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Adding Humanitarian Value to Mathematics

Begoña Vitoriano

The earthquake that devastated Haiti on 12 January, killing more than 200,000 people, was some 30 times weaker than the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that claimed about 430 lives in Chile the following month. Many factors influence the lethality of earthquakes, and no natural disaster is the same as another. But one thing all such disasters share is the need for a quick, accurate evaluation of the damages and the need for help.

Begoña Vitoriano's work with aid organizations fed her desire to apply her mathematical skills to making their work more effective.

Until recently, humanitarian aid organizations have relied largely on "pure intuition" when deciding on the best course of action, says Begoña Vitoriano Villanueva, an associate professor in the Department of Statistics and Operations Research at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain. She is aiming to change that. Working with colleagues, the 42-year-old Vitoriano is designing computer tools to support humanitarian aid organizations in their disaster interventions. The project, which she started 4 years ago, combines her work as a university researcher and teacher with her concern about social inequalities between the developed and the developing worlds.

Applied mathematics, children, and rugby

While still a teenager, Vitoriano embarked on a career in operational research, which she describes as the application of math and statistics to issues in management and economics. After earning a 5-year degree in mathematical sciences in 1990 from Complutense, Vitoriano pursued a Ph.D. in the university's Department of Statistics and Operations Research. She found her work on the set-covering problem -- a classical mathematical problem blending complexity theory and computer science -- too theoretical. She began to work on applied projects with colleagues, simulating a ship in operation for a shipyard, for example, to estimate the reliability of its construction.

Vitoriano experienced much financial hardship during those years. Her father died the year she planned to start at university, and her mother decided Vitoriano wouldn't be able to continue her studies. "Finally, we [agreed] that I was going to study, but I had to pay myself all the expenses," including registration fees, transportation, food, and books, Vitoriano says. She taught private classes every day from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. to pay the bills.

Then, while pursuing her first degree, Vitoriano gave birth to her first son. She left home to live with her partner, also a student. By the second year of her Ph.D. studies they had two children. She earned what she could as a teaching assistant, and her newly graduated husband took a job to support the family. In addition, Vitoriano played rugby for 10 years, her team winning several national championships. The children went to the nursery in the morning, and Vitoriano's mother watched them until Vitoriano returned. Combining it all was "a big struggle," she admits. "I had a very stressful life."

University cooperation, rural development, and the Jesuits

Vitoriano's first opportunity to travel to a developing country came in 1995 when the Cooperación Universitaria ESpañola (CUES) contacted her department for help setting up a master's degree program in statistics in El Salvador. It wasn't quite her beat, but the professor scheduled to teach simulation and queuing theory -- the study of waiting lines -- couldn't go. "I got onboard," she says.

Her struggles in Spain suddenly started to look minor. "I was shocked when I went there because being here, I really never could imagine how [precariously] other people are living in the world," she says. Even though she had just separated from her partner, she returned to El Salvador the following year and started coordinating the master's program, which helped train a new generation of university teachers in a country recently ravaged by war. Four years later, still in partnership with CUES, Vitoriano organized another master's program in statistics at the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco in Peru.

Meanwhile, in 1997, Vitoriano took a position at the private Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid. There, she taught classes to engineering students and carried out applied projects in industrial logistics for energy and transport companies. Superficially, the position didn't seem like a good match -- "I believe in public education," Vitoriano says -- but she needed the money to support her family. "I didn't have any alternative at the time."

The position suited her much better than she had anticipated. Run by Jesuits, the university had a special interest in social justice, Vitoriano says. She was given a few extra days of vacation and even some travel money to continue with her work in El Salvador and Peru.

An engineering student at the Comillas Pontifical University primed her work on software for post-disaster interventions when, in 2001, he asked her to supervise a project in humanitarian logistics for the Red Cross. The student, Antonio Omaña, developed a computer model to assist decision-makers in emergency response, which won a prize from Engineering Without Borders.

Vitoriano's involvement in humanitarian work expanded in 2005 when she volunteered for a rural-development project in Mozambique with Africa Directo, a nongovernmental aid organization, at the request of one of her colleagues. "I went there with some ideas for education," she says, but she encountered greater needs, "like health care centers without water supply, without electricity, carrying out maybe 100 birth deliveries a month with just one nurse."

Back in Madrid, Vitoriano organized expeditions to rehabilitate health care centers and assist orphanages and secondary schools in Mozambique. She decided to leave her job the following year when an assistant professorship came open at Complutense. The freedom to pursue her growing interest in humanitarian logistics was well worth the salary cut, she says. Her work with aid organizations fed her desire to apply her mathematical skills to making their work more effective.

(Courtesy, Begoña Vitoriano)
Begoña Vitoriano in Mozambique, 2007

Disasters, computers, and Haiti

Today, Vitoriano is working with two other professors in her department -- Javier Montero de Juan and María Teresa Ortuño Sánchez -- to develop computer tools to guide logistics during humanitarian recovery efforts. Recently graduated Ph.D. student Gregorio Tirado Domínguez is also involved, along with some other students. The team is developing two tools: The first aims to help humanitarian aid organizations quickly determine the magnitude of a natural disaster and the extent of its consequences.

The second aims to help humanitarian agencies distribute food, water, and medicine more efficiently. Vitoriano's model computes the location of the affected populations and sources of supply together with data on the availability of vehicles, road conditions, and security in the area to recommend delivery routes in often fast-changing conditions. "The goal ... is to have these tools available from our Web site for free for any organization that wants to use them." She hopes to make them available by the end of this year.

Today, "she is actually one of the leading members of my department, and an extremely appreciated colleague," Montero writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. "Her achievements ... have been formally acknowledged by her Faculty and her University, and the mathematical community of Spain, promoting her as their representative in several institutions for cooperation."

Vitoriano estimates that she spends about 25% of her time teaching classes at her university, 30% doing research, another 30% writing and managing grants -- for her research and her humanitarian projects -- and the remaining 15% travelling to developing countries. She makes it all fit by working 13-hour days and using her vacations for humanitarian travel. When her children were small, she took advantage of holidays when they were in their father's care.

Weekends, however, are reserved for family and friends. Her children "probably are the ones who suffer most from all the activities I'm doing," she says. "During the day, my sons practically didn't see me" as they grew up. Juggling everything was tough, but "what was most difficult for me was to convince myself that I wasn't a bad mother for not being the way my mother was, that is, very dedicated to being with the children every afternoon." She has come to believe that spending many hours together doesn't necessarily bring you closer. "Now I have a very good relationship with my children," she says. In 2006 and 2007, she took her two teenage sons to Mozambique.

Vitoriano didn't go to Haiti or Chile after the earthquakes because she knows that's not when she can do the most good. "In humanitarian logistics, where you have to act quickly in very stressful and adverse conditions and people are suffering, really this is not the moment to go," she says. "It is such a chaos that the last thing they need is a mathematician there running around."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South Europe.

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