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Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

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International Conference “Frontiers in Digital African Research”


The conference “Frontiers in Digital African Research” held at the Iwalewahaus from 30th January to 1st February 2020 brought together international researchers and specialists from various disciplines involved in the digital transformation of research data processes, be it the constant development of knowledge databases or repositories, modelling theory and practices or legal and ethical considerations revolving around digitalization projects.

By Anja Dreiser, Data Curator, Digital Solutions, Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence

Intended as a venue for the exchange of ideas and best practice examples of digital research data processing, the conference dealt with the digital transformation in research in four thematic panels: “Big Data/Smart Data”, “Semantic Web Technologies”, “Legal and Ethical Issues” and “Digital Archives and Repositories in Africa and African Studies”. The opening keynote speech by Professor Ope-Davies [Opeibi] addressed the impact of the exponential growth in the use of ICT technologies across the African continent for the digitalization of academia in Africa and African studies. Technologies are an opportunity for handling issues and social problems, offering great possibilities when it comes to the translational and collaborative research impact, the collection of evidence and stronger data.

Big Data versus Smart Data

While ten years ago all research data was small data, Professor Ouma showed in his analysis of knowledge production procedures in the academic field that the Big Data epistemology has already entered the scientific field when looking at the five big publishing houses and the many digital services they offer for academia. Research data becoming proprietary capital in this corporate world finds however counter developments in green open access initiatives and data blogs. Another attractive alternative can be academic data archives, where heterogeneous small data will at some point scale up to big data. Therein lies great potential for digitally accompanied research. Focusing on the potential of societal change through ICT technologies, Dr. Ya’u gave an in-depth insight into the reasons for the gender digital divide in Nigeria and showed ways to overcome it and build up a gender digital inclusion agenda. A change of mindset towards the use of digital tools in academia, especially in Anthropology focusing on Africa, were advocated by Professor de Bruijn. As a digital immigrant herself and as an African Studies researcher, she pointed out the potential in horizontal knowledge production, co-creation, co-learning and transparency provided by digital humanities understood as a toolkit of possibilities. From her own ongoing digital humanities projects together with external partners and teaching experience in using these possibilities, she is convinced that a multi-vocal knowledge production process between different groups and geographies will strengthen the de-hierarchization of knowledge production until now dominated by the industrialized West.

Legal and Ethical Requirements in Research Data Management

No one can seriously talk about digital research data management without taking legal restrictions and ethical considerations into account. After an overview of the state of the art in privacy law regulations on the African continent, mostly drafted after the EU-GDPR Rights but often not finally adopted yet, Professor Makulilo pointed out that the main challenges lie in the varying perceptions of privacy and awareness of the matter in Africa. This is also due to a lack of experts concentrating on the issue, especially in an academic context. Oliver Watteler from the GESIS Institute then gave an insight into the complex issue of the GDPR, also in relation to the question of data collection and data processing in and outside the EU, which is of high relevance for African Studies scholars based in the EU. To overcome potential challenges, he recommended the planning of data protection in data policies or to take stock of existing infrastructures. Michael Kwet subsequently gave an entirely different view, talking about the “techlash” and the issue of digital colonialism where decentralisation, education and global equality are an imperative. Markus Coester from the University of Bayreuth finally addressed copyright and IPR issues, particularly in relation to research on African music, criticizing the large amount of unsolved and only insufficiently addressed issues.

Semantic Web Technologies

The presentation by Matthias Fuchs of the “Forschungskompass” as a tool for researchers specialising in mobility, transport and traffic science opened the third conference panel on Semantic Web Technologies and ontology driven knowledge information systems. Based on the open source and semantic web based tool VIVO, the Forschungskompass collects and links open data sources (e.g. BASE) for specific explorative search options by topics, locations or conferences. As a community driven project, it is continuously improved through the feedback of its users. The information that is so easily retrievable by the user on the website however affords workloads of data mapping to the VIVO ontology. Mapping was also an issue in the following talk by Gábor Bella, albeit in the context of natural language processing: mapping of concepts of meaning in different natural languages allows building up diversity aware digital language resources and tools for under-resourced languages. These will help to overcome the digital language divide and will enable to keep a balance between universality and uniformity as well as locality and diversity in the digitalized world. Language processing is also the big challenge of Peter Ochieng’s project to develop further the ontology driven database on poultry and crop diseases as an aid for farmers in Kenya, who can retrieve information through consultation via a chatbot. In his informative and grounded tour through the long history of modelling in the sciences, Professor Eide pleaded for overcoming the dichotomization of “ontology vs. epistemology”.

Digital Archives and Repositories in Africa and African Studies

The colonial baggage of the music archive ILAM of Rhodes University in South Africa and how this can be used for participatory research and practices nowadays, turning the music archives also to living holdings, were presented in the in-depth analysis of the ethnomusicologist and archive director Lee Watkins. Usability, accessibility and creating awareness of archival holdings and their relevance in an increasingly digitalized society form part of social and economic development. Awareness of historical archival holdings, their preservation and accessibility are equally at the heart of the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) of the British Library presented by its curator, Jody Butterworth. After sketching the funding procedures of the programme and an overview of its web access statistics, recently accomplished digitization projects in Africa were presented, like that of early Islamic pious prints of the Maalim Muhammad Idris collection in Zanzibar or the Taal family archives in Senegal and Mali. Mireille Djenno introduced the audience to the comprehensive collections on and of sub-Saharan Africa held at the Indiana University and how they are currently accessible to users via “portals and platforms”. The panel closed with the highly informative talk by Wolfgang Kraus about the Ethnographic Data Archive (EDA) recently established at Vienna University. While current science policy demands unrestricted sharable open data, he pointed to the problems these demands pose upon ethnographic data with its qualitative dimension and equally highly person driven components. Notwithstanding the scepticism towards digitalization and data management of the ethnographic scientific community, Professor Kraus emphasized the importance of preserving digitally ethnographic data and sharing it whenever possible, as in these data sets rich and interesting materials and information are embedded that supersede the research questions of their primary researcher.

The international conference “Frontiers in African Digital Research” attracted numerous participants over all three conference days and allowed ample room for in-depth discussions on a large variety of issues. The presentations revolving around different aspects of research data management, the development of semantic IT solutions, aspects of the digital archive, its usability and outreach, gave a highly informative insight into the latest challenges of the field also for newcomers to these topics.

Conference Contributions by:

  • Professor Ope-Davies [Opeibi], University of Lagos / Nigeria
  • Professor Stefan Ouma, University of Bayreuth / Germany
  • Dr. Yunusa Zakari Ya’u, Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), Kano / Nigeria
  • Professor Mirjam de Bruijn, Leiden University / Netherlands
  • Professor Alex Makulilo, African Law and Technology Institute AfriLTI, Dar es Salaam / Tanzania
  • Oliver Watteler, GESIS - Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, Cologne / Germany
  • Dr. Michael Kwet, Yale University / USA
  • Dr. habil. Markus Coester, University of Bayreuth / Germany
  • Matthias Fuchs, Saxon State and University Library (SLUB) Dresden / Germany
  • Dr. Gábor Bella, KnowDive Group of The University of Trento / Italy
  • Professor Øyvind Eide, University of Cologne / Germany
  • Dr. Peter Ochieng, Taita Taveta University College / Kenya
  • Dr. Lee Watkins, ILAM Archive Rhodes University / South Africa
  • Jody Butterworth, Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), The British Library, London / UK
  • Mireille Djenno, Indiana University, Bloomington / USA
  • ao. Professor Wolfgang Kraus, University of Vienna / Austria
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