A PyCon in Namibia: a step towards better software and better research in Africa?

Posted by s.sufi on 15 February 2016 - 10:01am

by Vincent Knight, Institute Fellow and Lecturer in Operational Research, School of Mathematics, Cardiff University

From the 25th till the 29th of January the University of Namibia (UNAM) hosted PyCon Namibia. This brought together more than 100 delegates from a variety of backgrounds and countries: USA, UK, Canada, Holland, Brazil, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and of course Namibia were all represented with 63 UNAM students and 30 local DjangoGirls attendees.



The conference was a great success, whilst it was not just aimed at researchers (many of the attendees were from local industry), it involved academic research based talks on the study of queues, the simulation of quantum systems, game theory and even a lightning talk about the Sustainable Software Institute itself. One talk, given by a recent Namibian graduate described his work understanding the highly congested set of queues that appear during the student registration process. This work involved, Python, Django and the mathematical analysis of queues. For a full description of the event you can read the report at the official conference website.

The local industrial attendees included the Praekelt foundation and Bika Health which use Python to deliver better healthcare in southern Africa. Amongst other things, the Praekelt foundation developed a mobile phone based solution to help expecting mothers with their healthcare needs. Bika Health develop an open source laboratory information system to ensure high quality medical laboratory testing.

The conference received support from a number of partners but the main one is Cardiff University’s Phoenix Project. The PyCon is one of many projects carried out in partnership between Cardiff University and the University of Namibia, the fundamental goal is not to promote Python but to support development of the open source software community in Namibia. Ensuring that software is not just consumed but produced for and by the African people.

At present the local community is still young but is eager to develop in multiple dimensions. The PyCon being heavily supported by the academic community, one of these dimensions is academic research and teaching. For example, the medical school at the University of Namibia is just reaching maturity and discussions are underway about how to best support the software needs pertaining to statistical research.

Some of the needs will require appropriate training in best practice. On a concrete level, no doubt, continuing to support the development of Python as well as the use of R would benefit the young research community.

The PyCon this year was not the end, but the beginning, plans are already underway to organise PyCon Namibia 2017. This would be an ideal opportunity to perhaps run a software carpentry workshop and/or further develop connections between the Namibian and UK research community. The lessons that will be learned along the way will no doubt aid in understanding how best to create a global practice of better software and better research.

You can read the conference report at the official conference website.