Tools to enable research in the 21st century



To help researchers acquire the new skills that they need to deal with much larger datasets today, the NWU presents workshops that teach them valuable computational skills on various platforms.

With the rapid rate at which technology is improving, researchers today have access to very different and much larger datasets than just a few years ago.

The changing landscape of research aids them to answer questions they’ve never been able to address, but it has also created a massive need to acquire new skills to deal with these new and much larger datasets.



The NWU’s Information Technology (IT) department has a solution for this challenging problem. It is partnering with the Software Carpentry Foundation and its sibling organisation, Data Carpentry, to run a series of workshops aimed at helping researchers address the need for new computational and data skills.


Anelda van der Walt, eResearch consultant at the NWU, has been involved with Software Carpentry in South Africa since 2014. The programs, mainly using open source platforms, had their origins in Canada. They have since been implemented worldwide, with expert instructors presenting workshops that teach researchers valuable computational skills on various platforms.


Focus is on critical skills


The workshops focus on teaching critical skills needed for research in the 21st century and can be offered to researchers from all disciplines. Software Carpentry typically includes an introduction to R or Python, commandline tools for automating repetitive tasks, and an overview of git and GitHub for version control and collaboration. Data Carpentry is more subject-specific and focuses on tools used in specific domains such as genomics, digital humanities or ecology.


“Software and Data Carpentry have the potential to really address the critical shortage of research data science skills globally. Every postgraduate student should participate in one of these workshops,” says Anelda, who started her association with Software Carpentry at the University of Cape Town and brought her expertise to the NWU last year.


Almost 18 years of global research have gone into developing the lessons which are available for free and published under a Creative Commons licence. Software and Data Carpentry provide researchers with a platform where they can collaboratively learn best practices to navigate the complex world of analysing, visualising and sharing research data. Researchers can also learn to teach these workshops through instructor training opportunities.


Instructor training also offered


The first face-to-face instructor training in Africa took place in April this year at the NWU. The event was led by Dr Aleksandra Pawlik from the Software Sustainability Institute in Manchester, England, and was attended by 23 researchers and postgraduates from all over Africa. Among the participants were eight NWU staff members and students who had learnt about this initiative through the first NWU-based workshop that was run in November last year.


Workshop participants come from a wide range of research backgrounds. During the November workshop nine faculties across all three NWU campuses were represented.


Anelda says the workshops are very popular. “Researchers are introduced to a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to computing data. They bring their own laptops with the free, pre-installed software to the workshops. This allows them to type along as the instructor is working through the lesson material.


“Funding for workshops remains a challenge but we have nevertheless managed to confirm a few more workshops from now until the end of the year. We hope that more people will get involved and enable us to host more workshops on a regular basis.”


The first of these, respectively aimed at social sciences, biological sciences and genomics, took place on 29 August and 1 September at the Mafikeng Campus and the second one from 26 to 29 September at the Potchefstroom Campus.