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Solving real problems in Norway and Ireland

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Europe and visited two different (yet similar) research groups. The first was in Oslo, Norway, where I visited the applied math group at SINTEF. I think the best US analogy to SINTEF is the RAND Corporation, a name with cold-war connotations, but still very active in providing research and analysis on public policy issues. The group I visited uses operations research approaches to solve a dizzying array of problems, most based in Norway. Some examples of what they do include clearing transactions on the Norwegian stock exchange, nurse rostering, forestry management, transportation scheduling and much more. They also provide schedules for the Norwegian Football League, so they wanted to chat with me on my sports scheduling experiences. In addition to the technical aspects, we talked about the challenges of working with sports leagues. Frustrations with sports leagues seems to be a world-wide phenomenon.

Visiting the new 4C facilities

Visiting the new 4C facilities

I then moved on to one of my favorite academic-based organizations, the Cork Constraint Computation Center (4C) at the University of Cork. This center was started by Gene Freuder (one of the key founders of constraint programming) when Ireland made a very big investment in the field. 4C has grown to have more than 50 faculty, postdocs, researchers, and graduate students, so it is a very big operation. I sit on its scientific advisory board, which is great fun, since Gene has brought together some really interesting and accomplished people. During the visit, we saw demos by a number of the students, including work on natural gas purchasing, telecommunications network design, and water resource operation. 4C has spent its lifetime so far in a building by itself, but the University is building a new math and computer science building, so 4C will move into that (in the picture I am flanked by David Waltz of Columbia and Barry O’Sullivan of 4C). We did a tour of the building (hence the hardhats, something not normally needed in operations research), and the space looks fantastic.

I was struck by the similarities between 4C and SINTEF, even though one is an academic institute and one is a nonprofit research center. Both are heavily engaged with problems of practical interest and both worry greatly about funding. Since I teach in a business school, funding is not much of a worry for me (at least until the MBA students stop coming), but I envy the real problems these groups work on, and the validation they get through their interactions with companies. I get that in my own work with sports leagues, but I saw a dozen problems I wish I was working on during my visits.

On a personal note, I enjoyed Oslo very much (and I always enjoy Cork). The weather was terrible, and the prices very high (even though the US dollar had gone up quite a bit). But the food was great (even the Lutefisk, helped by the huge amount of bacon served with it) and the people were great to talk to. Thanks to my hosts Tomas Nordlander (SINTEF) and Gene Freuder (4C) for having me out.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Peter Bo | December 10, 2008 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    That’s amazing about the Norwegian Football team. Is this truly going to happen? Good articles btw Mike.