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Spatial Statistics Provide a Path Forward

November 17, 2017

During assembly on Friday, November 17, Dr. Onesimo Sándoval, associate professor of Sociology and co-director of the Public and Social Policy Ph.D. Program at Saint Louis University, spoke to students about computational spatial statistics and how they can reveal meaningful patterns that facilitate understanding of and solutions for real world problems. He was the first presenter in the 2017-2018 STEM Series which brings speakers to campus to discuss groundbreaking work in St. Louis. Sándoval was introduced by STEM facilitator Martha Keeley (science) and statistics student David Davila '18.

Sándoval said his interest began when he tried to understand the spatial divide in his hometown. If possible, he wanted to confirm his experience of growing up in a segregated Mexican neighborhood in Nebraska with hard statistics/data. And he did.

Sándoval stressed the importance of synthesis, quoting American biologist Edward O. Wilson, "We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely." The challenge, Sándoval said, is to take the vast quantity of data and put it together in innovative ways.

His work in St. Louis has focused, in large part, on the city's declining population and how that decline has played out across the area. For instance, abandoned houses have led to public health problems. To uncover patterns he collaborates with researchers in a variety of different fields, using satellite images combined with demographic data and huge online databases.

Sándoval has also investigated the so-called Delmar Divide. He re-mapped the area looking for statistically significant patterns in terms of diversity and segregation indices. This analysis revealed three sections of the city, two contributing to segregation and one large section that actually contributes to integration.

He has identified more than four dozen social, economic, environmental and ecological indicators that collectively impact (and help measure) a community's health. Sándoval and the communities/groups he works with can use any and all of these indicators when evaluating a specific neighborhood. They determine their own boundaries, and, using powerful computers, integrate big data and visualize that data in three dimensions. This process reveals important patterns/problems and helps point to ameliorative policies/decisions.

During a brief Q & A following Sándoval's presentation, he said the biggest hurdle in this work is finding students who know how to write the computer code needed to manipulate big data and apply spatial statistics. Once students in his lab learn the statistics and the required computer programming, companies and agencies immediately seek them out for internships and jobs.

Sándoval earned his undergraduate and master's degrees at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley. He then moved to Chicago where he was an assistant professor of Sociology at Northwestern. In 2008, Sándoval joined the SLU faculty, where he is an associate professor of Sociology and co-director of the Public and Social Policy Ph.D. Program, and founded the GeoSpatial Research and Innovation Lab. Sándoval is an applied demographer and consultant to communities, agencies and organizations locally, nationally and worldwide.