The Faces of TGI – J.S. Onésimo “Ness” Sándoval and Precision Geospatial Tracking of Societal Inequities

Photo collage of 2023 TGI Fellows.

by Bob Grant

ST. LOUIS — Dr. Ness Sándoval’s experience with spatial inequality runs deep. The Saint Louis University demography and sociology professor was born in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, a small town with a large Mexican-American community where his family put down roots in the 1920s. According to Sándoval, he grew up in a segregated neighborhood populated by Latino families. His parents, realizing the importance of education, sent him to a private school outside the boundaries of his neighborhood. “I was fortunate because I was allowed to go across the line,” Sándoval, who also serves as Acting Associate Director for Diversity, Education, and Training at the Taylor Geospatial Institute, says. “Not everyone was able to do that.”

His experience had a profound effect and Sándoval has devoted his career to fully understanding why place matters and to quantifying the spatial inequalities that occur throughout the United States and around the world. Since 2008, Sándoval has turned his sights to the St. Louis Metropolitan Area. Like many cities throughout the US, St. Louis has a history of discrimination. Practices such as racial redlining, where non-white residents were actively excluded from some neighborhoods and financial opportunities, have resulted in a cityscape that is marked by segregated neighborhoods, where entrenched inequalities persist. Using cutting-edge geoinformatics and modern computational spatial science, Sándoval is able to precisely map these inequalities with previously unheard-of resolution.

In a recent presentation, Sándoval shared findings from a new working paper co-authored with his student Ellie Heinrichs. Sándoval and Heinrichs found that while segregation is declining overall for the St. Louis metropolitan area, the city remains a patchwork of segregated neighborhoods. Using census data and a long-standing statistical equation known as the segregation index, which takes into account diversity scores for constrained geographical areas and for entire cities, he and his collaborators used new statistical and modelling tools to calculate and map with high resolution changing segregation rates for specific parts of the St. Louis region. “Thirty years ago, we could not make this map,” Sándoval, says. “We were one of the first ones to do it for the city.”

Sándoval and his team also used spatial science methodologies that showed an association with highly segregated areas and higher rates of homicide within St. Louis.

While historical inequalities and the continuing echoes of segregation are multifaceted and difficult to heal, bringing geospatial technologies and statistical methodologies to bear on these problems could help, in St. Louis and beyond. “This research is really about a proof of concept of a methodology to study the contributions of segregation that comes from each neighborhood,” Sándoval says. “You have to be intentional and start to invest in these areas that are segregated.”