SAICSIT 2017: “Computing for humanity in today’s world”

The annual conference of the South African Institute of Computer Scientists and Information Technologists is an opportunity for academics and practitioners to present the latest research in their fields. Hosted this year by Central University of Technology and University of the Free State the humanitarian theme of the 23rd event was intended to stimulate debate about human factors in the evolution of technology. President of SAICSIT, Prof Kroeze (UNISA) congratulated everyone who had had papers accepted and paid tribute to the continued importance of academic rigour in the South African fields of Computer Science and Information Technology.

Research topics were quite varied and delegates were treated to high quality insights in various tracks such as software engineering, social media, interface design, usability, and visualisation. Top rated keynote speakers were also on hand such as Prof Robert Davison from City University of Hong Kong who spoke about the importance of context in research. Too many studies produce findings that cannot be generalised for re-use due to poor definition of boundary and local conditions – he provided useful tips for students and academics to improve their work. An example from his own context in China was the concept of “guanxi”, which describes the dynamics of network influence in relationships. Although often misunderstood and overlooked it is considered crucial for business success in China, and Western-orientated research often misses its local and contextual importance.

Chinese concept of “guanxi” describes the dynamics of network influence in relationships

UCT PhD student Emmanuel DuFourq presented his sentiment analysis research which uses genetic algorithms to assess consumer reviews. The project achieved relative success against commercial tools, even beating IBM Watson in some cases. His ongoing work is pioneering the use of machine learning algorithms to “understand what consumers think about products or services” which has application for marketing and PR professionals. Other talks by Wits students described new techniques for image processing and analysis, one very useful application being facial expression recognition. Automated sign language interpretation requires reading facial expressions and together with other tools to read hand gestures could be hugely valuable for deaf people. Another talk presented BantuWeb, an initiative to create a digital library for South African languages and there were a range of talks on the use of ICT in government areas such as health, education and mining.

Automated sign language interpretation requires reading facial expressions

I presented some research we have done on FNB Codefest, which is an internal hackathon that we have run at the bank three times since 2015 as a catalyst for IT innovation across the FirstRand Group. The event features a 48 hour coding marathon when teams compete to build prototypes which aim to solve business problems using the latest fintech. We observed that many teams naturally adopted Agile ways of working to achieve their goals, and we reviewed over three hours of interviews to categorise which practices were the most dominant. Collaboration, motivation and elements of technical excellence were the most popular Agile themes that emerged naturally at codefest. Even though these were not expected of the teams it was evident that the temporary and artificial environment at codefest encouraged these ways of working. Considering how certain codefest conditions could be replicated, there is application for cultivating these Agile practices for software engineering teams in the workplace.

We observed that many teams naturally adopted Agile ways of working to achieve their goals

At a gala dinner after the first day the best paper of the conference was awarded and delegates were treated to a performance by the choir of Central University of Technology – a real highlight of an excellent conference.

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