From the ground up: the untapped power of community for African data science
Data science communities are bootstrapping a new revolution in Africa. For Paul Kennedy, reflecting on two years of community-building at Zindi, it’s a joy and a privilege to be a small part of the movement.
When I joined Zindi as Community Manager in December 2019, I had very little idea of what I was signing up for. With a background in science communication and project management, I approached it like a communication project, but I quickly realised that I was in an unfamiliar land, both literally and figuratively.
Within weeks, my days were filled with online conversations with fascinating people all over Africa, with unreliable internet connections, diverse accents, and names I couldn’t pronounce. Not to mention that everyone was talking about machine learning, data science, and statistics — not exactly my area of expertise.
But the passion for their craft and enthusiasm for community-building in the voices of the people I was talking to was infectious. All across the continent, I was discovering a shared drive to improve opportunities for smart and driven young Africans. And at Zindi, we like smart and driven.
Zindi is community
And so, through 2020, our Ambassador Network grew, and Zindi grew with it. Working out of schools, universities and innovation spaces, often with unreliable infrastructure and limited computing resources, data science communities are bootstrapping a new revolution in Africa, and it’s a joy and a privilege to say that I have been a small part of that.
Simply put, Zindi is its community. So while we work to produce competitions, source tutorials, and keep the platform running, our community is what creates value. The hard work of our ambassadors in their communities, and the excellence of individuals and teams on the platform, is what generates value in the long run. We’re just providing the fuel for the rocket.
People and passion
There are too many Zindi ambassadors and superstars to mention all of them, but we appreciate and recognise every one. A few highlights:
Davis David, who has worked tirelessly from Zindi’s earliest days to uplift the standard of data science in Tanzania, and is now pioneering NLP work in Swahili through several Zindi challenges. And that’s not to mention the seemingly endless supply of data science tutorials Davis has written.
Karim Magdy Amer, a researcher in Egypt, who leveraged a Zindi competition win to secure research funding in ML for agriculture, and has recently started VAIS, a start-up using computer vision and satellite data to solve agricultural challenges.
We are lucky to have Rose join us at Zindi as Community Coordinator to keep growing and building our incredible ambassador programme. This means that I can step into a different role at Zindi, with excitement for new challenges, but also with a sense of sadness to be bringing this chapter to an end. I have built incredible friendships in this community over the last two years, and I have learned a great deal.
A few lessons I learned in building a genuine community:
Passion goes a long way, but commitment gets results
You won’t get far in a voluntary community-building role if you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing. But you need more than passion, which won’t survive when you are overworked, stressed, or otherwise distracted. At that point, commitment to your cause or goals over a long period of time is what will get you the results you want.
Leaders are servants
It may sound counterintuitive, but a good leader serves. In the Community Manager role, I saw my job as serving my ambassadors through support, advice, and enthusiasm. This service enabled them to do their job better, without worrying about whether they were doing the right thing or being held back by tasks and bureaucracy.
Real community-building is about shared values
The ambassadors and Zindi community members have built lasting relationships and communities with those that are on the same journey as Zindi is — building capacity and opportunity for data science in Africa. When you share values, walking a path together is easy.
The Zindi Ambassador Network will continue to grow and serve the needs of countless incredible data scientists and communities across the African continent. We will always welcome passionate and committed leaders who share our values of building AI together. And we will always win and grow when we do it together.
Paul Kennedy is Zindi’s Chief of Staff and former Community Manager. Find him on Twitter @paul_kenni.