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July 2019

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MIT grad travels 4000 miles for one of a kind innovation and technology internship in Sierra Leone

Banti Gheneti was looking for an opportunity to solve problems. The computer data scientist traveled over 4000 miles from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to Freetown to be amongst the first interns to join the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) at the Office of the President in Sierra Leone. DSTI was launched in October 2018, by President Julius Maada Bio whose vision is to use technology and innovation for human capital development and national transformation. DSTI Media caught up with Banti at the end of his five month-long internship to find out how it was to work at the newly formed directorate.

DSTI Media: Why did you come to Sierra Leone?

Banti Gheneti: I came to Sierra Leone because I was looking for impactful projects to work on relating to data science. And I was interested in moving back and visiting West Africa again. I got in touch with David Sengeh [Chief Innovation Officer, DSTI] and heard about some amazing work people were doing. I was really excited about visiting and spending some time here.

DSTI Media – What attracted you to come to DSTI?

Banti Gheneti: What attracted me to DSTI is manifold. DSTI works at the highest level of government in the Office of the President, and DSTI works on impactful projects that are trying to improve the access citizens have to resources by aiding the way government makes decisions, and many other things.

DSTI Media – What were your expectations coming to Sierra Leone?

Banti Gheneti: Coming here I didn’t really set myself to any specific expectations, I tried to come very open minded. Speaking to people before I came, I heard that this was a country that was very friendly to foreigners. I also was aware that people speak Krio here, but I didn’t quite know what that was before I came. And also, I was told that people here are very friendly and welcoming. And then when you go anywhere, you need to introduce yourself to everyone because people here like greeting each other, but besides that I tried to come with a very open perspective, trying to learn more and learn how I could fit in.

DSTI Media – What projects have you contributed towards ?

Banti Gheneti: I would say the key project I’ve worked on is the integrated GIS portal project. In addition to that, I’ve also contributed a little to some other projects. I’ve assisted a bit with creating the concepts notes for a hackathon, which we hosted this August, which we got UNICEF funding for. I’ve also helped a little bit with the education team related to some of the machine learning work they were working on, and also thinking through some of the optimization work that we’re doing. But my primary contribution has really been the GIS team.

I joined here when Glenna my colleague, had sort of started acquiring data sets from a lot of different MDAs. And these were data sets on different concepts people care about, maybe water was one set she had at the time, financial data on where the banks or top of places are. It was sort of a start of trying to see how we could put all these different kinds of data about different resources together and make them useful so that the government can try to understand where, when can people have access to these things. Where do they not? It also makes them think about where can we add more resources.

Additionally, were also thinking, you know, how could we share this information with citizens. So I sort of started at this early stage for Glenna. I had done a lot of work, working with a lot of different MDAs and collecting this data, and had sort of thought a lot about how we could make it accessible and I helped with developing a technical concept for that and figuring out what sort of tools we would need to make this project possible and going from there. I mean we’ve done a lot, we’ve had other interns join, we’ve worked with other people across the DSTI at a point where we now have a web portal that’s close to finished. We have our data sets visualised there, we have charts that help you understand which districts have a lot of water points compared to their population, and which ones have less, which ones have a lot of courts, which ones have less. And this work is being recognised by different people inside and outside of government. And were at a stage where we are working to finish, to polish up our portal and release it so that all of government and all citizens can start exploring it to inform their lives and inform their next steps. And we’re not quite there yet. But I think that we’ve already seen so much excitement and the potential for that is huge. So I think that is an impact, I’ll be really proud once it happens.

DSTI Media – What impact do you think this work will have on Sierra Leone ?

Banti Gheneti: This impact will be felt in multiple ways. This will allow Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) to better understand where they want to place new resources, where they want to maybe place new water points, new health facilities or where they might need to repair facilities, and do so efficiently using funds efficiently. Instead of speculation about why this district is asking for more or these people are asking for more, you can clearly get a sense of which areas are underserved and combine that with other information to determine where you want to place new resources.

Additionally, this will be a very useful tool to educate citizens, they can know where different resources are maybe once they hadn’t known before. And they can also use this information to hold their representatives accountable, to ask for more if they feel like they’re being underserved.

This is also a good first step towards creating an infrastructure to collect more data to manage data better. Instead of having different files or different stacks of paper in different places, the government of Sierra Leone, can now in a very accessible matter, collect, preserve and share its data.

DSTI Media – You as a technologist, what lessons have you learnt working here ?

Banti Gheneti: What really amazes me as a technologist is seeing all sorts of challenges people go up against here, and how they really overcome them. One thing I’ve really come to appreciate is how passionate people are here, I don’t think I’ve ever worked in an environment where people are this passionate about the type of work they do. And trying to make a meaningful impact every day, and that goes a long way towards making amazing things happen in potentially adverse conditions.

Additionally, I think I’ve learned a lot about prioritisation, there’s a lot of different things different people want you to build. I mean, there’s so many exciting projects that could be useful, there’s so much potential here, there’s so many, there’s so many smart minds, there’s so many ideas for things people want to do and it gets really exciting but at times. I mean to deliver to get a project to this stage where we can share with this, it means making hard decisions about which features we want to include or not, which things we want to save for later, and what exactly we want to deliver on because we can do all sorts of visions, and I think that’s an interesting challenge.

I think that a lot of people here at least I do see I have figured out interesting ways of thinking about what are the key strategic projects we want to work on, and how can we use those to improve lives for our citizens. And I’m hoping delivering on the GIS project, and having that being publicly released in a month or two, can sort of serve as a beacon of one of the ways, DSTI is thinking strategically about how we can better the lives of citizens.

DSTI Media : What recommendations do you have for others in others in tech?

Banti Gheneti: I would recommend anybody interested in technology to explore and consider ways in which you can take some time, couple weeks, couple months to come here and work on some of the exciting things happening.

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