By Onz Chery
The low battery light on Tchalens Jeudy’s laptop was on again. As he sat in his living room in Carrefour in July, the usual feeling of powerlessness, mixed with anger, creeped over Jeudy again. There was no electricity to charge his 2016 Dell laptop. There hadn’t been electricity in the neighborhood for about a month.
The power shortage came at the worst time too for Jeudy, 21. He was in the middle of an intensive data science bootcamp, a four-month course created by tech training and data research company Ayiti Analytics. That day, as with many days, Jeudy closed his laptop and went to Mrs. Pierre’s house nearby, paying 25 Haitian gourdes, about 38 U.S. cents, to charge the machine.
At least, Jeudy reasoned, he no longer had to trek through the gang-infested streets of Port-au-Prince to get to Digicel’s lab for the program and was following it from home. Ayiti Analytics had to limit the number of students in the lab after the novel coronavirus started spreading in Haiti in April.
In August, through slow internet and many trips to Mrs. Pierre’s house, Jeudy became one of 11 students who graduated from the data analytics bootcamp.
“It was worth the pain and the sacrifices I had to make,” said Jeudy, a senior at the Technical Center of Planification and Applied Economics (CTPEA). “Almost all of my friends dream of becoming a big data scientist. The dream is here, the love for it is here but there aren’t enough training programs. When I found this opportunity, I felt extremely lucky.”
Upon graduation, eight of the graduates were interning at Digicel Haiti, two others recently finished the interviewing process before the internship. One of the graduates was also employed by Ayiti Analytics and another worked at Superior School of Infotronic in Haiti.
“Under normal conditions, these students would’ve been geniuses,” said Yvel Marcelin, one of Ayiti Analytics’ three co-founders. “We have youngsters with an extraordinary thirst for learning. If we invest in them, I’m sure Haiti will reach far.”
The company’s bootcamp is the brainchild of co-founder Castelline Tilus, a Haitian-American data analyst and Stanford University graduate. She first thought of launching the bootcamp in 2017, after Digicel Haiti offered her a position, even though she lived in Washington D.C.
In Haiti, average internet speed was 2.94 megabits per second in 2019, compared to 50.2 Mbps in the U.S. Only 32.5 percent of the population has access to the internet, as of 2018, according to Statista. Even worse, residents can go weeks, sometimes months without electricity.
Still Tilus forged ahead.
“There was a skill gap, the relevant skills employers were looking for were missing,” Tilus, 30, said. “Ayiti Analytics was originally going to be a bootcamp that would take recent graduates, funnel them through intensive training and connect them to local jobs.”
The first step in Tilus’s quest was to find other people to assist her. After talking to about 90 people in the span of two years, she finally met two men who not only had the same vision but were committed as co-founders: Haitian-born Marcelin and Haitian-Malaysian Morgan Mendis.
While Tilus networked, she also looked for sponsors. Digicel promised a computer room for the students at its headquarters in Boise Patate, Port-au-Prince. She also received a grant from The Roddenberry Foundation among other funders.
Ayiti Analytics had 87 applicants in their inaugural year. The top 15 applicants were selected after taking two tests on Statistics, Excel and logical reasoning and going through an interview process.
In March 2020, the bootcamp finally kicked off. It was free of charge.
The coronavirus test
Students learned how to clean, extract, analyze data, and how to create visualizations using Python amongst other skills. Classes were Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Many students, some of whom had worked in technology jobs, often stayed in class afterward for additional training.
Jeudy thought he was going to “see blank” when he joined. However, the content turned out to be very similar to what he had already learned at the Technical Center of Planification and Applied Economics CTPEA. The only difference is that it was taught on computers instead of on a chalkboard.
“The students were engaged,” Tilus said. “After the first two weeks, they completed all of their initial projects. We were on track. It all felt too good to be true.”
Then, COVID-19 started spreading in Haiti in mid-April. It tested the staying power of the bootcamp which stopped running as safety precautions were implemented.
Students were worried.
“We were supposed to get internships after graduating, and possibly get hired later on,” student Gregory Pinchinat, 27, said. “Haiti is already a poor country. Young people don’t have a bright future. If this program were to be canceled, it would’ve been devastating not only for us, but Haiti as a whole.”
The students refused to let the opportunity slip out of their hands. They asked Tilus and her team to hold it virtually. After a one-month hiatus, class was back in session — held virtually, with limited in-person sessions by rotation.
Working remotely, the students’ patience was tested by slow internet, made even slower amidst an electricity crisis.
Nevertheless, 11 of the 15 students rose above those challenges and graduated. For their final project, they had to present an issue in Haiti while using visual data.
Jeudy’s project looked at Haiti’s health system. Pinchinat explored the forecasting of U.S. dollars to Haitian gourdes’ exchange rates for his capstone. Other student projects include the effects of teenage pregnancy, an analysis of Haiti’s universities and so on.
The next bootcamp cohort, Tilus said, starts in February. Ayiti Analytics also plans to organize a post-program, in which the graduates will get a specialization in data science in 2021. They want to tackle several data research projects as well like predicting food insecurity and building a digital map of crop field productions.
“This is just the starting point,” Tilus said. “We did the first data science bootcamp. We want to keep writing things in history. We want to be the first of many first in Haiti.”