Can mathematics create social justice?

Could an algorithm feed a homeless man in Sydney? Could mathematics create social justice? Associate Professor Vinayak Dixit not only believes in the ethical power of mathematical engineering; he makes it happen.

As Deputy Director of the UNSW Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation (rCITI), he and his team were awarded a $150 000 ARC Linkage Grant to partner with OzHarvest in developing a holistic mathematical model to improve the efficiency of food delivery by this not-for-profit organisation. OzHarvest collects surplus food from all types of providers and delivers it, direct and free of charge, to more than 800 charities. Since 2005 OzHarvest has delivered 53 million meals, and saved 18 thousand tonnes of fresh food from landfill.

Can mathematics create social justice?

Dixit did not just do his research work from a distance, from the safety of an office. He drove around with OzHarvest delivery drivers, feeling what it was like, feeling the flow of the traffic, getting an embodied as well as a statistical understanding of what was needed. Since his involvement more food has been delivered to more people, more efficiently, using less resources.

Dixit and his colleagues (Dr Taha Hossein Rashidi, Prof S. Travis Waller, Mr Gopi Krishnan) won this Linkage grant precisely because it created a link: a connection between a university, a charitable organisation, its Children 11% Adults 89% 2 Million Hungry 4 Million tonnes surplus food 33% Freshfood 27% Leftovers 15% Packaged food 9% Drinks 9% Frozen foods 7% Others Disposal Generates methane Wastage MINIMIZE DISPOSAL MAXIMISE RECOVERY Can mathematics create social justice? clients and a government. This is the kind of social engagement that brings together people of vastly different backgrounds, using and developing innovative knowledge to collaboratively create a kinder, more liveable society. It fulfils, precisely, the obligations created by the UNSW 2025 Strategy which names ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘a just society’ as two of the most important priorities over the next decade. The OzHarvest partnership is academic conscience in action.

But Vinayak Dixit’s social engagement extends well beyond Australia. rCITI and Dixit are currently forming a research partnership with the World Bank -conducting front line surveys in Samoa about women’s access to transport. In 2015 this project was awarded seeding funds from UNSW Vice Chancellor’s Natural Disasters Recovery Initiative. The long term benefits for the members of this community were recognised by UNSW and have now been recognised one of the world’s most powerful organisations.

In Samoa, many women do not have the ability to drive. This can have dire consequences in times of natural disaster: both in the escape from the event and during the immediate recovery period when access to medical assistance, fresh water and food is vital. There is only one goal here: supporting these women in a move toward improved security, social participation, opportunity and emancipation. Vinayak Dixit regards gender equity as vital for global social justice. And he is uniquely qualified to handle such cross cultural projects. He has a nuanced understanding of how modelling processes need to ask sensitive and pertinent questions. Developed institutions, he believes, first need to understand the shape of the partnership. So he sees such endeavours as the World Bank project as an exchange of information, an affiliation and an encounter. How can universities and institutions learn from communities? What knowledge do these communities hold? How can their wisdom shape ours?

There is only one goal here: supporting these women in a move toward improved security, social participation, opportunity and emancipation

This is a truly global academic. Dixit was raised in regional India and has spent a good deal of time in various Asian countries immersing himself in their transport practices, developing an understanding of what it is to be part of systems he likens to rivers. How do these systems operate and flow? What problems exist here? How could we help?

Dixit has also spent a great deal of time in developed Western nations and can see the distinctive characteristics of transport systems across the globe. While in certain communities efficient, reliable and secure transport is an assumed right, in others improved transport is a conduit to justice, equity and health.

In 2015 India’s Joint Secretary of Transport visited rCITI and CVEN to investigate future collaborative possibilities. This Centre’s modelling and expertise is being shared with the highest levels of Indian government, cementing international relations with UNSW and helping people on the ground attain greater access to modern modes of mobility. Dixit’s research is supported by Indian industry partners like Medulla Soft Technologies.

Associate Professor Vinayak Dixit is a mathematician and an engineer who prizes interaction with others as the most vital part of his work. He knew that transport engineering was where he could be of greatest use, where his work could have the most meaning personally and where he could belong to an international community of diverse participants united in a desire to make the world better.

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