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PhD student to study water access and control in Uganda through interviews—and equations

May 31, 2016 - BOSTON, MA. - Matt Simonson PhD poses for a portrait in the Network Science Institute on May 31, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Matt Simonson’s desire to study and foster greater understanding of how the international community responds to political conflict, genocide, and humanitarian crises has been shaped by his myriad cultural and global experiences.

He grew up in the nation’s capital regularly reading world news in The Washington Post and meeting international houseguests of his parents, both of whom worked in government. In high school, he attended rallies at foreign embassies on behalf of political prisoners. As an undergraduate at Williams College, he studied abroad in Mongolia on a self-designed research project to understand how nomads perceived their place in the political landscape. And he spent eight summers in Maine mentoring kids at a summer camp—run by the nongovernmental organization Seeds of Peace—where teenagers from conflict regions including Israel, Palestine, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as well as the U.S. come together to share their personal experiences and learn from each other through discussions of identity and conflict.

Equipped with a combined degree in mathematics and international studies from Williams College, Simonson ultimately found Northeastern’s doctoral program in network science—the first such PhD program in the country—as the perfect match for leveraging his interdisciplinary background to address global challenges. This week, Simonson will head to Uganda for a two-month research project to examine how people in the capital city of Kampala access water beyond the municipal grid as well as the potential conflicts that could arise out of the city’s complex network of access to and control over water infrastructure. As he put it, he’ll be using math to better understand human relationships.

“I will use network science to examine the intersection of resource-based conflicts and identity-based conflicts,” he said. “When does a conflict that appears to be about water also have an ethnic or religious dimension?”

We’re trying to get a fuller picture of the vulnerabilities that people face and provide a vigorous mathematical perspective on what exactly this network looks like and where it’s likely to generate conflict.
— Matt Simonson, PhD’19

The Uganda research project

Simonson said nearly half the city’s population lacks access to piped water, instead relying on the combination of springs, wells, and public taps connected to the city’s plumbing system. He will conduct interviews with residents in the city’s slums to learn where they get their water, as well as with water providers, government decision-makers, and community leaders to learn which groups control the water sources and their relationships to one another. The goal is to understand how access to and control over this vital resource fuels social tension and violence.

He will analyze this complex network of water consumption, city infrastructure, and the systems that control land and water access with the goal of developing a framework that could identify which households are most reliant on particular suppliers, where infrastructure vulnerabilities exist in the event of civil conflict or disease outbreaks, and potential flashpoints for conflicts over these resources—such as turf wars over the right to sell services in a particular neighborhood.

“We’re trying to get a fuller picture of the vulnerabilities that people face and provide a vigorous mathematical perspective on what exactly this network looks like and where it’s likely to generate conflict,” Simonson said.

The NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks at Northeastern is funding Simonson’s research in Uganda. He will collaborate with Amy Krakowka, a geography professor at West Point who has studied resource vulnerability in Uganda and investigates how environmental stress may influence future conflicts. Simonson said Kate Coronges, executive director of Northeastern’s Network Science Institute, previously worked at West Point and connected him to the project.

This type of network analysis, he added, could serve as a case study for researchers to examine similar networks in other cities in the future.

Why Northeastern has been a “great home”

Simonson recently received a 2016 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship from the Department of Defense. The fellowship supports U.S. citizens pursuing doctoral degrees in science and engineering and includes three years of full tuition and stipend.

At Northeastern, Simonson is a member of the Network Science Institute, the NULab, and the lab run by his advisor David Lazer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science. He works closely with Lazer and other researchers in network science and digital humanities and in his first year, he’s contributed to projects examining networks ranging from political campaign contributions to the global spread of the Zika virus.

“I’m thankful to Northeastern for providing such a great home for students with nontraditional, interdisciplinary interests,” he said of the network science doctoral program.

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