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Meet SAEON's data scientist

By Glenn Moncrieff, Data Scientist, SAEON Fynbos Node
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In his role as data scientist at SAEON’s Fynbos Node, Glenn is conducting research to understand and monitor how land cover is changing across South Africa, particularly in the Fynbos biome. He is also investigating the consequences of land cover changes for important issues such as water provision, species extinctions and the carbon cycle.

I grew up spending all my free time in the ocean and mountains around Cape Town. It was an obvious choice for me to follow a career that led me to engage even more with the natural environment that I love so much.

While studying ecology at university I realised that I had an aptitude for maths and programming, and that by pursuing this I could make an impact on ecological research and contribute towards addressing environmental problems.

Big data and satellites

At the time there were not many places where ecology and data science could be studied together in South Africa, so I went abroad to do my PhD in Germany. There I studied the drivers of savanna distributions across the globe using big data and satellites.

I always wanted to return to South Africa and was fortunate to be offered a postdoc at SAEON's Fynbos Node to research ecological change in Fynbos. I found SAEON to be a wonderful working environment. I realised that they were conducting cutting-edge science while at the same time focusing on issues directly relevant to society and environmental managers.

Entering the world of data science

After my postdoc I was offered a job as a data scientist for a consultancy. The opportunity to work in industry appealed to me, as I had never worked outside of academia and I was intrigued to learn how things worked in the 'real world'. This career change was a great experience, and I gained many insights into the workings of small startups and large corporations that I can contrast with the way research is conducted.

However, my real passion remained ecology and research, and I longed for the opportunity to return to work which addresses the challenges faced by natural ecosystems in South Africa. I was thrilled to be offered a position as a data scientist at SAEON's Fynbos Node in July 2018.

In this role I am conducting research to understand and monitor how land cover is changing across South Africa, particularly in the Fynbos biome. I am also investigating the consequences of land cover changes for important issues such as water provision, species extinctions and the carbon cycle.

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A fire burns through fynbos and alien vegetation in the Garden Route. New satellites allow fires to be more closely monitored than ever before (image credit: contains modified Copernicus Sentinel 2 data processed by Sentinel hub).

New sources of data from satellites and low-cost sensors are ushering in a new era of environmental observation. It is now possible to observe and map environmental changes in more detail than ever before. We have initiated collaborations with national and provincial conservation agencies to help them use this data to track the health of natural vegetation and rapidly detect illegal activities.

This flood of data is continuously increasing, and to keep up with it we need to develop the skills to handle and interrogate this data. The most important skill for any scientist who works with data is the ability to use a programming language like R or Python. These tools underpin all the great research that is done in the era of big data and machine learning, and ecologists need to be trained in their use if they are to remain at the cutting edge.

All my students are trained to use either R or Python and conduct their research using free and open source software. I believe there is huge potential for free and open source software to democratise research and empower marginalised youth to acquire in-demand skills without the financial and social barriers imposed by traditional higher education.

I do my best to contribute to skills development in these areas by teaching data literacy to students across South Africa and beyond.

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Teaching data literacy to researchers and students is critical to ensuring cutting-edge research (image credit: University of Venda).

When all the sciencing gets too much I escape to the mountains and oceans to surf, hike and rock climb. I try to share this passion with at-risk youth in Cape Town through a non-profit climbing club that I founded together with friends. We take youth climbing at the local gym, on climbing trips to the mountains around Cape Town and connect them with the local climbing community and natural environment. Find out more at www.dreamHigher.co.za

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