Before the coronavirus 2019 pandemic (COVID-19) pandemic took Africa by storm, there was one buzzword that was rolling off the tongues of almost every single African policymaker, the 4th Industrial Revolution. Or as it is popularly known - 4IR.

It reached such heights that it became clear that most who garnished their speeches with β€œ4IR” clearly did not even understand what they were talking about. It was like the parsley sitting randomly on your main course dish.

You particularly hear the confusion when people start confusing automation of processes with Artificial Intelligence. That’s a discussion for another day. What is important however is to realize that certain things need to be available before we can even talk about 4IR. Some things you just can’t β€œleapfrog.”

When it comes to information technologies, when you observe closely you'll realize not much is new. What we typically have are improved iterations of previous technologies in most cases (there are exceptions). Take for instance how the Germans used to collect data during World War II using this World War II-era IBM punch card sorting machine on display at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. πŸ“· William Philpott/Liaison via Getty Images

Apart from high-speed Internet access which is needed if you are going to start discussing telemedicine and self-driving cars, one very critical component of enabling β€œ4IR” is data. This is becoming even more evident (the lack o f data across Africa) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a very simple thing. Before you can apply things such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, you need raw data about the offline world. It’s what I like saying is digitizing the real world.

Think of it as mapping your neighborhood and digitizing that, collecting data about roads, businesses, buildings and everything else that is in the offline world so that we can start using software to analyze that data to start gleaning information from it that then becomes knowledge which we use to make decisions.

As we sit currently as an example, most African countries, even before COVID-19 pandemic, could barely report accurate unemployment statistics with a few exceptions. Nevermind unemployment statistics, some countries like Nigeria last held a census more than a decade ago. This lack of data extends to other areas including health.

Which begs the question: what are our policymakers basing their decisions on?

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