Young Saudi coders prepare for the future

Japanese students seen here taking part in a coding exercise at the recent Hajj Hackathon in Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
Updated 15 October 2018

Young Saudi coders prepare for the future

  • Misk partners with Udacity to provide Saudi youth with computer skills such as data analysis
  • Companies report that one of the main factors in deciding where to locate is the availability of skilled talent

DUBAI: Millions of Arab coders are refining their digital skills to take on the future through a program aimed at strengthening their technological expertise.

Udacity partnered with the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation (Misk) in Saudi Arabia on the Misk Udacity Connect Program to provide young Saudi nationals with the knowledge and skills needed.

Shaikha Alsalem, originally from Riyadh, worked in the business stewardship field in data government. “It got me interested and my managers and customers were really happy with my work,” she said. “I tried to figure out solutions and come up with ideas related to data scientists’ work. They look at data and try to come up with solutions as to how can it solve their problems.”

When Udacity announced its scholarship, she entered their nanodegree program. “We worked on multiple projects, starting with initial analysis in data, machine learning algorithms and how to identity those who are involved in a financial crime,” she said. 

“It wasn’t easy given the fact that most of the students were either working or doing their MA degree so juggling was a bit tough. The project and timeline we were given was also very intense. We were really tested and only given six months to learn what students do in university in two years, but I came out with an amazing experience.”




The Saudi youth are challenged to up-skill their talent and develop new capabilities that will allow them to complement and augment their government’s visionary plans.

After graduating in December last year, her newly-acquired skills helped her career by broadening her perspective about problems and learning how to solve them at work. “It’s important for those who work in the data field, whether they are in the business or technical side,” Alsalem said. “Data is at the hand of almost everybody, and they need to figure out ways to better read, visualize it and solve problems.”

Alsalem believes data will be a huge part of the future. “It’s going to play a really big role,” she said. “It will be very helpful, especially as these fields aren’t taught in college, so it’s a new field to everybody.”

Abdulaziz Alhagbani, a 28-year-old Saudi from Riyadh, graduated in both the nanodegree and data analyst program from Udacity. “Data analytics subject has been getting a lot of attention in Saudi and there is a huge demand to attract employees with skills in data analysis,” he said. “Such skills will help us in building artificial intelligence models and algorithms.”

He said the future would be built on data itself. “Since data is booming in these years and will be in the coming years, we need the latest technologies to use that data and make sense of it,” he said. “We can extract insights and prediction models that way. Every organization, at least in Saudi, has a massive amount of data and the skills of data manipulation and engineering are very important.” 

To make sense of data, he spoke of the need for manipulation and data cleansing. “When you clear it and make it ready for predictive modeling, then comes the power of AI and machine learning,” he added. “I was also interested in statistics. It gives you the power to look into data and see if it’s valid, which will help us build a prediction model.”

Alhagbani started working as a data analyst at the National Center of Performance Management in the Kingdom. “I apply these skills in my everyday job,” he said. “The most important thing I learnt is natural language processing, which was part of the initial learning in nanodegree. We do sentimental analysis on textual data, which allows me to distinguish the feelings of Saudi citizens on government services.” 

The move is a part of the country’s Vision 2030 as it emphasizes citizen satisfaction. “Data provides suggestions where we can improve our services and processes.”




Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of Saudi Vision 2030.

Yusra Alonaizan, a 23-year-old Saudi from the Eastern Province, also works in data science. “I decided to pursue my passion when I majored in computer science,” she said. “I love mathematics and data science is mainly based on that. I’m interested in learning about a vast variety of fields, and data science brings in many fields.”

She studied the data analysis degree at Udacity, where she built a vehicle crash hotspot prediction system for Saudi’s Eastern Province. “You have to input a specific date and time which will tell you road sections expected to have accidents based on historical data,” she said. “I then went to Japan for a month this summer to find areas where I could find new applications of data science in different fields like renewable energy. It gave me an introduction, but I feel like I need more.”

She was recently taken on by data science company Mozn as a data scientist. “As long as I’m doing what I enjoy, my family is happy,” Alonaizan said. “It’s a new technology that’s transforming many fields and it could solve a lot of challenges we have today. We have a new amount of data that is unused. It’s a very powerful tool which could minimize a number of issues.” 

She was driven by the excitement in the new field. “These are areas that are needed in the future,” she added. “The program was well-structured, and the support was perfect. They don’t tell you the answer. They teach you how to learn and what to do when you’re stuck.”

For Udacity, tech innovation has ushered visionary governments in the GCC to plan ahead for tech-driven services and fully-fledged Smart Cities. “Yet, rather than focusing on industry veterans and professionals with years of experience under their belt to lead this transformation, we see these governments not only including their youth in their future visions, but also tapping them for public offices,” said Hisham Elaraby, regional director of MENA at the company. “In the face of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, which plans to diversify the Kingdom’s economy and open it for business, the Saudi youth are challenged to up-skill their talent and develop new capabilities that will allow them to complement and augment their government’s visionary plans.”

“In a region like MENA, where 60 percent of the population is below 25, there is an obvious need to develop and up-skill the youth in order for them to fill today’s talent needs,” Elaraby said. “Having a pipeline of tech talent is the most important factor in bringing new jobs to local economies, facilitating business growth and lifting more local residents into the middle class.”

Companies also report that one of the main factors in deciding where to locate is the availability of skilled talent. “Research from economist Enrico Moretti shows that for each job in the average high-tech firm, five new jobs are indirectly created in local economies,” he added. “Udacity does not only invest in its students’ education, but we also help place our graduates in jobs in the tech industry, based on their nanodegree program credentials.”

Governments are now pressured to provide more jobs, as 30 per cent of the region’s unemployment is found in the public sector. 

Elaraby said: “The real challenge, however, is felt by universities, who are finding it difficult to keep up their curriculum with the pace of technology.”

Decoder

What is the Misk Udacity Connect Program?

Misk is the non-profit Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation, which is devoted to cultivating learning and leadership in youth for the Saudi Arabia of tomorrow. Udacity, from the word "audacious", is a for-profit educational organization founded by Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky offering massive open online courses. MiSK and Udacity have partnered on the Misk Udacity Connect Program to provide young Saudi nationals with the knowledge and skills needed.


Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

Updated 18 November 2019

Saudi pursuit of ‘green Kingdom’ goal gets a boost

  • Agreement between agriculture ministry and Dubai's ICBA aimed at conserving natural resources
  • Kingdom's biosaline agriculture research and systems stands to benefit from ICBA's expertise

DUBAI: Agricultural development and environmental sustainability in Saudi Arabia will receive a boost in the coming years, thanks to a new agreement between the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai and the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture.

The agreement aims to enable Saudi Arabia to achieve its goal of preservation and sustainable management of its natural resources by raising the quality of biosaline agriculture research and systems.

The ministry says that the agreement will make use of the ICBA’s expertise in capacity development besides agricultural and environmental research, especially in the fields of vegetation development, combating desertification and climate change adaptation.

“It also includes training programs for Saudi technicians and farmers,” the ministry said. “In addition, it will localize, implement and develop biosaline agriculture research and production systems for both crops and forestation, which contributes to environmental and agricultural integration.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, the ICBA’s director general, told Arab News: “The agreement had been in the making for about two years. That was when we were approached by the Saudi government.”

Dr. Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA Director General, at the center's Quinoa fields in Dubai. (Supplied photo)

She said: “We put forward a proposal to demonstrate how the ICBA can help the Saudi government to implement its Green Kingdom Initiative, through which the ministry is trying to restore green coverage in the country and revive old conservation practices.”

Geographical features and climatic conditions very greatly from one part of the country to the other.

In the past, experimentation with such crops as potatoes, wheat and alfalfa proved detrimental to the Kingdom’s environment and natural resources due to faster rates of groundwater withdrawal.

“The ministry wanted to put a halt to over-abstraction of water, so they went through different policies,” Elouafi said.

“They made sure, for example, that farmers stopped producing wheat because about 2,400 liters of water is consumed to produce 1 kg of wheat. It was a huge amount,” she added.

“The new strategy is to find more appropriate crops for the farming community, which is quite large in the Kingdom.”

Saudi Arabia has been trying to grow its own food on a large scale since the 1980s. 

The objective of the Green Kingdom Initiative is to reduce the agricultural sector’s water demand by finding alternatives to thirsty crops.

The agreement will require the ICBA, over the next five years, to build for Saudi Arabia a new biosaline agriculture sector. 

As part of this shift, cultivation of a number of crops, notably quinoa, pearl millet and sorghum, will be piloted in high-salinity regions and then scaled up.

“The crops did very well in the UAE,” Elouafi said. “We’re looking at Sabkha regions, which have very high salinity and wetlands, and are on the ministry’s environmental agenda.”

Another objective is “smart” agriculture, which will involve raising water productivity, controlling irrigation water consumption and changing farming behavior.

Elouafi said that getting farmers in the Kingdom to stop cultivating wheat took some time as they had become accustomed to heavy government subsidies. In 2015, wheat production was phased out, followed by potatoes a year later and then alfalfa. 

“Farmers were provided everything to the point where they got used to a very good income and a very easy system,” she said.

“Now farmers are being asked to start producing something else, but the income won’t be the same, so it’s very important at this stage that the ministry has a plan and it’s fully understood.”

The agreement envisages preparation of proposals for ministry projects that involve plant production, drought monitoring, development of promising local crop and forestation varieties, and conservation of plant genetic resources.

“We’re also discussing capacity building because the ministry is big and has many entities. Because Saudi Arabia is a large country and has the capacity to meet some of its food requirements internally, what’s required is a better understanding of the country’s natural capabilities in terms of production of the crops it needs, like certain cereals,” Elouafi said.

“The way the authorities are going about it right now is more organized and more holistic. They’re trying to plan it properly.”

Elouafi said that having a better understanding of Saudi Arabia’s water constraints and managing the precious resource is essential.

 

Although almost the entire country is arid, there is rainfall in the north and along the mountain range to the west, especially in the far southwest, which receives monsoon rains in summer.

 

Sporadic rain may also occur elsewhere. Sometimes it is very heavy, causing serious flooding, including in Riyadh.

“They (the government) are very interested in drought management systems. The Kingdom has a long history of agriculture,” Elouafi said.

“It has large quantities of water in terms of rainfall, and certain regions have mountainous conditions, which are conducive to agriculture.”

Clearly, preservation of water resources is a priority for the Saudi government. But no less urgent is the task of conversion of green waste to improve soil quality, increase soil productivity and water retention, and reduce demand for irrigation.

The Kingdom is one of at least three Gulf Cooperation Council countries that are taking steps to develop a regulatory framework for the recycling of waste into compost.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman are respectively aiming to recycle 85 percent, 75 percent and 60 percent of their municipal solid waste over the next decade, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) entitled “Global Food Trends to 2030.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE rank in the bottom quartile of the 34 countries covered by the EIU’s Food Sustainability Index, with low scores for nutrition and food loss and waste. 

The answer, according to many farmers, policymakers and food-industry experts, is a shift toward more sustainable management of each country’s natural resources.