Sunday, 30 January 2011

Does Prime Minister Rutte require an OR/MS counsellor?

Would the world look a little better if politicians made more use of Operations Research? I think it would. Apart from improving the voting system a little, democracy is mathematically impossible after all, Operations Research will also add value to political decisions. Many of the complex problems a politician has to deal with are the ones we as Operations Researchers like for breakfast!

Fortunately politicians are aware that we are around and know a little of what we can offer. Let me give you an example. In the Netherlands every year on the 3rd Tuesday of September (Prinsjesdag) the Dutch Treasury presents the budget plan for the coming year. Part of the plan is the budget that deals with road construction and maintenance. The height of the budget typically is a political decision (“you need more tarmac to fight traffic jams” is the current political paradigm in the Netherlands. We know they are wrong about that). As with any politically determined budget, it doesn’t cover all that is required to satisfy the ambition levels. So the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment has to figure out a way to deploy the budget in a way that best satisfies the priorities set in their policy. To support them is this puzzle we at ORTEC constructed a model several years ago that helps them make the trade off. With the model, better insights were available leading to better plans (meeting the budget more closely) with focus on satisfying the ambitions levels from the policy at hand.

But Operations Research can offer more than just a capital budgeting model to help manage the public expenditure. Think of major investments like flood protection systems or aircraft like the Joint Strike Fighter. These decisions are very complex and have a high degree of uncertainty with respect to the costs and benefits involved. For example, the estimated cost per flight for the JSF has risen with 90% since 2002. Ever tried to defend a decision based on that kind of uncertainty? Politicians have to. Use of Operations Research can help here, to show the impact of uncertainty and structure the decision process.

It’s not only investment decisions that are complex; the same applies to the organisation of healthcare, deciding on the location of hospitals and the kind of care to offer there. The growing (and sometimes locally shrinking) population and aging are difficult trends to deal with. How to assure public safety with a possible shortage of policemen? How would you make the society more sustainable, organise country and social security, health insurance and pensions? This list of questions could go on forever. Each of them will benefit from the use Operations Research. With Operations Research these questions are dealt with using facts, not feelings or (political) beliefs. Insight will be gained on the major factors that influence the decisions, improving the overall quality, avoiding big mistakes (like CCS under a densely populated residential area) making the world a little better. So dear Mark, let’s get in touch.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

2011, the Year of Math!

This week Google announced that it will commit itself to support the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) for the next 5 years. Google donated one million Euros to help IMO! That’s a large amount of money. With this donation, the IMO will have a jumpstart in organising this global event in the coming years, enabling high school kids from countries around the world to pursue their passion for Mathematics. This year the IMO will be organised in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam to be precise (See ). A good reason for making 2011 not the year of the rabbit or the bat, but the Year of Math, at least in the Netherlands.

When trying to promote Math my experience is that, as with Operations Research, people are not very keen to support it. In trying to find sponsors to finance the IMO 2011 event, many times I was turned down. Math suffers from the same syndrome as Operations Research, it has great and a positive influence on our daily lives but nobody knows it. Math is, contrary to management and politics, honest, undisputed, straightforward, consistent and creative. It can offer elegant and uncompromising solutions to tough problems. But many people see it otherwise. They think that Math is like Chess, no more than brain training and of no practical use. Maybe they see Math as an art, given the beauty of fractals. When looking back at the Math courses at high school and University, I can understand that (that is something that should improve!) But look around you, there is no escape. Math is everywhere and in a positive way.

While I’m writing this I’m listening to the latest CD from the Killers. Actually, “Change you’re mind” is playing (changed your mind on math yet?). There is no Math in this, besides the digitized version of the song on the CD is there? No, the CD player uses a Math algorithm from Irving Reed and Gustave Solomon to correct for errors due to scratches on the CD surface. Without it, it wouldn’t sound as good as it does now. There are many other examples of Math in daily life. The money system is one of them. Ever wondered why the split of coins (1, 5, 10, 25, 50 and 1 dollar) doesn’t match the split in notes (1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100) ? Your satnav is another one, like using a cell phone and surfing the internet, it requires a shortest path algorithm. Taking the train requires a schedule; making a schedule involves Math and even won the Dutch Railways the Edelman award in 2008. Also when you receive a speeding ticket, Math is used to decipher the speed camera image of your licence plate to identify you as the car owner. Computer chip design and data compression (much used to reduce download times of images while surfing the internet) also use Math massively. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a imaging technique used in radiology to visualize detailed internal bodily structures. Math is used not only to design a MRI scanner; also using the scanner involves Math. Due to the use of Math the accuracy of MRI scanning is very high, up to 0.3 millimetres! Last but not least Business Analytics, whether being it descriptive, predictive or prescriptive, requires data and Math. As does Operations Research.

The above mentioned examples are only a very small set but give a nice impression on the impact of Math. Math is everywhere and if there is no Math around, things go wrong. If the traders of derivatives would have had more mathematical insights in the products they traded, we might have avoided a financial crisis. Math is a modest discipline, but it should get more credit for what it offers. So let me change your mind and start with a modest celebration and announce 2011, the Year of Math. With 2011 being a prime number, no better choice possible!