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Mapping a better future for Tanzania

The women and children walk, sometimes two, and up to seven hours on the hot and dusty paths snaking through the arid Sub-Saharan landscape. Fine soil covers their feet and shoes, sitting thick on the worn scratched buckets being carried many at a time. This is what residents living in water-deprived parts of Tanzania have to do daily just to have clean drinking water. And they are the lucky ones. Many people in Tanzania have no choice but to drink contaminated water — and 4,000 will die each year as a result.

Przemek Zientala wants to change that.

Combining his skills in machine learning — an up-and-coming branch of artificial intelligence — and physical geography was a natural choice for Zientala, a third-year student at the University of Southampton. Since physical geography — the study of natural landscape features — was always one of his interests, Zientala and his advisor decided that he should incorporate both of these fields into his dissertation. Ultimately, he settled on a problem he knew he could solve: finding clean water in one of the most barren regions of the world. Water-mapping is a technology as transparent as its name, in which researchers locate new water sources and confirm the capability of existing ones. “Tanzania has especially bad problems with clean water access,” said Zientala. “And many water-points still aren’t mapped.”

A typical day for Zientala begins at home, his ThinkPad illuminated with water-mapping data, various online engineering community forums, and lines upon lines of code. The work is complex, requiring him to have the best technology while staying within a student’s budget. “When shopping for a computer, I focused on two things: power and build quality. I call my ThinkPad ‘Little Beast.’” After months of comparison shopping, Zientala found that his ThinkPad can keep up with even the most RAM-hungry programs. During those late nights coding in R — an advanced program used by data scientists — Zientala knows his ‘Little Beast’ can handle the job.

Using predictions from trained sets of data, the budding scientist locates potential water points, such as springs or wells, while examining government plans for increasing water access for Tanzanians from 53% in 2005, to 90% in 2025.

For Zientala, his work is more than just a dissertation — it’s a way for him to create something that could have a real impact on people’s lives. “650 million people don’t have access to safe drinking water, perhaps with this technology we can shrink that number,” he explained. Ultimately, this is a tall order for a student who has never visited the place of the project’s origins, some 7,000 miles away from his Southampton apartment.

The undergraduate, 21, who hails from Poland, first arrived in the U.K. on September 19, 2014. He laughs while providing the exact date — just another example of his attention to detail — and doesn’t skip a beat as he goes on to talk about his research. Machine learning, as he explains, is a branch of artificial intelligence that allows computers to learn from data on their own and discover hidden patterns. By plugging in variables such as groundwater depth and previous water well locations obtained from organizations like WaterAid Tanzania and the British Geological Survey, Zientala has compiled data for his thesis, which is being presented in 2017.

When he’s not running algorithms or catching up on field literature, Zientala plays classical guitar and leads his university’s astronomy society. With his keen love for solving problems with real world impact, Zientala plans to complete a PhD program and one day hopes to receive enough public recognition to have his work published, and eventually implemented by the Tanzanian government. In addition, he’s working at a startup called FuseMind, which utilizes Deep Learning and AI to evaluate academic search results — a fantastic tool for students, to say the least.

Zientala says he would love to see his work being used in the field — and he’s already on the right path. He just presented his work at the U.K.’s GIS Conference in Manchester this last April. Hopefully his work will continue to reach larger audiences, eventually leading to change the water crisis in countries like Tanzania and beyond. To Zientala, the whole point is to build “something practical that can impact everyday life,” and contributing his findings to the project is just the beginning for this young scientist.

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