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Conference Celebrates Statistics by the Sea

UKZN’s Women in Analytics, from left: Ms Arusha Desai, Professor Delia North, Dr Nombuso Zondo, Dr Danielle Roberts and Ms Nina Grundling.

Conference Celebrates Statistics by the Sea

The South African Statistical Association (SASA) – in partnership with UKZN – hosted its 64 th Annual Conference in Durban during a week-long event celebrating statistics by the sea!

The event, attended by more than 200 delegates, was jampacked with activities that included seven workshops, six plenary speakers and 20 themed sessions with a highlight being a Business Breakfast focusing on talent connection and workforce development in the data era.

In her welcome address, UKZN Statistician and Chair of the Local Organising Committee Professor Delia North said the conference provided a platform for statisticians, analytic experts and data scientists from South Africa and abroad to share research, discuss ideas and establish collaborative partnerships.

President of SASA Professor Inger Fabris-Rotelli stressed the importance of building community through participation in various organisations such as the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS); the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP); the Statistics Supervision Network in South Africa (StratSNetSA); and the Mathematical
Sciences Strategic Alliance.

Plenary speakers included Dr Mark Glickman of Harvard University in the United States (US), whose love for music inspired him to explore the disputed authorship of songwriting duo John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the founding members of the Beatles, developing a prediction model based on the song’s musical features. Professor Maxim Finkelstein of the University of the Free State, discussed virtual age and its reliability; Professor Dennis Lin of the University of Purdue in the US examined the impact of data science to the real world, especially in relation to artificial intelligence; while Professor Tertius de Wet of Stellenbosch University reviewed the Extreme Value Theory as a probability analysis that implores “beautiful” mathematics.

In her keynote address, North shared UKZN’s plan to build relevant data skills for industry through the establishment of a BSc Data Science programme, a Postgraduate Diploma in Data Science targeted at individuals in the workplace, and a Coursework Master’s degree in Data Science. She highlighted initiatives she had founded yearly since 2020 to promote statistics, namely the Women in Analytics; Dudes in Data; Teachers4DataAnalytics; and DataAnalytics4Industry.

DataAnalytics4Industry made its debut at this year’s SASA conference with a Business Breakfast chaired by Director of Education at the Statistical Analysis System (SAS) Institute Mr Murray de Villiers who defined talent connection as ‘industry and universities coming together to form a transaction of getting talent to migrate to industry and start careers’. Murray urged universities to leverage on their alumni relations and listed the various forms of talent connection as opportunistic, developed through challenges, outreach, structure and organic connections.

Director of the African Centre for Statistics at the United Nations Commission for Africa Mr Oliver Chinganya said a strong link needed to be developed between academics and national official statisticians (who can influence policies). Chinganya highlighted the key areas for building data science and statistics capacity in Africa by developing laws and regulations; infrastructure; training and human capital; trust building and quality control; public-private institutional arrangements; free and open-source datasets and codes; better maturity models; and international cooperation.

Professor Helgard Raubenheimer of the North-West University shared how his institution had built lasting connections with financial institutions through their industry-based master’s programme. UKZN Statistician Professor Temesgen Zewotir showcased industry projects in action which included car tracking and the clothing retail industry, while UKZN student Mr Aaron Naidu shared his research which examined the South African Water Sources Quality Index.

UKZN alumnus Dr Nonhlanhla Yende-Zuma of the South African Medical Research Council focused on the importance of capacity building in Biostatisticians as they are able to analyse data in non- communicable diseases, which South Africa had a high burden of, helping scientists make informed decisions. Yende-Zuma also highlighted the training ecosystem that UKZN as well as other research institutions have embarked on to build capacity within this field.

Said North: ‘UKZN hosted the conference as a lasting legacy of what Statistics at UKZN stands for, such as empowering the youth to be job-ready for the data age. UKZN has a powerhouse of very hard-working young ladies in team Statistics, who lead the events that unfolded into a very successful conference…the men in the Statistics team equally worked outstandingly, particularly on the programme and Business Breakfast, the first ever at a SASA Conference, where the DataAnalytics4Industry movement at UKZN was launched!

The SASA Conference included an awards ceremony with prizes awarded to the Best Honours Project, Poster Projects, Best Proceedings Paper (accepted for publication), Postgraduate Paper (published and unpublished), the Sichel Medal, Fellowship and Honorary Members, and Thought Leader Award.

A range of other exciting activities included a Young Statisticians Disco event and a gala dinner.

The week ended on a high note, with delegates enjoying the sites of the Big Five on a drive through the Ithala Game Reserve near Durban.

Words: Hlengiwe Khwela
Photograph: Albert Hirasen