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Wits joins York Univeristy in Africa-Canada Artificial Intelligence Data Modelling consortium

- Wits University

Consortium will research predictive modelling and forecasting of the transmission of COVID-19 in Africa, using Artificial Intelligence.

The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (Wits) has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with York University in Canada that will lead to the creation of the Africa-Canada Artificial Intelligence Data Modelling Consortium. 

The Consortium will create algorithms based on Artificial Intelligence to predict the evolution of crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, with which to help policymakers and the public manage complex situations.

The Consortium will be co-chaired by Professors Jianhong Wu (York University) and Bruce Mellado (Wits University and iThemba LABS) and will include representatives of many African countries. The MoU was signed on Wednesday, 27 January 2021, in a virtual ceremony by Professor Rhonda Lenton, President and Vice-Chancellor of York University, and Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi from Wits University and Professor Rhonda Lenton from York University signs the MOU.

The project has received funding of $1.25 million from the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC) for the predictive modelling and forecasting of the transmission of COVID-19 in Africa using Artificial Intelligence project. This project will build on an existing South African-led COVID-19 dashboard and modelling developed by Mellado’s Institute for Collider Particle Physics, and transmission models and simulation technologies that have been developed both at York University and the University of the Witwatersrand.

These technologies have been widely adopted by government agencies and international organisations in recent months, including the Gauteng Provincial Government.

Professor Bruce Mellado“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have invested in technology to improve decision making in reducing infections and transmission of the virus. The work of the Premier COVID-19 Advisory Committee – chaired by Dr Kawonga and where Professor Mellado leads modelling efforts – bears witness of this shift, ” says Mduduzi Mbada, Head of Policy at Gauteng Office of the Premier.  

“Particle physics harnesses large amounts of data and uses artificial intelligence to understand the data. These skills are transferrable to the problem solving of complex systems, such as the modelling of the COVID-19 pandemic or future crises,” says Mellado.

“Artificial Intelligence through machine learning provides a unique suite of tools and methodologies that allows analysts to learn from it. This is essential in solving complex modelling problems." 

Mellado and his colleagues view this exercise as a form of technology transfer revolving around skills and knowledge developed in solving problems of fundamental interactions in nature. In solving problems such as this, they would also be able to create an ecosystem of knowledge in Artificial Intelligence that feeds back into Particle Physics.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life as we know it, but it has also galvanised our rapid adaptation to change and the adoption of new technologies,” says Vilakazi.

“Wits is proud to collaborate with leading scholars from York University on this multidisciplinary project to develop new technologies to strengthen the fight against COVID-19. We are in a crucial moment in the life of this pandemic and it is important that we work as a collective for the benefit of society.”

Professor Lenton says York University is excited to join forces with colleagues from Africa, as part of the global effort to put an end to the pandemic.

“This important and timely collaboration will combine York’s research strength in disease modelling, global health, artificial intelligence and emergency management, with AI and modelling expertise in Africa and the practical skills and sensitivity that only local organisations can provide,” says Lenton.

Professor Jude Kong, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the Faculty of Science and a member of the National COVID-19 Modelling Rapid Response Task Force at York will serve as the Canadian Principal Investigator.

Wits Covid-19 Dashboard

“Working with organisations in Africa, we will develop models and simulations of COVID-19 that are relevant to specific cities and the areas adjacent to them,” says Kong. “This will give municipal and national health authorities, and policy-makers from across Africa the practical tools that they need to suppress subsequent waves of infections or mitigate their impact. It will enable us to look at the effectiveness of public health interventions to determine if a particular intervention is appropriate, equitable, feasible and cost-efficient.”

Wits also collaborates with universities in neighbouring countries. The ceremony was attended by Professor Otlogetswe Totolo, the Vice-Chancellor of the Botswana  International University of Science and Technology, one of the pivotal partners in the project.

“Congratulations to York University and Wits on establishing the Africa-Canada Artificial Intelligence Data Modelling Consortium,” says Professor Totolo. “Our university already has a dynamic partnership with Professor Mellado’s team to visualise, monitor, and model the spread of the pandemic. Indeed, we are excited to work with this consortium to solve COVID-19 problems in Africa using Artificial Intelligence.”