(Published - 25 October 2018)
“Most researchers still measure our productivity and impact in terms of metrics like journal articles and citations - but really, you don’t need to have a single publication to contribute to the quest for knowledge, or to have a real impact on the world. What you need are good ideas, a grasp of the real problems people face, and the willingness to make a difference.”
So said Professor Alan Christoffels, Director of the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) and the SARChI Chair in Bioinformatics and Human Health Genomics - and a celebrated researcher in his own right. He was speaking at the University of the Western Cape’s UWC research Week 2018, a look at how and why to make research count.
Prof Christoffels was one of several speakers who highlighted the importance of taking research away from its university context and applying it where it matters most.
Universities aren’t just about knowledge production and creating fancy technology - they’re also about knowledge transfer,” noted Dr Janine Chantson, Director of the UWC Technology Transfer Office (TTO). “And ultimately, whatever we transfer, we want it to have an impact in our society.”
Launched in 2012, the TTO helps promote the development, protection and commercialisation of intellectual property by the University’s research community, staff and students alike - and to encourage and help entrepreneurs and startups.
Some of the innovations the TTO has promoted, and which were highlighted at Research Week 2018, include...
Zenzeleni: Community Co-Ops For Cheap Communication
“South Africa has one of the lowest levels of household internet access in the world,” noted Prof Shaun Pather, Deputy Dean: Research at UWC’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences.
“But the digital divide is about more than just universal access - especially in rural South Africa, where infrastructure is scarce and mobile networks can be prohibitively expensive. The digital divide is also about how ICTs facilitate social and economic outcomes amongst the poor.”
Case in point: life in Mankosi - a tiny cluster of villages in Ward 26 of the Nyandeni Municipality of the Eastern Cape with around 3500 people, low access to services, low income (avg. R388/month) and low levels of education (13% of people with completed matric) - and where 15% of the population reported they sacrificed on basic food to use mobile phone services in 2012, before the launch of the Zenzeleni project.
“The Zenzeleni project is about developing an innovative bottom-up community ownership model to address the ‘true access gap’ in rural South Africa - because normal market forces will not address the rural divide,” Prof Pather said.
The Zenzeleni project was initiated through a PhD study and subsequent post-doc research at UWC. Today it comprises a partnership between the University, the Community and Zenzeleni Not-For-Profit. The project has brought affordable access to broadband internet to a community that is largely poverty stricken. In rural Mankosi, the network covers 30km2 and is made up of several WiFi access points scattered around ‘safe’ homes in the community (there‘s been no theft). The access points run open-source firmware and software, and the entire system is powered by solar panels installed on the roofs of the host homes.
“With the Zenzeleni Project, we empowered local communities, and helped a rural community build South Africa’s first ISP owned and run by a cooperative.”
SignSupport: Apps To Help The Deaf Be Heard
SignSupport is a mobile assistive app designed with - and for - Deaf people. It helps them understand, through sign language videos, instructions from a pharmacist or doctor who can hear but cannot sign. Pre-recorded videos in South African Sign Language (SASL), which cater for a range of medical needs, are loaded onto phones and can be accessed via the app. The app suite includes an authoring tool to create additional scenarios, and a mobile video relay.
Prof Tucker ought to know - he’s head of the Bridging Application and Network Gaps (BANG) team that runs both the Zenzeleni and SignSupport project. BANG and their partners (including DeafSA Western Cape, National Institute for the Deaf, Deaf Community of Cape Town) tried to address three research questions.
Firstly: How to provide affordable and accessible video information and communication to Deaf people?
“Universities are not software factories,” he says. “Neither are the Deaf communities we work with. So we not only need to build the technology, we need to build in sustainability - students graduate, academics leave, and the problem remains.”
Secondly: How to design and evaluate human computer interfaces with and for marginalised deaf people?
“SASL is very rich - meaning relies on gesture, speed, force, body language, facial expressions. Moreover, SASL dialects can be very locally dependent, and It’s hard to get all that across - but our partners have been extremely helpful with that.”
The final research question is the toughest: How to transfer the research into actual use by deaf people in South Africa?
“ICT is not a silver bullet,” Prof Tucker notes. “All these apps are great, but we need to go through the right steps and work with the right people in the right way to get to the point where we can ethically offer it to people. But the Zenzeleni project gives us hope that it can be done.”
How To Be A Health Activist: Life Skills For Learners
TB and HIV are major epidemics challenging South Africa. At least 50% of people who are HIV positive also have TB – and TB prevalence is the highest in the Western Cape. How can school learners make sense of this terrible scourge in their society which affects many of them in a direct and personal way? And what general lessons can they learn from trying to grapple with this issue?
To help address this problem, UWC launched its “How to be a Health Activist” Lifeskills Resources Kit - a workbook and DVD that contains stories, games, crossword puzzles, videos and more.
“The book aims to build life skills among learners with a view to respond to disease. Specifically, issues of stigma and peer pressure are central to building confidence. The plan was not to launch another textbook - we weren’t replacing learning, but enhancing it,” said Prof Christoffels, SANBI Director. “And teachers also didn’t want another HIV textbook - they already had piles of them they weren’t using anymore.”
The project curriculum covers such important matters as the history of TB, the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS, how to manage depression and stress, health and fitness, social and environmental responsibility, and careers in the field of TB research and treatment. Problem-solving and considered decision-making are encouraged through learning.
“Using the lens of TB, we helped learners to wrap their heads around depression and stress, activities to promote health, family issues and problem-solving - it’s a multi-purpose project. And that’s not even counting how many learners used it as a supplementary text to learn a second language - and one comment that stands out is the fact that learners had their books at home and report that there is no other reading material in their homes,” notes Prof Christoffels.
“Community engagement requires partnerships that build trust, and promote a sense of ownership and sustainability. Build something useful enough, and it may even have other benefits.”
Do you want to know more about UWC’s innovations? Or maybe you have a great idea for a world-changing technology? Why not contact the Technology Transfer Office (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit their website to find out more?