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TED@IBM

Tapiwa Chiwewe: You don't have to be an expert to solve big problems

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Driving in Johannesburg one day, Tapiwa Chiwewe noticed an enormous cloud of air pollution hanging over the city. He was curious and concerned but not an environmental expert -- so he did some research and discovered that nearly 14 percent of all deaths worldwide in 2012 were caused by household and ambient air pollution. With this knowledge and an urge to do something about it, Chiwewe and his colleagues developed a platform that uncovers trends in pollution and helps city planners make better decisions. "Sometimes just one fresh perspective, one new skill set, can make the conditions right for something remarkable to happen," Chiwewe says. "But you need to be bold enough to try."

- AI researcher
Tapiwa Chiwewe, PhD, manages the advanced and applied artificial intelligence group at IBM Research – Africa, which uses artificial intelligence to develop solutions for some of Africa's grand challenges whilst making scientific advances. Full bio

One winter morning, a couple of years ago,
00:12
I was driving to work
in Johannesburg, South Africa,
00:16
and noticed a haze hanging over the city.
00:19
I make that drive on most days,
00:22
so it was unusual
that I hadn't noticed this before.
00:25
Johannesburg is known
for its distinctive skyline,
00:28
which I could barely see that morning.
00:31
It didn't take long for me to realize
that I was looking at an enormous cloud
00:34
of air pollution.
00:38
The contrast between
the scenic environment I knew
00:40
and this smog-covered skyline
00:44
stirred up something within me.
00:46
I was appalled by the possibility
of this city of bright and vivid sunsets
00:49
being overrun by a dull haze.
00:54
At that moment, I felt an urge
to do something about it,
00:57
but I didn't know what.
01:01
All I knew was
I couldn't just stand idly by.
01:03
The main challenge was,
01:07
I didn't know much
about environmental science
01:09
air-quality management
01:13
or atmospheric chemistry.
01:15
I am a computer engineer,
01:17
and I was pretty sure I couldn't code
my way out of this air pollution problem.
01:19
(Laughter)
01:23
Who was I to do anything about this issue?
01:24
I was but a citizen.
01:27
In the following years,
I learned a very important lesson,
01:31
a lesson we all need to take to heart
if we are to work towards a better future.
01:35
Even if you're not an expert
in a particular domain,
01:40
your outside expertise may hold the key
01:44
to solving big problems
within that domain.
01:47
Sometimes the unique perspective you have
01:50
can result in unconventional thinking
that can move the needle,
01:53
but you need to be bold enough to try.
01:57
That's the only way you'll ever know.
02:01
What I knew back then
02:04
was that if I was even going
to try to make a difference,
02:06
I had to get smart
about air pollution first,
02:10
and so I became a student again.
02:13
I did a bit of basic research
02:17
and soon learned that air pollution
02:19
is the world's biggest
environmental health risk.
02:21
Data from the World Health Organization
02:25
shows that almost 14 percent
of all deaths worldwide in 2012
02:28
were attributable to household
and ambient air pollution,
02:33
with most occurring
in low- and middle-income countries.
02:37
Ambient air pollution alone
causes more deaths each year
02:41
than malaria and HIV/AIDS.
02:45
In Africa, premature deaths
from unsafe sanitation
02:48
or childhood malnutrition
02:52
pale in comparison
to deaths due to air pollution,
02:53
and it comes at a huge economic cost:
02:57
over 400 billion US dollars as of 2013,
03:00
according to a study by the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development.
03:04
Now, in my work,
03:09
I explore new frontiers
for artificial intelligence,
03:12
where the symbiotic relationship
between man and machine
03:17
can find a beneficial footing
and help us to make better decisions.
03:20
As I thought about
the air pollution problem,
03:25
it became clear that we needed
to find a way to make better decisions
03:28
about how we manage air pollution,
03:32
and given the scale of the problem,
03:34
it was necessary to do it
in a collaborative way.
03:36
So I decided I'd better get to know
some people working within the field.
03:40
I started to speak to officials
from the City of Johannesburg
03:45
and other surrounding cities,
03:48
and I engaged the local
scientific community,
03:50
and I also made a few cold calls.
03:53
The process of engagement I embarked upon
03:57
helped me to develop
a deeper understanding of the problem.
03:59
It also helped me to avoid the trap
04:03
people in my profession sometimes
fall into when trying to innovate,
04:05
where we are quick to apply a technology
04:09
before we've firmly grasped
the problem at hand.
04:11
I began to develop an idea
04:15
about what I could do
to improve the situation.
04:17
I started by simply asking myself
04:20
how I could bring together
in some meaningful way
04:23
my skills in software engineering
and artificial intelligence
04:25
and the expertise of the people
I'd reached out to.
04:29
I wanted to create an online
air-quality management platform
04:33
that would uncover trends in pollution
04:37
and project into the future
04:39
to determine what outcomes
can be expected.
04:41
I was determined to see my idea
translate into a practical solution,
04:44
but I faced uncertainty
04:49
and had no guarantee of success.
04:52
What I had was a very particular set
of engineering skills,
04:55
skills I'd acquired over my career
05:00
(Laughter)
05:03
that were new to people who had
been working on the air pollution problem
05:04
for so many years.
05:08
What I have come to realize is that
sometimes just one fresh perspective,
05:09
one new skill set,
05:14
can make the conditions right
for something remarkable to happen.
05:15
Our willpower and imagination
are a guiding light,
05:20
enabling us to chart new paths
and navigate through obstacles.
05:23
Armed with a firmer understanding
of the air pollution problem,
05:28
and having managed to source
over a decade's worth of data
05:31
on air pollutant levels
05:35
and the meteorological conditions
for in and around Johannesburg,
05:36
my colleagues from South Africa
and China and myself
05:41
created an air-quality
decision support system
05:45
that lives in the cloud.
05:48
This software system
analyzes historical and real-time data
05:50
to uncover the spatial-temporal
trends in pollution.
05:54
We then used new
machine learning technology
05:57
to predict future levels of pollution
06:00
for several different pollutants
days in advance.
06:03
This means that citizens
can make better decisions
06:06
about their daily movements
06:10
and about where to settle their families.
06:12
We can predict adverse
pollution events ahead of time,
06:14
identify heavy polluters,
06:18
and they can be ordered
by the relevant authorities
06:19
to scale back their operations.
06:22
Through assisted scenario planning,
06:25
city planners can also make
better decisions
06:27
about how to extend infrastructure,
06:30
such as human settlements
or industrial zones.
06:32
We completed a pilot of our technology
06:36
that was run over a period of 120 days,
06:38
covering all of South Africa.
06:42
Our results were confirmed
06:45
when we demonstrated a tight correlation
06:47
between the forecasting data
06:49
and the data we were getting
on the ground.
06:52
Through our leadership,
06:55
we have brought cutting-edge,
world-leading assets
06:57
that can perform air-quality forecasting
07:01
at an unprecedented
resolution and accuracy,
07:03
benefiting the city that I drove into
one winter morning not very long ago,
07:08
and thought to myself,
07:14
"Something is wrong here.
I wonder what can be done?"
07:16
So here is the point:
07:20
What if I'd not investigated
the problem of air pollution further?
07:23
What if I'd not shown some concern
for the state of the environment
07:28
and just hoped that someone,
somewhere, was taking care of the matter?
07:32
What I have learned is that,
07:37
when embarking on a challenging endeavor
07:39
that advances a cause
that we firmly believe in,
07:41
it is important to focus
on the possibility of success
07:44
and consider the consequence
of not acting.
07:47
We should not get distracted
by resistance and opposition,
07:51
but this should motivate us further.
07:55
So wherever you are in the world,
07:58
the next time you find
08:02
that there's some
natural curiosity you have
08:04
that is being piqued,
08:06
and it's about something you care about,
08:08
and you have some crazy or bold ideas,
08:10
and perhaps it's outside
the realm of your expertise,
08:13
ask yourself this:
08:16
Why not?
08:19
Why not just go ahead
and tackle the problem
08:22
as best as you can, in your own way?
08:24
You may be pleasantly surprised.
08:27
Thank you.
08:31
(Applause)
08:32

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About the speaker:

Tapiwa Chiwewe - AI researcher
Tapiwa Chiwewe, PhD, manages the advanced and applied artificial intelligence group at IBM Research – Africa, which uses artificial intelligence to develop solutions for some of Africa's grand challenges whilst making scientific advances.

Why you should listen

An engineer and researcher of many interests, Tapiwa Chiwewe has worked in academia and industry, developing commercial products and conducting scientific research in many areas that include mining, healthcare, defense, astronomy and the environment.

Chiwewe studied at the University of Pretoria in South Africa where he earned a PhD in Computer Engineering. His roles have ranged from junior lecturer and researcher, software engineer, followed by an extended stint with South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

More profile about the speaker
Tapiwa Chiwewe | Speaker | TED.com