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WiDSTORY | June 15, 2021

WiDS Africa Co-Ambassador Teaches Data Science to Empower Women and Girls Across Africa

Mahadia Tunga is Co-Founder and Director of Data Science, Research and Capacity Development at Tanzania Data Lab (dLab). She is also the WiDS Dar es Salaam ambassador, WiDS Africa co-ambassador and a collaborator with the WiDS Education Outreach program.

Tell us about your background.
I was born and raised in Dar es Salaam City, Tanzania and as a child was an average student. In 4th grade I entered a math competition and won. It was the first time I had won anything and my math teacher told me if I studied hard, I had the potential to do even better. Since that day, mathematics has been my favorite subject and I started performing well in all of my classes. I decided to pursue computer science because I wanted to use my math skills to develop solutions to real-world problems. I earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer science from the University of Dar es Salaam, and am currently pursuing a PhD in data science.

How did you get interested in data science?
Growing up in a society where women and girls are poor and not included in decision-making made me want to pursue my dream of empowering women and girls. When I became a computer scientist and later a data trainer, I realized that women can be empowered by teaching them to use data for evidence-based decisions. This inspired me to pursue a career as a data scientist.

What are you currently working on?
I work full time at the University of Dar es Salaam as Assistant Lecturer at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, College of ICT and am pursuing my PhD in data science.

I co-founded Tanzania Data Lab (dLab) where I’m Director for Data Science, Research, and Capacity Development. I’ve created the Women in Data program that is dedicated to empowering girls and women through data science. Over 2,000 women have benefited from the data training programs so far.

I run several programs focused on women in data including:
* Smart Girls: We are training secondary school girls (especially from community schools) on emerging technologies such as data analytics to motivate them to pursue careers in STEM. Over 500 girls have been trained so far.
* Code Like A Girl: dLab is partnering with Vodacom Tanzania to run a series of website development training workshops. More than 800 girls have been trained to date.
* Data4Her: dLab has partnered with Millennium Challenge Cooperation (MCC) to train PEPFAR DREAM girls on the use of data in business. We are targeting young women between 18-35 who live in areas with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. We are training them on data skills so they can expand their businesses, keep proper data on transactions so they can access financial services like loans. We strive to help them sustain their businesses which we hope will eventually reduce their risk of getting HIV/AIDS by abstaining from risky behaviors. So far, we have trained 282 girls.

How did you discover WiDS?
I discovered WiDS through Agnieszka Rawa who introduced me to WiDS Co-Director Margot Gerritsen when she was visiting Tanzania in 2019. That year, I participated in the Stanford ICME workshops and WiDS ambassador gathering. In the ICME workshops, I not only gained new data science skills, I also enjoyed the teaching methodology of interactive modular hands-on sessions.

I also enjoyed the WiDS ambassador gathering where I learned about past WiDS events as I was preparing our first WiDS gathering in December 2019. I was inspired by the nature of the WiDS conference itself, featuring data science experts who also happen to be female. I knew this was the right platform to show girls that it is possible to become a great scientist.

In late 2019 I organized a WiDS conference as part of Data Tamasha (Data Festivals), where we had over 200 participants. In 2020, we organized WiDS Dar es Salaam as an independent event with 137 participants and in 2021 we organized WiDS Africa as a virtual independent event in collaboration with H3ABioNet and Microsoft Research in Africa (MARI).

In addition, I have participated in the WiDS Education Outreach program. We gathered about 88 secondary students from Dar es Salaam and Palo Alto California, training them on data analysis and visualization skills through real-world data on weather conditions.

How has WiDS made an impact on your life and/or work?
WiDS has had a great impact on my life and career. It has been a perfect opportunity to network with like-minded individuals, learn state-of-the-art technologies, and meet new collaborators. WiDS worldwide is a perfect platform to encourage new collaborations.

In Africa, where books portray males as doctors and engineers and females as housewives, the WiDS conference plays a key role in showing a positive future to girls and those in an early career in tech.

What comes next for you? What are your hopes for women in data science in the future?
My hopes and dreams are to see more women in data science. I know it is possible through collaborations. This year we co-organized WiDS Africa with ambassadors from Kenya and South Africa and this has opened doors for collaborations in other areas. We hope to continue to expand WiDS Africa to include ambassadors from countries all across Africa.