMISA).

A total of 496 delegates (184 in person and 312 virtually through Zoom) attended the three collocated events (Conference, Postgraduate Symposium and Technology Innovation), bringing together thought leaders, policymakers, software developers, technology enthusiasts, industry leaders, academics, students, social entrepreneurs, leaders of non-government organisations and innovation hubs to address how to scale data skills for multidisciplinary impact. The virtual delegates joined from two continents and six countries, including South Africa; Eswatini, Ethiopia, Germany, Kenya and Nigeria.

The purpose of the colloquium and events centred around the central role that data plays today as a desirable commodity that must become an important part of massifying digital skilling efforts. Governments amass even more critical data that, if leveraged, could change the way public services are delivered and even change the social and economic fortunes of any country. Therefore, smart governments and organisations increasingly require data skills to gain insights and foresight, secure themselves, and for improved decision-making and efficiency. However, data skills are scarce and even more challenging is the inconsistency of the associated training programs, with most curated for the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Nonetheless, the interdisciplinary yet agnostic nature of data means that there is an opportunity to expand data skills into the non-STEM disciplines as well.

A total of 18 submissions were received for the colloquium, of which 12 were accepted as full research papers after a double-blind peer review process, representing a 66.7% acceptance rate. The average peer review rate was 2.43, which means that each research paper was reviewed by at least two reviewers with some having more reviews.

Thato Ditsele, Wallace Chigona, and Malebo Sephodi investigated the sentiment of South African Twitter users towards COVID-19 vaccines. The study provides valuable insights for policymakers and healthcare organizations to shape effective strategies for promoting vaccine adoption. Papama Mtambeka, Chimwemwe Queen Mtegha, Wallace Chigona, and Teofelus Tonateni Tuyeni delved into the factors that affect students' compliance with universities' cybersecurity measures. The study provides insights into how universities can better protect their critical infrastructures and students against cyberattacks. Prince Zaqueu and Tendani Mawela's identified the contributing factors for successful cybersecurity awareness, education, and training programs. The study offers several recommendations towards effective cybersecurity awareness, education, and training.

Vengai Musanga and Colin Chibaya proposed a machine learning model to forecast employee churn in organizations. Employee churn can be harmful to the quality of services, productivity, and customer loyalty. Therefore, retaining valuable employees is crucial for organizations. The authors used feature selection methods combined with strong classification models to predict employee churn. The results revealed that random forest is the most accurate in predicting employee churn. Siphiwe Mndebele and Thembekile Mayayise presented a systematic literature review that investigated the challenges and impacts of implementing machine learning in the financial services sector. The authors used three databases to search for relevant sources and conducted a thematic analysis. The review shows that more complex models are implemented in all the identified financial services sectors, followed by support vector machines. The paper concludes that data quality is crucial for predicting the performance, efficiency, and accuracy of the model.

Julia Keddie, Renette Blignaut, Fallo Kanye, Lieven De Marez, and Simon Perneel, investigated the use of the mobileDNA application to explore location information. The authors examined the behaviour of mobileDNA users in terms of where, when, and how they utilized their smartphones daily. Elias Tabane investigated the use of dimensionality reduction techniques in machine learning to diagnose heart diseases in South Africa. The paper provides an overview of the different techniques and highlights the importance of considering the interpretability of the results and potential biases in the data and algorithms.

Marungwane Leshego Mogale evaluated the impact of organizational resources and big data analytics on the business performance of South African e-commerce SMMEs. The author used a systematic approach to literature and identifies key organizational resources that enable the use of big data analytics. These resources include IT infrastructure, IT human resources, financial resources, risk-taking, innovativeness, and proactiveness. The paper develops a conceptual framework that may be tested in future research using empirical data.

Nixon Muganda Ochara analyzed how the emerging digitalization issues might be philosophically understood from a systems viewpoint. The paper identified five systemic digitalization challenges, including the circular economy, cyberphysical systems, sharing economy, digital transformation, and smart systems. The author used five systems metaphors to investigate the challenges. Priscilla Maliwichi, Wallace Chigona, Address Malata, and Karen Sowon explored the challenge of low mobile phone ownership among women in poor-resource settings. The authors investigated how maternal healthcare clients who do not own mobile phones negotiate access to mobile phones for maternal healthcare in rural Malawi.

Nkosikhona Msweli focused on the competencies required to teach data science in a higher learning institution. She examined instructors' perceptions of their skills and competencies in teaching data science, which is a developing topic. Sibukele Gumbo and Hossana Twinomurinzi explored the challenge of improving the completion rate of self-paced online learning courses, particularly in the context of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) skills development in South Africa. The authors reported on the strategy implemented to improve the course completion rate of a self-selected sample of students who attended face-to-face data science introduction workshops.

The conference was officially opened by the Acting Deputy Director General of the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), Ms Nonkqubela Thathakahle Jordan-Dyani on behalf of the Deputy Minister, My Philly Mapulane. She extended a warm welcome to all the partners of NEMISA who are committed to achieving the digital skills mandate, as well as the researchers who will be leading the way forward. Ms Jordan-Dyani emphasized the importance of addressing the curriculum and access to higher education to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to develop the digital skills needed in today's world. She challenged NEMISA to fast-track the importance of digital skills in a changing world that is being driven by advanced digital technologies. With the skills South Africa already has, talent is not the challenge. What is needed is to share research findings and knowledge to enable everyone to benefit. She decried the silos in government and urged NEMISA to share the learnings from the conference widely through digital platforms. How can advanced digital technologies be filtered down to the every South African? This was a question she posed, as she highlighted the need to address the current challenges facing South Africa, such as unemployment, poverty, and socioeconomic equity. Skills development is a crucial part of South Africa's advancement, including responsive innovation to meet local demands. Achieving this requires strong partnerships from different sectors of society, including the rural areas. Addressing the issue of male dominance in the ICT field and making data and infrastructure more widely available are critical components of this effort. Ms Jordan-Dyani concluded by encouraging NEMISA to share the results and outcomes of the conference for others to draw upon. With everyone working together, South Africa can move forward with confidence and ensure that no one is left behind in the digital age.

Ms Cheryl Benadie, in her keynote, emphasized the importance of focusing on the humans behind the data, science, and technology. Specifically, she brought attention to the area of wellness, which is often overlooked in the rapidly changing and advancing technology space. Ms. Benadie noted that the younger generations have grown up in a world where technology and reality are not distinguished, leading to a sense of disconnection from the real world. Shockingly, suicide has become the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-24, with the Gen Z facing a crisis of identity. Ms. Benadie called for purpose to be considered a critical digital skill for the younger generation to help combat this issue. It is crucial to connect the head and the heart to create a sense of wholeness among the Gen Z, who are more prone to burnout and stress. Ms. Benadie observed that technology can sometimes overshadow the humanity of people, leading to a loss of connection. Finally, she noted that jobs are becoming increasingly fluid, making it difficult to guarantee employment after completing studies – this is also a significant stressor today.

The second keynote was offered by Dr Mark Nasila, the Chief Data Analytics Officer at the First Rand Group. Dr Nasila underscored the need to adopt new thinking in order to create a better future. He highlighted the importance of how advanced technologies such as AI are introduced into organisation and emphasized the social aspects that must be considered in doing so. Dr Nasila compared how over $16 trillion is being invested in bringing AI into organizations worldwide, with China and the USA leading the way. He stressed the importance of skilling people to be a part of this wave of investment and to trust in AI. He also spoke about the ethical implications of AI, including the fear of job losses, and laboured the need for leaders to repurpose people into new roles that machines will not take over. The keynote speech expressed confidence that NEMISA's investment in AI skilling will pay off and contribute to a better future for South Africa.

Prof Leona Craffert, who chaired the panel session, offered an overview of the Digital Skills Framework (DSF) created in 2013, highlighting how the DSF provides an organizing framework on digital skills in South Africa, ranging from basic to advanced high-tech digital skills. Mr Trevor Rammitlwa, the CEO facilitated the panel, identifying how the transformation South Africa is going through is making digital skills essential across the board. However, there is a fragmentation of how digital skills are being approached, and the DSF serves as a means of bringing together different perspectives on digital skills. Prof Debbie Collier, an expert in Labour Law who works on digital work, the platform economy, and recently with Labour Unions and Nedlac on the regulatory (or policy) aspects of digital skills, noted that context plays a significant role in the world of work, and the strategy to roll out digital skills and the framework for digital skills need to interact in the holistic world of work. Andy Searly, Director of Paladin Consulting and the original founder of the Digital Work Accelerator initiative,  provided a perspective from industry on digital skills as part of collective action, noting the challenges of speed and scale demanded for skills for the market. He found that digital skills need to start at the primary level, extending to the workplace. The framework provides a common language and pathway to connect different paths a person may want to take, offering certainty to industry about what to expect from graduates of programs designed around the framework. Mr John April, Director in the Office of the CEO for QCTO, noted that the framework offers an opportunity to respond to the growing demand for digital skills, helping to set standards against which to develop content and qualifications, including verification and authentication. Mr Mlindi Mashologu, DDG for the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies (DCDT), emphasized that from a policy perspective, a digitally skilled society needs to have a reference point in the Future Skills plan of South Africa, which is supported by the ministry. Failing to have a digitally skilled population by 2030 risks alienation from a global society, a massive loss of jobs, and failure to be a competitive nation. Finally, it was mentioned that NEMISA has been working on an online platform from which digital skills are delivered. In conclusion, the panel discussed the importance of the DSF framework, which offers a common language between stakeholders, addresses the urgency of skills development, and emphasizes the need to prioritize areas to ensure a digitally skilled population in South Africa.

The Technology Innovation session was a culmination of the NEMISA Datathon held in November 2023 under the same theme of “Scaling data skills for multidisciplinary impact”. The datathon resulted in five talented winning teams being selected. It is noteworthy that each of these teams hailed from a different province of South Africa, including Mpumalanga, Gauteng, North West, Limpopo, and Free State. Over the course of two months following their victory, each team worked tirelessly with an innovation hub and mentors to refine their solution and compete for the ultimate winner prize at the conference. The panel of judges who evaluated their submissions was composed of esteemed professionals in the field, bringing a high level of expertise and credibility to the selection process. These judges were: Mr Tiyani Nghonyama (Geekulcha), Mr Tumelo Baloyi (Monolith), Dr Naomi Isabirye (University of the Witwatersrand) and Dr Banele Mhlongo (Department of Health).

The postgraduate symposium provided a facilitative platform for three emerging researchers to showcase their work, to network, and to engage with seasoned academics and practitioners. Chimwemwe Queen Mtegha from the University of Cape Town presented her research on institutional factors in government agencies that affect the realisation of national cybersecurity capacity-building outcomes. She drew from Malawi. Thaneshni Moodley from the Durban University of Technology presented on a framework to observe and analyse customer experience on the Twitter platform using machine learning techniques. Teofelus Tonateni Tuyeni also from the University of Cape Town discussed the research on identifying important factors that influence governments commitment to cybersecurity drawing from Namibia.

There were two workshops; one was on Natural Language Processing and Sentiment Analysis by Prof Colin Thakur and Ms Yassen Khan, and the other on Statistical Analysis using R by Dr Lateef Amusa and Ms Sibukele Gumbo. The Natural Language Processing and Sentiment Analysis workshop provided the audience with an in-depth understanding of how to extract meaning from textual data, identifying patterns and trends, and analysing the sentiment behind written content. Similarly, the Statistical Analysis using R offered an introduction to the R programming language and its use in statistical analysis. The audience learned how to visualize, explore, and analyse complex data sets using various R packages and tools, as well as how to perform hypothesis testing and regression analysis. The hands-on approaches of both workshops were particularly helpful in delivering an appreciation of data skills used on real-world data sets.

The CEO of NEMISA closed the conference and expressed his thanks for the rich engagement that had happened at the conference from the postgraduate symposium right to the final session, the panel on the Digital Skills Framework. Digital transformation when done well is a benefit for society, and that mental wellness and wholeness are critical components of it.

Hossana Twinomurinzi
Nkosikhona Theoren Msweli
Colin Surendra Thakur
Tendani Mawela
15-17 February 2023
Coastlands Umhlanga Hotel & Convention Centre
Durban, South Africa