December 16, 2022

#DataSheroes: Conversations with Women in Data Science –  Mahadia Tunga

Last month, we hosted the maiden edition of our Datasheroes – Conversations with Women in Data Science Series. We were privileged to be joined by our very first guest, Mahadia Tunga, Co-Founder and Director of Data Science, Research, and Capacity Development at Tanzania Data Lab (dLab)

Representation of women in data science remains very low in Africa and globally. We created this series as a way to identify and celebrate female role models in the data science space. We believe it is imperative to identify role models and celebrate them so we can learn from their journeys and inspire young girls to take advantage of the opportunities available in STEM.

Here is a summary of our conversation with Mahadia.

How did your journey into data science start?

My journey actually started with a role model that I never met. My brother told me about someone who had studied electronics and was very successful.  He believed that getting into STEM would ease the pain of finding a job.

As a young girl that was my first exposure to the idea of doing science. I went ahead to study computer science for my undergraduate and Master’s at the university and I am currently completing a Ph.D. in Data Science.

What inspired the setting up of dLab Tanzania?

After I completed my university studies, I was employed at the university, and they needed a female who could code for a project at the time. Fortunately, at that point, I was the only female coder in the department, so I got a chance to be part of the project.

I was an assistant lecturer as well as a software programmer working on a national human resource software. At the end of the project, the team members decided to bid for another project and we won the bid for dLab Tanzania. By that time, it was just a project however, we thought about what we could do to sustain the impact of the project. That’s when we came up with the idea to establish an organization called dLab Tanzania and then I went ahead to lead the data science and capacity portfolio for the organization.

Tell us a bit about the work you do at dLab. 

The main mission of the lab has always been to use data as a tool for positive impact. Advancing the use of data as a tool to make better decisions has been our main mission since we started. We work on the innovation side to develop data-driven innovations and products while also empowering communities to use and better understand data. On the other hand, we also work on data science solutions, which focus on how we can create impactful data-driven products to solve real-world challenges.

How are you supporting young women in the data science field?

After the first year of the establishment of dLab as a project, we realized that only about 30% of our participants were female. We then decided to go back to our own data and analyze why this was the case. One of the issues we identified was that some of our programs were so intensive that many women who were engaged with other family obligations thought that such a programme might not be very convenient for them. 

This is what made us decide to establish our women in data initiative with the aim of helping more women and girls feel inspired to get into STEM and be more involved in the creation and development of technology. The programme also equips them with the necessary skills to get into a STEM career and excel.

For us, it was not only about the training, but also about creating that sense of belonging. We aim to help women realize that data is just a tool that they can use and that it is not something they should shy away from. We have also tailored our programmes to make them more  accessible to more women, taking into consideration the other roles and obligations they may have in their lives. For example we now have evening programs, weekend programs, and halfway programs so as to accommodate different groups.

What is your advice to women and girls who might be interested in pursuing a career in data science?

Being a data scientist in the 21st century has immense opportunities. Data is fast becoming a key part of many aspects of society as organisations and businesses have become more data-driven. As a data scientist, you become part of the decision-making and a career in Data Science, especially now, has very high prospects. I encourage young African women(and men) to take advantage of this burgeoning field of data science.

My advice to young Africans who want to pursue data science is that they should go for it. Data science gives you the chance to have an influence and an impact on people’s lives and shape the future, whether it is in health, agriculture, manufacturing, or education. It presents a great opportunity to solve pertinent challenges in the African continent and also worldwide. The barrier to learning data science is not as high as it used to be before and nowadays, you can even sit in your hometown and access so many courses all around the world. I believe everything is possible once you make the decision to do it.