Victoria M. Gammino: Connecting Silos with Geospatial

A conversation about applying remote-sensing techniques and analysis across disciplines.

It is our pleasure to introduce to you Dr. Victoria M. Gammino, Radiant.Earth’s newly appointed Chief Science Officer. Victoria is known in the global health community for her tenacious drive toward a polio-free world. An epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for 15 years, she recognized early on the potential of geospatial data to expose demographically ‘invisible’ communities. She applied spatial and remote-sensing techniques and analysis to improve access to health care for hard-to-reach populations, such as nomadic pastoralists and those living in conflict zones. Her professional portfolio has included infectious disease research in Africa, Asia, and the Americas to support tuberculosis elimination efforts and, most recently, polio eradication. From piloting the use of geospatial data to track polio vaccinators in northern Nigeria to conducting a tuberculosis outbreak investigation on a remote Pacific atoll, Victoria’s experience bridges sectors and continents. She has collaborated with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, FAO, USAID, host governments, and non-governmental organizations to improve global health operations and strengthen policies through evidence-based practices.

In this Q&A, Victoria reflects on the role of geospatial data as a social good and shares her vision to help scale the use of Earth imagery and analytical tools to support operational challenges in the Global South.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t fix it.”
“The wonderful thing about the sciences is that seemingly unrelated approaches can reveal the most extraordinary synergies.” — Dr. Victoria M. Gammino

You have been at the forefront of geospatial technology for immunization activities in Africa. What got you interested in the intersection of global health and geospatial analytics?

The use of geospatial analytics goes all the way back to 1854, when John Snow plotted out the location of cholera cases relative to their water source during an epidemic in London. It’s a fundamental tool of epidemiologic investigation, which has become far easier to deploy with the advent of handheld GPS units. Personally, I first used geospatial data in 2009 while I was working on polio eradication in northern Nigeria for CDC. The previous year, my friend and colleague Raoul Kamadjeu had published a paper about using Google Earth to visualize and track the spread of poliovirus down the Congo River, which our research team used as a springboard for the Nigeria study.

The mantra of polio eradication is “every last child,” which is accomplished through supplemental immunization activities (SIAs) in countries where routine immunization is weak. Volunteers go house-to-house to administer two drops of vaccine to each child under five guided by hand-drawn maps of their area. Despite our best efforts, children were being missed during these SIAs because the maps were so bad! We got the idea to give each team a GPS unit and compare their tracks with satellite imagery of the area to see what areas they were missing. It was far worse than anyone ever thought. This finding led to a larger-scale study by the Nigerian government and the World Health Organization, and eventually a large investment from the Gates Foundation to map Nigeria, and, subsequently, other polio-impacted countries. After that, we started to apply it to other issues, for example reaching nomadic and other mobile populations, such as those displaced by war. Because of the difficulty in finding these groups — they are often statistically “invisible” — the simple lesson is: if you can’t see it, you can’t fix it.

My professional interest in using these tools then evolved into a passion for making geospatial data universally available, because they are so powerful. Furthermore, open-access is an unequivocal leveling device for users from the Global South.

An example of a “local” sketchmap used to plan house-to-house polio vaccine distribution campaign in Nigeria. Note the absence of landmarks and accurate administrative boundaries.

In a recent article that you co-authored about the importance of having access to spatial data to confront global challenges, you raised concerns about the lack of quality data and institutional geospatial capacity to support health and humanitarian efforts. In the context of lessons learned and doing things better, what do you think is needed to address this problem?

Enormous amounts of data are generated every day by governments, universities, and actors in the development sector. However, these data are siloed. They are difficult to find and, if found, require a certain level of expertise and computing infrastructure to exploit them fully. We need to counter the view of geospatial data as “currency” by creating a culture of data sharing rather than data hoarding. In the long run, the latter is counterproductive for everyone. We are working with partners to make these data more accessible by aggregating them in one place and by providing tools that can improve analytic capacity.

The other key challenge is the absence of a clear career path for geospatial professionals and a market for their skillsets in developing countries. Right now, there isn’t enough demand for them in the Global South, so well-trained professionals move to nations where the labor market determines their compensation. Thankfully this is changing, because of the commitments to geospatial technologies by multi-national organizations such as the African Union, investments by countries, and the efforts of disruptors such as Youth Mappers, Women in Tech Africa, and Code for Africa. These groups are demonstrating the incredible value of open source geospatial data and analytics. In the long run, we believe that when countries and their partners invest in geospatial infrastructure and resources, this opens the employment market to all kinds of possibilities in the STEM arena.

Tell us about your specific role as Chief Science Officer for Radiant.Earth. What are the goals you most want to accomplish in your work?

Silos between organizations are among the biggest challenges, so we are aiming to break those down by working across them. I’d also like to encourage further collaboration across disciplines to foster innovation across our users. The wonderful thing about the sciences is that seemingly unrelated approaches can reveal the most extraordinary synergies. While Radiant.Earth focuses on a geospatial mission, it is inherently multi-disciplinary. Our team comprises engineers, computer scientists, remote sensing experts, epidemiologists, policy experts, and strategic communications experts all focused on helping our partners accomplish their respective missions with our imagery and tools.

“We have a unique opportunity to bring diverse experts together to identify and exploit the synergies between disciplines.”

What are you most looking forward to?

I am looking forward to working with and learning new things from scientists outside the public health sphere — such as conservationists, climate change scientists, and demographers. While there has always been cross-over between these fields and public health — for example, looking at the role of habitat destruction on the spread of infectious disease vectors — remote sensing offers significant untapped potential for collaboration. As Radiant.Earth is both a data aggregator and a convener within the geospatial community of practice, we have a unique opportunity to bring diverse experts together to identify and exploit the synergies between disciplines. For example, how can a better understanding of terrain and land use help large-scale farms prevent chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu)? Is the Rest, Water, Shade intervention more effective in some climates than others? I also think that wider access to Earth imagery for non-scientific audiences — for example, the art community — will further science more broadly, as sometimes artist-activists are especially effective translators of, and ambassadors for science.

Research reveals that women in the geospatial industry are gradually progressing into leadership positions, but the gender gap remains wide. What advice do you have for young women navigating the career ladder in our profession?

That’s such an important question, not just for women in geospatial and STEM, but across the board. I was very fortunate to have another female scientist provide mentoring early in my career; she remains a friend and mentor to this day. Just as she reminded me, I want to remind other women, that “taking a seat at the table” isn’t just figurative, it’s literal as well. If you want to be heard, you must first be seen. This isn’t always easy, but familiarizing yourself with relevant research can help you overcome social dynamics and cognitive biases that can affect the way you are perceived. Ultimately, you are your own best advocate.

I would also say that leading requires perspective and empathy. You are where you are because many women struggled before you. In turn, it is incumbent on us to always be aware that there are women who still can’t own land, vote, drive, seek education, or even venture unescorted outside their homes, so we have to keep forging ahead on their behalf as well. We have a long way to go. The structural barriers to these rights need to come down, and we must also assure that gender stereotypes — which have been shown to be picked up by little girls as early as three or four years — are invalidated and changed through conscious, forward action. As Geena Davis, founder of the Institute on Gender in the Media says, “if she can see it, she can be it.” Stay mission-focused, lead through action, and always pay it forward.

Given the greater detail of this sketchmap of the Eastleigh neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, we were able to geo-reference this using satellite imagery to more effectively identify areas that may have been overlooked.