The art in data science

Dimpho Mashile is a multidisciplinary storyteller. Sometimes her medium is visual and at other times it is numerical. It all depends on whether she’s there in her capacity as a data scientist or as a creative director. 

Through a series of phone calls, emails and late night Whatsapp chats, the Mail & Guardian spent the last two weeks speaking to Mashile with the hope of understanding a practice that involves concepts — numbers and visuals — that are often perceived to exist on the opposing ends of the information spectrum.

Hailing from eMalahleni in Mpumalanga, 25-year-old Mashile is a data science student at Umuzi.
Since 2014 Umuzi has offered matriculants an alternative form of higher education. Through 12-month paid learnerships, the nonprofit in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, tackles unemployment by equipping its students with the skills needed in creative and technological fields.

Data science is the study of numerical statistics with the goal of finding insightful trends about people’s behaviour. Also known as data points, these statistics can be collected in a variety of ways, ranging from the information we give when we register our phones all the way to the answers we give in questionnaires.

READ MORE: Big data a game-changer for universities

A student in the data science programme spends nine months at the Umuzi studio where they are given skills such as programming, data collection, visualisation and analysis. The last three months are then spent gaining work experience from one of the organisation’s partners because, “in agreeing to fund our learnerships, Umuzi’s partners get back three months worth of the skills that they invested in creating”, explains Mashile.

Prior to signing up for the 2019 programme, Mashile had completed the first two years of an industrial engineering degree at Stellenbosh University — an opportunity she had to let go of for her the sake of her mental health. When she returned home, Mashile worked as a creative director and stylist for lookbooks and fashion shows to fill the time between applying for bursaries, scholarships and learnerships.

Apart from the Umuzi learnership opportunity, Mashile’s decision to move from industrial engineering to data science was also informed by her need to merge her interests in numbers with her love for creativity. Through data science Mashile is able to explore a data set with the goal of “telling stories through numbers”.

READ MORE: Cyril wants SA’s pupils up to code

When the field of data science gained momentum in the early 2010s, its objective was to better the lives of forgettable everyday people by making them visible and thus validating their intersectionalities. The field promised to improve their ways of life because including them in data sets would offer strongholds (ranging from government organisations to large commercial brands like Nike) insights that would result in decision-making that acknowledges the marginalised.

In Mashile’s experience, the field has since developed in a direction that makes data “feel like invisible software that just sits in a cloud that the ordinary person has no access to”. Speaking to Forbes magazine, data visualisation expert Stephen Few reiterates this idea by explaining that although “numbers have an important story to tell, they rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice”.

Practitioners such as Few and Mashile suggest that large organisations have become apathetic toward infographics, charts and colourful PowerPoint presentations. This is where data storytelling comes to the fore by using data sets to identify more focused and appealing narratives.

According to Mashile, data storytellers are required to ask themselves “who, what, when, where, how and why?” when analysing a dataset in the same way journalists would when writing a news report.

To meet me halfway, Mashile offers the potential use of data storytelling in fashion as an example. Take Gucci. Whether they are authentic or knock-off accessories, the “GC” emblem and the red and green stripes are commonplace in South Africa’s sartorial aesthetic. By finding out where the Gucci buyers are from, their age, job status and how long they have had their Gucci items, such data can help tell the story of the relationship between socioeconomic aspirations and fashion in South Africa.

With it being a relatively new field, data science is still exclusionary. A lot of the stories that practitioners like Mashile are interested in exploring do not have data sets. “That’s where the erasure comes in,” says Mashile. She then adds that data science cannot serve “marginalised groups if it does not acknowledge them”. In response to this, Mashile’s practice looks to one day collect the data of the overlooked.

Before she is prompted Mashile is quick to acknowledge how idealistic this aspiration is. “I could sit here and romanticise data all day but the reality is there’s a lot of pessimism around it,” she said in reference to people feeling that the collection of their data is an invasion of privacy that can often be compromising. An example of this is how Google can record the conversations of people who are near a device. “People need to know that they can trust me with their data because that means they’re trusting me with their stories,” Mashile adds.

As she nears the completion of her training, Mashile is going to Barcelona to take part in an artificial intelligence engineering boot camp after being awarded a partial scholarship. This bootcamp will deepen the sensitivity with which she approaches data science and storytelling because “artificial intelligence replicates the learning process of the human mind by studying large data sets”.

With her departure date set for the end of the month, Mashile is raising money to pay for her tuition and accommodation.

It would be to the detriment of data sciences if the practice remained out of the hands of marginalised folk. For this reason Mashile feels that it is imperative for her to solidify and broaden her skills to increase her chances of being a thought-leader. “We need representatives of what the world looks like because we can never again have a situation where the minority is not considered in the decision making process”.

To contribute toward Dimpho Mashile’s tuition and accommodation click here

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

Related stories

Why AI needs a physical body to reach its full potential

Robots will have to learn from scratch, like babies, if they are to have a sense of self and proper social interactions

Cooper, the grocery assistant with AI, gives concierge service

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that there is not a part of our lives that will not be affected by the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.

Artificial intelligence is already responding to our needs

Engineering students are best prepared for the shift in gear, but they will need to learn to change lanes

Review, amend or create policy and legislation enabling the 4IR

Despite the success of Artificial Intelligence, it needs to be regulated for a number of reasons

We must equip graduates to excel in tasks that are beyond the scope of AI

With artificial intelligence taking over background tasks in the financial services sector, graduates need to be equipped with modern skills and mindsets to complement the machines and maximise benefits for consumers and the economy

Dimension Data will be a monolithic company

The longest-standing ICT brand on the continent and South Africa is restructuring

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Malawi court judges win global prize

Members of the small African country’s judiciary took a stand for democracy to international approval

Durban city manager says NPA erred in his bail conditions

The corruption-fraught metro is coming to grips with having a municipal manager who is on bail for graft, yet has returned to work

Why anti-corruption campaigns are bad for democracy

Such campaigns can draw attention to the widespread presence of the very behaviour they are trying to stamp out — and subconsciously encourage people to view it as appropriate

Tax, wage bill, debt, pandemic: Mboweni’s tightrope budget policy statement

The finance minister has to close the jaws of the hippo and he’s likely to do this by tightening the country’s belt, again.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday