IBM opened its second Research Laboratory in Africa this morning, cutting the ribbon on a facility in Braamfontein, Johannesburg which was first announced just over a year ago.

Solomon Assefa, director of IBM Research Africa, says that the centre is unique in the world in that it was built quickly and is sited within the startup incubation hub at the Tshimologong Precinct. Tshimologong is run by Wits University and the Johannesburg Centre for Software Excellence (JCSE).

IBM’s investment, which was estimated to be about R700m last year, means that entrepreneurs in the precinct will have direct access to scientist and engineers working in the research lab. The fruits of this access are already visible, says Assefa, in projects which have been backed by IBM over the last few months.

Healthcare researchers, for example, have drawn on the talents of local engineers to build a tiny proximity sensor for use in hospitals and healthcare centres which can track the movements and interactions of patients with communicable diseases like TB. This data, it’s hoped, will be used to build predictive models for identifying high risk patients in the future.

Other examples of collaboration include a full VR experience constructed by African Robot, and an app for advising households on energy use and how much power they could generate with solar panels.

Wits’ deputy vice chancellor, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, says that through the lab the university will build up capacity for more graduate students in data science courses, and will improve its ability to work with municipalities on big data projects like air quality and managing the rapid growth of our cities.

A prototype health tracker which will keep tabs on patients with communicable diseases.
A prototype health tracker which will keep tabs on patients with communicable diseases.

Assefa says that the Research Lab has three key areas of focus: data driven healthcare, digital urban ecosystems and exploring the universe. As part of the latter, the Research Lab will be working closely with the SKA project to develop analysis programs that can manage the huge amount of data the telescope is expected to produce.

A data centre on the ground floor houses “a lot of computing power” as well as cloud storage, says Assefa. Researchers and entrepreneurs will also have access to the Watson cognitive computing system for data analysis too.

Assefa says that the investment in Johannesburg is part of a strategic plan to help grow skills and boost economic development in the area.

“We’ve come to Braamfontein and Johannesburg because we want to be an agent and seed for change,” he says, “We want to be catalyst for the change that’s happening in Braam and we know that’s going to spread throughout African continent.”

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.