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Njala University student writes code for his country: how an intern’s grit earned him a role in the Office of the President

Sierra Leone’s Office of the President (OtP) will soon launch a new online invitation platform that will help the government manage and respond to invitations for President Maada Bio. The development of this OtP Event Invitation system was led by Foday S.N. Kamara, a 25-year-old intern at the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI).

Foday, a final year Njala University student was the first intern to join DSTI when the office was commissioned last year. He says that it was the 2003 film, “The Italian Job”, that sparked his interest in coding and algorithms. In one epic scene in the movie, Actor Seth Green’s character Lyle writes code to develop a new algorithm to override the traffic light system in LA to allow his crew to make a getaway after a major heist. This scene made Foday wonder what else he could do with algorithms. He borrowed books from a relative and taught himself to code. That was 16 years ago. Today, he is a final year Computer Science & Information Technology student at Njala passionate about writing code to support his country’s digitization efforts.

Before he joined DSTI, Foday had been developing an early warning SMS disaster response system to alert citizens of emergencies. In 2017 a mudslide, caused by heavy rains, and deforestation killed over 1000 Sierra Leoneans in just one day. That catastrophe inspired him to develop a solution that would reduce casualties during emergencies. Data for decision making, effective service delivery and citizen engagement are part of DSTI’s key strategic pillars.  Citizens need digital services that will enhance their lives and improve interaction with government.

When given the opportunity, he immersed himself and made a home at DSTI. Although just an intern, his commitment and attitude to problem-solving made him the Directorate’s first ever employee of the month in January. He was part of a team of scientists that are developing a prototype fleet management system that will allow the government to keep better manage its vehicles. Last year DSTI scientists revealed that illegal transfers of vehicles cost the state over $1 million dollars.

DSTI staff often play football, make music and dance #ShakuShaku together in the office. Yet Foday reflects that problem-solving sessions with Dr. David Sengeh, DSTI’s Chief Innovation Officer will be most memorable of his time at DSTI;  

“Most times when we have difficulties we complain. We say, ‘doc I’ve tried everything but its not working’. He’ll just tell you that you need to fix it, you should fix it. Several times we asked the same questions and get the same response. It’s fun. I thought why should we be asking , why can’t we get it done before we complain.”

Over the last six months since its launch, DSTI has trained several interns from Sierra Leone’s universities and high schools. Monjama Alpha, the top Physics and Engineering first year student at Fourah Bay College; Joseph Jawa Kebbie, a high school graduate from Christ the King’s College in Bo, and several students from Institute of Public Administration (IPAM) have learned to code and build systems alongside full time staff. DSTI offers these kinds of internships, fellowships, and externships for students, post-grads, and professionals who want to build the solutions that will transform Sierra Leone into an innovation nation.

For more information about opportunities at DSTI please contact us.

Check out Foday’s story in our first podcast from the lab.

 

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DSTI Sierra Leone signs a new partnership with e-Governance Academy of Estonia

The Government of Sierra Leone wants to use technology to transform Sierra Leone into an innovation nation; in this regard, its Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI Sierra Leone) has secured a new partnership with the e-Governance Academy of Estonia (eGA). The eGA is a global leader for digital transformation for central and local governments.   DSTI Sierra Leone and eGA have signed a three-year MoU to establish technical collaboration on e-governance for public service delivery and administration in Sierra Leone. “Estonia is a world leader in e-governance and they keep innovating”, said Sierra Leone’s Chief Innovation Officer, Dr. David Sengeh. “Sierra Leone is a nation seeking to lead in public service delivery for everyone including those on the edge: the connected and unconnected, and the educated and uneducated. That is why I am most excited about this partnership. We will learn and build together and share back the lessons with the world.”

Officials from Sierra Leone and Estonia at a bilateral session at the EU-AU Meeting for African Foreign Ministers in Brussels – Jan 2019.

Jointly, DSTI Sierra Leone and eGA will develop new policies and frameworks particularly around digital identity, digital payments, and government cloud solutions. Specifically, Sierra Leone will benefit from capacity building in areas of e-governance for public officials, public service delivery and citizen engagement. DSTI Sierra Leone’s vision is to “use science, technology, and innovation to support the Government of Sierra Leone to deliver on its national development plan effectively and efficiently.” While eGA’s mandate is to “create and transfer knowledge and best practice in the area of digital transformation: e-governance, e-democracy, and national cybersecurity” as an independent non-governmental organization. “The e-Governance Academy is proud to be a partner for Sierra Leone in developing e-government,” said Director for Development of eGA, Mr. Hannes Astok. “We can provide world-class expertise based on the e-government success of Estonia as well as our work done in other countries building digital infrastructure, developing cybersecurity and taking the services and operations of local governments to a new digital level. Let’s turn e-government on in Sierra Leone!“ Efforts to strengthen existing ties between the two nations began at the 2018 UN General Assembly, and continued to the recently concluded EU-AU Ministers of Foreign Affairs meeting in Brussels were representatives from both nations engaged on issues of technology and good governance. This partnership will be bolstered when DSTI Sierra Leone participates in the eGA’s “e-Governance Conference 2019: Same goals, different roadmaps” in May. An expert delegation from Estonia will also make a working visit to Sierra Leone. To learn more, please contact Aissatou Diallo from DSTI (aissatou@dsti.gov.sl) and Tiina Viiderfeld (tiina.viiderfeld@ega.ee)
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President Bio Launches an “Innovation in Government Incubator” in Sierra Leone

President Bio launched an Innovation in Government Incubator in Sierra Leone over the weekend while in South Africa . President Maada Bio was at the Global Citizen Festival in Johannesburg with other world leaders committed to the Sustainable Development Goals. It was there that the nation’s top Goalkeeper reiterated his commitment to human development and innovation. “We have to first rely on ourselves,” said President Bio to a crowd of sixty thousand Global Citizens at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.    “By investing our African resources in free, quality teaching and learning, we are investing in our human capital and empowering our youth to be the generation that will end poverty in our time.” President Bio also announced that his government had created an Innovation in Government Incubator within the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation. This new initiative was lauded and welcomed by Mr. Mark Suzman, President, Global Policy and Advocacy at the Gates Foundation on the side lines of the Goalkeepers Africa event.

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 26: Bill Gates, David Moinina Sengeh and President of Sierra Leone shake hands onstage during the Goalkeepers 2018 Event, at Jazz at Lincoln Center on September 26, 2018 in New York City. Goalkeepers is a multiyear campaign organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dedicated to accelerating progress towards the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (or Global Goals). The event highlighted the stunning progress in reducing extreme poverty since 1990 and showcased what is possible if the world invests in the health and education of its growing youth populations. PAID COMMERCIAL IMAGE FOR PUBLICITY PURPOSES – FREE FOR EDITORIAL USE.

“We are pleased to support the launch of this project as it is a clear commitment from the government of Sierra Leone to invest in human capital,” said Mr. Suzman. “In prioritizing innovation and human capital, Sierra Leone is in a better position to kick-start its development. This approach can also provide a blueprint for other fast-growing developing countries trying to make the most of their youth boom”. Sierra Leone’s Innovation in Government Incubator (IGI) will be a hub for local start-ups, private, public and academic organizations to collaborate on projects that will help citizens access government services and information more efficiently.  It will also provide an opportunity for young people to participate, innovate and solve challenges in their local communities. “At the Innovation in Government Incubator partners will share data, build models, develop hypotheses and test pilot projects to inform government investments in human capital,” said Dr. Sengeh, Chief Innovation Officer, Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation. The ultimate goal of the IGI is to create a space for local talent across all sectors to develop solutions to enhance government service delivery. Technology will give Sierra Leone the edge it needs to accomplish its Sustainable Development Goals.  
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Scientists at DSTI Sierra Leone fight corruption with code

Sierra Leone just took a giant technological leap. Scientists working at a new agency for innovation launched within the Office of the President are using code to fight corruption. Only 3 out of every 100 citizens in this West African nation of 7 million have access to the internet according to 2016 data from the International Telecommunications Union. Although internet access is limited, scientists say one of their ultimate goals is to develop the world’s first government quantum network for data encryption. Code against Corruption The first challenge that scientists at the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) took on involved the government’s fleet of vehicles. In March 2018, a new government was elected into office. During the transition period, an estimated 4000 cars were reportedly missing. The President asked scientists at DSTI to solve the problem of the missing vehicles. The team analyzed data from the Sierra Leone Road Safety Authority (SLRSA) and found that 38 vehicles belonging to the government were re-registered to new owners without authorization. While the majority of these illegal transfers were intra-government, 17 high-end cars were transferred for private and for commercial use. They also discovered that 75% of all such transactions both authorized and unauthorized occurred in the three years leading up to the 2018 elections. The SLRSA has a register of 281, 762 vehicles of which 4,694 belong to the government spanning the last ten years. Despite having all this big data, SLRSA did not have the tools for analysis. To explore exciting questions and develop hypotheses, like what could have happened to 4000 vehicles it requires more big data analytics.  Analysis of big data (big data involves large volumes of datasets that generally need complex analyses) goes beyond the capacity of Excel and summary statistics. Using the existing SLRSA data, the data scientists’ code found that there was a 600% increase in authorized transfers from 2014 to 2015.  Moreover, an additional 560 vehicles changed ownership in the two years before the 2018 elections. These discoveries have been sent to the Anti Corruption Commission to determine what to do next. While the Anti Corruption boss Mr. Francis Ben Kaifala says it is too soon to know what they will do once they have an opportunity to evaluate the SLRSA vehicle data further, DSTI’s work has given his investigators a leg up. “With data like this we know what to request from the target institutions or persons, and with whom to speak,” said Mr. Ben Kaifala. Data means quicker turnaround on investigations. The Anti Corruption Commission now knows the names of individuals both within and outside of the government who have transferred government vehicles. Technology for national development   At the official launch of the Directorate at State House earlier this week, President Bio said that his vision is for the team at DSTI to harness technology for national development. He believes that Sierra Leone can join the likes of Kenya, Mauritius, and Rwanda who have created thriving ecosystems for innovation and technology. “My strategic vision for Science, Technology, and Innovation is not to start producing microchips and competing with the likes of Intel and Samsung just yet,” said President Bio. “We are looking to cultivate science, technology and innovation tools that will be successfully applied to solve our national development problems and improve the quality of life in Sierra Leone.” The President recognized the need for technical capacity thus sort to recruit “the best and brightest” to deliver this vision.  They have been recruited both within Sierra Leone and its diaspora. Guiding the team is Dr. Sengeh who recently engaged with President Bio, and Bill Gates at GoalKeepers 2018 in New York. Dr. Sengeh is Sierra Leone’s first ever Chief Innovation Officer. He was appointed by the President to lead this Directorate. Quantum ambitions “We have everything. Sierra Leone has the enabling environment for tech and innovation to thrive because the President has made it a priority”, said Dr. Sengeh. He says that people need to believe that Sierra Leone with all its problems and stories of gore can produce innovative technological solutions. Those who think that developing countries like Sierra Leone cannot lead the world on innovation need to think again. DSTI scientists already have their sights on doing what no other government has done. The Directorate has announced that it will be the first government agency in the world, to develop an impenetrable quantum encrypted network that will keep state data secure. Quantum is the future of computing; it is next-generation technology for data protection. “We have the technical know-how; our scientists are the best and brightest in their fields. In just four months we’ve worked on solutions from financial data mapping to developing a national education dashboard with UNICEF so that policymakers and donors can identify indicators that affect learning outcomes, performance, and quality education,” said Dr. Sengeh. “We did this with the 2018 national school census that the government recently concluded. We create tools to make the data useful for decision making. So it is not a question of if we are going to transform Sierra Leone into an innovation nation, it is a question of how soon”.
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My Experience at 2018 UN Innovation Bootcamp

I recently returned from the 2018 UN Innovation Bootcamp which took place from 24-27 July, 2018 in Beirut, Lebanon. The Bootcamp was organized by the UN Development Operations Coordination Office and it brought together cross sectorial teams working in data innovation, collective intelligence, behavioral insight and foresight/futures, and innovative finance from 21 countries. I attended as one of the mentors from Sierra Leone. As a mentor, I was matched with teams to help them think about their project design and implementation at country level. However, I was also an active peer learner and I connected with experts and novices who all had a similar interest in improving lives through data and innovation. This was pretty neat. I also learned about how the United Nation embraces data and innovation in their country operations and explored opportunities of doing more. UNSDG – A brief introduction The United Nations Sustainable Development Group unites 40 UN funds, programmes, specialized agencies, departments, and offices that play a role in development. The UN Development Operations Coordination Office- the secretariat of the UNSDG, supports 131 UN country teams serving 165 countries and territories to work together to increase the impact of the UN system. Several  country teams use innovation in their country programming including human centered design, foresight/alternative futures, big data, real-time monitoring, crowdsourcing, innovation lab/camp, mobile feedback mechanism, micro-narratives, and behavioral insights. Examples of projects by participants at the Bootcamp are: SDGs Real-time monitoring to enhance participatory planning in Colombia-Data Collective intelligence to engage Iraqi youth in mapping their cultural heritage devastated by the war in Iraq Data accountability framework based on collective intelligence in Lesotho Combining UAV and Satellite Imagery for Improved Crop Monitoring in Malawi Using AI to automate the Rapid Integrated Assessment mechanism and to nationalize SDGs in Serbia Block-chain for Public Services (Land Registry) An effective solution to enhanced transparency, accountability, and inclusivity in Uzbekistan I grew significantly through the experience of engaging with participants on a daily basis learning about their projects and actions, sharing cutting-edge innovation practices and the introduction of new skills, tools, and innovative concepts in a peer-learning environment. Upon my return back to the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation, I have continued my normal projects and have dug deeper into applied machine learning and technology design as related to the SDGs.
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Transforming Government through Science, Technology, and Innovation in Sierra Leone

It is with great pleasure that I share the news that H.E. President Julius Maada Bio has appointed me as the Chief Innovation Officer for the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI). DSTI is situated within the Office of the President and in my role, I will also serve as an Advisor to both President Bio and the Chief Minister Prof. David Francis. A new body of government, the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) has a simple vision: to help transform Sierra Leone into a prosperous nation through science, technology and innovation. The Directorate seeks to facilitate and support a vibrant national innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem for the public and private sectors of Sierra Leone through:
  • Active technical research and development activities with government and other partners;
  • Development of innovative enhancements to  government service delivery and citizen engagement;
  • Policy innovation in support of science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship; and
  • Building a pipeline of talented technologists and innovators in service to the people of Sierra Leone.
The President’s New Direction Agenda presents a unique opportunity for the growth of Sierra Leone,  and I will invest all my resources, networks and experiences toward ensuring that DSTI supports Sierra Leone to become an innovation nation. We are in it together!
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