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 4,000 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 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 a 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, which 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 of recruiting “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 technology 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 in innovation need to think again.

DSTI scientists already have their sights set 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 computing is the future of computing; it is a 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 ranging 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”.