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Humanitarian Operations Research

Two and a half years ago, I spent a sabbatical year in New Zealand.  I had a great year, and very much enjoyed the vibrant research life at the University of Auckland, and the even more interesting life of living in New Zealand (you can check out my blog from the year, and perhaps especially some pictures from the house we lived in).  And the research was good, allowing me a chance to finish some things I was working on and to start some new things.

Despite the success of the year, I have had a nagging feeling that I could have done something more … useful in the year.  Does the world really need a slightly better soccer schedule?  Are my new thoughts on logical Benders’ approaches really important?

Before I left for New Zealand, I had been talking with some people from Bill Clinton’s foundation who worked on AIDS/HIV issues.  In the AIDS world, “operations research” has a different meaning than the meaning in my world.  In the AIDS world,  it means designing tests of alternative approaches and evaluating the results of those tests.   I would call that statistical experimental design.  But the Clinton people really understood what “real” operations research could provide:  more effective allocation of scarce resources.    We had some good discussions and I pointed them to people who knew far more about this area than I did.

It was only later that I thought:  “Maybe I should spend a sabbatical year looking at AIDS/HIV issues”.  Then, in discussions with people like Luk Van Wassenhove, I learned more about the work done in “Humanitarian Operations Research”.    I think next time I have an extended period away from teaching and administrative responsibilities, I will think about how I might make the world a better place through operations research.

Until then, let me do my little bit to help advertise that side of the field.  Three faculty members from Georgia Tech (Özlem Ergun, Pinar Keskinocak, and Julie Swann) are soliciting papers for a special issue of Interfaces on the topic “Humanitarian Applications: Doing Good with Good OR”.  If you are doing work that is having a positive effect on the world, you might consider submitting to the special issue.  From the call for papers:

This special issue focuses on humanitarian applications of operations research (OR) and management science (MS) models and methods in practice, or “Doing Good with Good OR.” Examples of research topics include planning and response to largescale disease outbreaks, such as pandemic influenza,
improved logistics for reaching earthquake victims, implementation of new energy-market structures to enable greater distribution, solutions for fair and sustainable water allocation, more accurate prediction of hurricane paths and devastation, prevention of terrorist attacks through algorithmic identification of perpetrators, and reduction of poverty through new market mechanisms. Appropriate papers include descriptions of practice and implementation of OR/MS in industry, government, nongovernmental organizations, and
education.

The due date for submissions is June 15.  I look forward to the issue very much.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Aleksey | June 9, 2009 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    This is something I would like to learn more about. As someone currently navigating the job market, doing good with my OR is certainly something that has crossed my mind.

    Living in my ignorace, it feels like there aren’t a lot of opportunities for humanitarian OR at the professional level (as opposed to the academic level). I feel that aid organizations need good managers and good people on the ground to get them from 30% to 70% whereas my operations research would help them get from 80% to 90%.

    My feeling is that I will have to settle for the capitalist argument, that delivering more goods/serves to customers and more profit to investors is fundamentally good for society.