‘Regardless of whether you are male or female, the onus lies to distinguish yourself’
Kernie Obimakinde is the Programme Manager for Privacy and Security at Google. She led the team that worked on Global. health, an open-access epidemiological data platform that enables experts to track disease spread in real-time and to forecast future outbreaks, thus informing effective government and public response. Obimakinde has a Bachelors’s degree in Electrical Computer Engineering from the Federal University of Technology, Minna.
After working for a decade in Nigeria, she proceeded to the United States of America where she got an MBA at University of California, Berkeley, Hass School of Business before joining Google. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her experience as a tech expert and her role in the creation of Global. health.
Tell us about your role in the creation of Global.health as a Google.org fellow?
I MANAGE Strategic Programmes at Google. Last year, I and nine other Googlers spent six months working full time on Global.health as Google.org Fellows. Global.health is an open-access epidemiological data platform that enables experts to track disease spread in real-time and to forecast future outbreaks.
Epidemiologists rely heavily on data to do the work that they do and they would typically source and collect these data themselves. Data has always been a vital tool in understanding and fighting disease. With the support of Google.org, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital, Northeastern University and Oxford University created Global.health with the express purpose of leveraging anonymised data from open-access authoritative public health sources to track disease progression.
I am a Programme Manager on my day job at Google; in that capacity, I was the Lead Programme Manager for the complex Google.health programme. I managed about nine workstreams in eight different organisations across seven different time zones. I worked on the project, coordinating all the teams at the time when the entire world was on lockdown. We had designers, marketers, UX researchers, software engineers on the front and back-end and so on; I helped to coordinate all the moving pieces to enable the successful launch of the project.
Specifically, with the fight against COVID-19, what were the challenges you faced working on the Global.health programme?
In providing tools to enable epidemiologists, researchers and decision-makers to do their work and make decisions with regards to the fight against COVID-19, we came across the challenge of working with a very limited time vis-à-vis the impact of what we wanted to build. So, when you have a couple of people in a room, from different organisations, with a common agenda but different ways of thinking about how to go about that agenda; bringing people together to ensure that we are all aligned becomes imperative. This also was a challenge we faced. I must say that we got a lot of help; we had a couple of people that were experienced from Google and outside of Google that supported us on the project. I think the fact that everyone was just willing to be open and learn helped us to overcome the challenges that we faced.
So far, what has been the benefit of the Google.health tracking tool?
I would say that the experience has been very valuable to me as a person. I have been involved in social impact work in the past, but Global.health is the biggest when it comes to reach and impact. The decision to work with people in a different space than I have before has just been really valuable. The tool is making a lot of strides in the public health space; it has created a platform that provides anonymised data like never before; showing health researchers and epidemiologists many new possibilities.
For instance, with COVID-19, the tool can show different hotspots where variants of the COVID-19 virus are located. The tool collects anonymised data like travel history, human exposure and symptoms. It provides a couple of many different case data that are available to people to help them fight the pandemic. In fact, right now, it is already being considered in the use of the administration of vaccines. The tool is also helping to ensure that whenever there is a possible cause of a pandemic in the future, we would not be caught unprepared.
How credible is the data captured around the world for Global.health?
We collect data from verified sources, so we ensure that the data we are getting is not from one random person down the street. The data that was captured has to be verified and from trusted sources. It has to be data that researchers would normally have looked at in pre-informing their analysis. Those are the types of data that we looked at and ingested. We have a two-level process for capturing data; there are a front-end and the back-end. There is aggregated data that is automatically ingested in millions when it is provided. And then there is the front-end platform that is actually designed to enable curators to manually enter data. Now, that’s the second level of check and then even though the automatic ingestion is working, the tool is smart enough to spot a duplicate; to detect any data that seems fishy. It will flag it for someone to manually accept or reject, that’s another level of protection that is being built internally in the tool to ensure that the data that we are providing is safe or viable for use.
How important is the use of research in fighting COVID-19 and also for future pandemics?
It is super important. I think research is the most important ammunition that we can to fight against a pandemic. If you look at the histories of countries that have successfully fought the pandemic and other countries that are really struggling with the pandemic, it is all about data. For instance, having anonymised data about a person who has been infected by COVID-19, knowing where the person has been to and who the person has come in contact with, helps us understand how to restrict the virus from spreading exponentially.
For instance, malaria is a disease that is really prevalent in Nigeria and we all just see it like normal. With data, we can analyse how many people get infected from mosquitoes; at what time in the year and which areas mosquitoes breed most. Data is used to build models; having relevant data about malaria will help create models that can now be used to combat the spread of malaria. For COVID-19, the value that data brings to the table is huge. If we had the type of data available to us now with the Global.health tool, we will have been able to combat the spread and largely reduce the effect of the pandemic.
Beyond Global.health, how else is Google helping to fight this pandemic across Africa?
Global.health is part of Google.org’s broader $100 million commitment to COVID-19 relief and was announced alongside 30 other projects from organisations around the world using AI and data analytics to support relief efforts. The battle against COVID -19 is happening from different areas; one of the areas is providing support for frontline workers to ensure that they have all the resources needed in the fight against COVID -19. There is also support for researchers who help us understand the nature of the virus, with new variants emerging, how the virus is prevalent, and what new areas are they discovering about the virus and so on. There is also the support to fight misinformation about COVID – 19 going around.
There is also the area of helping people get the right information about the ongoing pandemic. For instance, people search for where they can go to get a vaccine or where they can get tested. At the beginning, one thing Google did was to ensure that people using our tools to get information were only getting accurate and verified information from reliable sources. We also are working with the Government and health organisations to ensure that the type of COVID-19 information that people are getting access to online are the right ones. So, there are so many teams at Google helping to fight the pandemic.
What endeared you to a male-dominated field, having studied an engineering-related course?
I cast my mind back to those days while in the University; there were about 20 ladies in my class that had over 250 students (I am curious to also hear from my female ex-classmates what endeared them to study Electrical and Computer Engineering). For me, I chose the course because I always wanted to be part of creating solutions to problems. I remember growing up, I would prefer to play with my cousin’s Gameboy than the dolls that they provided for me and my twin; I have always been fascinated with technology. I remember visiting a cousin one time and I could not just leave their father’s office because it was my first time seeing a computer and he graciously allowed me to play with it.
So, I would say that maybe that is what endeared me but largely because I know the impact that technology can provide to us; to the world and I like to be part of creating solutions to problems.
At the point when you started moving up the ladder, were you seen differently from your male counterparts?
I think everyone sees everyone differently; it depends on how you are presented and how you present yourself. Regardless of whether you are male or female, I think the onus lies on you to distinguish yourself and show your worth. I worked for a long time in Nigeria; this was before I travelled and got a job at Google. There was a time that until I spoke up, I was always told to take notes in the department I worked in, even as an engineer. So, I was managing databases for infrastructure and systems and I was doing this with my male colleagues, but every time we were in a meeting, I was told to take notes.
I did that for four years and then when my workload increased, I suggested to my bosses that taking notes became rotational among all who were on the same level as myself. At that time, we were about seven on my level and the others all complained and wondered how I had been coping by taking notes for so long. Beyond the workspace, there is a lot to do in Nigeria with how people view women generally. I have had the opportunity to work outside of Nigeria, in two different organisations and in two different countries; it’s not the same. You do not see things like that and even if people think it, they do not say it. I would like to say that with Google, there is a huge push and huge support from leadership for the female gender; there is a huge push for equity and diversity at Google.
From the time when you joined the tech space and now, how would you assess the acceptance of women?
I do not have data, so I cannot speak to that, but what I would say is, I know that there is more support globally now for women to step into roles that have not traditionally been perceived to be for women. Now, there is more awareness for teenagers to think about the tech space to build a career path. Whether we like it or not, our experiences especially as children and teenagers shape what we end up doing in the future. I believe that now with everything that Google, other tech companies, industries and countries are doing around awareness of the girl child, I want to believe that women and female children are now beginning to have that mind shift.