IFORS Regional Groupings – IFORS News September 2016

As President of IFORS I write a quarterly column for its IFORS Newsletter (which I highly recommend).  This is my column for September 2016.

As I write this, I have just returned from a EURO (the Association of European Operational Research Societies) conference in Poznan, Poland. It was a fascinating conference with interesting plenary sessions, a wide range of technical talks, and outstanding social activities to encourage interactions among participants. EURO is a grouping of IFORS member societies based mainly in Europe and is a very successful organization with robust publications, active working groups on many topics, conferences and workshops, summer schools for doctoral students, and many other activities.

EURO is just one of the regional groupings of IFORS. Two other active groups are APORS (Asia-Pacific Operational Research Societies) and ALIO (Association of Latin-Iberoamerican Operational Research Societies) grouping operational research societies in their respective regions. Administratively, IFORS has also defined NORAM (North America) as a regional grouping, but it consists just of the United States society (INFORMS) and the Canadian Society (CORS/SCRO), both of which are extremely active on their own, though they periodically combine for some joint activities.

Regional groupings provide an extremely important level between the national societies and IFORS. Perhaps most importantly, their conferences allow researchers and, particularly, students to experience a broader audience than national society meetings. If operational research is going to reach its potential, there is much work to be done at the national and regional levels. The meetings of EURO, ALIO and APORS facilitate interactions among people with similar issues and institutions. While a large global meeting can explore the breadth of operational research, regional meetings provide the structures to let operational research have an immediate impact.

In early October, ALIO will hold its regional meeting (called CLAIO) in Santiago, Chile.  Santiago is one of the most interesting cities in Latin America, and October should provide great weather. The conference has a broad mix of plenary speakers, including Monique Guignard-Spielberg, the IFORS Distinguished Lecturer, speaking on one of my first loves: lagrangian relaxation. The IFORS Administrative Committee will be getting together at the conference, so this will also be a chance to meet the members of the AC to talk about directions of IFORS.

The next meeting of APORS will be held in 2018 in Kathmandu, Nepal with the theme “OR and Development”. EURO meets every year where there is not an IFORS conference, so its next meeting is in 2018 in Valencia Spain, followed by its 2019 conference in Dublin, Ireland.

I greatly enjoy my time at the regional meetings. Each one is different, reflecting both the country where the conference is organized and the region for which the conference is designed. I have met many people I would not have met otherwise, and I have seen how operational research is being used to meet the particular needs of regions around the world. I highly recommend attending both your regional conference, and the conferences of other regions.

I, of course, also recommend attending the conference when all these regions get together: the IFORS Triennial, to be held in Quebec City, Canada July 17-21. This is the conference where the world comes together to celebrate operational research: I hope to see you there!


Operational Research and the Age of Analytics – IFORS News June 2016

As President of IFORS, I write a quarterly column on operational research issues for the IFORS News.  Here is my June, 2016 column.

When I was a doctoral student way back in the 1980s, getting and using data was a tremendous impediment to finishing a dissertation. Data was precious and very difficult to obtain. Even when received, data often was in an unusable form, involving arcane formatting and coding. We had email, but I can’t recall using it very often. I do recall sending paper letters asking for information, with the resulting weeks before getting a response. Fortunately, I was at a top research university in the United States (Georgia Tech): the data situation elsewhere was undoubtedly worse.

The world has certainly changed. Now, companies and organizations are drowning in data with countless systems generating mega-, giga-, tera-, and even petabytes of data. In 2001, when I first put together a data mining course at Carnegie Mellon, I breathlessly talked about how the books at the U.S. Library of Congress held 20 terabytes of data, then an unimaginable number. I can now buy 20 terabytes of storage for my computer for about $500. Companies like Google, Facebook, Baidu, Twitter and many more take in hundreds of petabytes of data per day.

And, excepting privacy restrictions, this data is not slowed down by national borders. While most of us do not have the bandwidth or computing capability to handle petabytes of data, the kilo- or megabytes of data used by most operational research models are much easier to handle. For any place with a reasonable connection to the internet, data is just a few clicks away.

This has been a tremendous boon to international operational researchers. If you are doing research in integer programming, you have immediate access to MIPLIB, a library of challenging mixed-integer programming instances. You can send instances to NEOS, an online server that can solve a huge range of problems, including linear, mixed-integer, semidefinite, and much, much more. Similar data sources and system exist for a wide range of operational research areas. The internet has been a tremendous force for uniting disparate researchers from around the globe.

But companies around the world are faced with a huge problem: what to do with the data. Whether it be the petabytes of a huge, internet-based company or the kilobytes of a locally run firm, companies need to translate their data into information into knowledge into better decisions. And that that challenge is exactly what operational research is all about. We turn data into decisions. And we do it on a global scale.

Many people recognize company’s needs and I see over and over again attempts to turn data into decisions without understanding that there are a set of tools and skills that we have developed over the past 60 years that do exactly that. We, as a field, need to recognize and embrace the changes in the world. The Age of Analytics should lead to the Age of Operational Research.

My question to you is: what can IFORS do to help individuals and national societies bring on the Age of Operational Research? We bring together people at our conferences, we publish results in our journals, we aid in the education of young people through our support of summer and winter schools, we encourage and support the creation of new national OR societies. What else should we be doing?

I welcome your thoughts and comments at trick@cmu.edu. And I hope to see many of you at an upcoming conference, be it EURO in Poznan, INFORMS in the US, or any other conference where our paths cross. And don’t forget to put IFORS 2017 in Quebec City on your calendar: July 17-21, 2017. And Seoul 2020!


The Members of IFORS – IFORS News 2016

As President of IFORS (the International Federation of Operational Research Societies), I write a quarterly column for the IFORS News.  I am biased, but I think the newsletter is amazingly well done (thanks Elise!) and I highly recommend reading all of it.  Here is my March 2016 column.

I recently received an email from some conference organizers asking for IFORS to co-sponsor their conference. As part of the incentive for us to do so, they offered a reduced registration fee for “all your members”. I spent some time pondering what that might mean for IFORS. The IFORS membership consists of 52 member societies. Did they mean to offer reduced registration to the nearly 30,000 members of our constituent societies? That would certainly put a dent into their regular fee registrations! Or perhaps they had in mind that our societies might register on their own? “Hi, I am France. Can I get a room for 440 please?” Clearly the concept of “society of societies” is not common, and an aspect that makes IFORS unusual in the operational research world.

I have been thinking of this in the context of “member services”. When I was President of INFORMS (our United States-based society) 15 years ago, a major theme of my presidency was examining why people joined societies and what services a society should provide to encourage membership. The year 2002 was a year in which membership in INFORMS continued to decline, and some worried that this was a harbinger of the death of operations research. In retrospect, nothing could be further from the truth with many societies showing recent increases in membership, not least due to the rise of “analytics”. But spending time thinking about members and their needs was a good thing to do. During that retrospection, we identified services that we lacked and services that were mispriced. By concentrating on the members, INFORMS became, I believe, a society more relevant to its membership.

What does it mean for IFORS to consider member services? While some IFORS services are aimed at the 30,000 members of our membership, I do believe we need to think more about what we offer two distinct groups. The first is the membership itself: how is IFORS helping the national societies and regional groupings be stronger? What services are we offering that make it clear why a society should be a member of IFORS? How are we helping our four regional groupings of EURO, ALIO, APORS and NORAM? Of course, given the range of societies and their needs, it is clear that different members need different things. IFORS members range in size from those with thousands of members to societies whose membership can be comfortably seated around a restaurant table, and it is unlikely that any service will be relevant to all.

As a step towards understanding the needs of our members better, the IFORS Administrative Committee will be doing a series of breakfasts at major OR conference (EURO, INFORMS, and CLAIO this year). On a personal level, I am eager to meet with the various societies during my travels over the next years. I can’t promise to get to all 52 member countries, but I am going to try to visit as many as I possibly can!

The second group that we need to provide services for are those in operational research without a national society. We know that OR is everywhere, so IFORS should play an active role in encouraging the development of OR communities where none currently exist. There are 193 members of the United Nations which means IFORS has at least 141 members to go.

These are great times for operational research. There is increased interest in our field, and those whose skills encompass OR and analytics are increasingly successful. IFORS can play a strong role in a corresponding success for operational research societies, both existing and those to come.


The Baa-readth of Operations Research

IMG_20140806_150251At the recent International Federation of Operational Research Society (IFORS) meeting in Barcelona (a fabulous conference, by the way), I had the honor of being nominated as President of that “society of societies”.  If elected, my term will start January 1, 2016, so I get a bit of a head start in planning.

I was looking through one of the IFORS publications, International AbIMG_20140806_150201stracts in Operations Research.  I am sure I will write about this more, since I think this is a very nice publication looking for its purpose in the age of Google.  This journal publishes the abstracts of any paper in operations research, including papers published in non-OR journals.  In doing so, it can be more useful than Google, since there is no need to either limit keywords (“Sports AND Operations Research”) or sift through tons of irrelevant links.

I was scanning through the subject categories of the recent issue of IAOR to find papers published in “sports”.  I saw something really quite impressive.  Can you see what caught my eye?


Continue reading “The Baa-readth of Operations Research”

Don Ratliff at IFORS

Mike Trick and elephant at IFORS 2008So what happened to my “live blogging” at IFORS 2008? Well, unfortunately I had an administrative role at the conference (nothing like the real work of Hans Ittmann and John Bartholdi, but a role none-the-less) and that took time. And I am always a believer in the “social networking” aspects (read: hanging out at the bar with friends), and that takes time. And I did go on one of the famous IFORS outings, where I got sucked at by an elephant. Finally, I spent 3 days at the end at a lodge with no internet connection (technically, there was an internet connection, but I pretended it didn’t exist). Put it all together, and I fell a bit behind. But here are some notes that I took along the way.

Don Ratliff at IFORS 2008The Tuesday plenary speaker was my co-adviser from 20 years ago, Don Ratliff from Georgia Tech. Don has had a great career, both in academia and in business. He was editor of Operations Research for a while, and published a number of interesting papers. He also founded CAPS Logistics, which was later bought out by Baan in a rather confusing and lawsuit-laden muddle. The title of his talk was “The Role of Operations Research in Lean Supply Chains”. He began by drawing an analogy between lean production and lean supply chains. In his view, lean production involves three main components:

  1. Eliminating waste. Waste can be in terms of inventory, or time, or anything else that is not needed to meet the ultimate end of production: producing the thing!
  2. Synchronizing flow. Getting things to where they need to be at exactly the right time.
  3. Continuous improvement. Production environments are not static, and there is the opportunity for improvement as processes change.

He suggested that there has been insufficient effort to adopt these precepts throughout the supply chain. Partially this is a result of the multiple actors within a supply chain. It is typically easier to say “do this” within a factory with a common boss; supply chains often have multiple people involved, including the customer, making it harder to do things like waste removal and synchronization. But there are significant savings possible, making things worthwhile.

I thought the most interesting point he made came under the area of “continuous improvement”. He pointed out that ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning, the SAPs and Manugistics of the world) have shut OR out. It is hard to improve part of the system, when that part is embedded in a larger whole. In essence, OR has missed out of ERP, so nothing much has changed in OR since the PC (which did have an effect on the OR world and thinking). But he identifies SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) as a great new opportunity for our field. Quoting from wikipedia:

Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) is a software architecture where functionality is grouped around business processes and packaged as interoperable services.

It is through these services that OR can have its strongest effect. If you have a better routing system, you can embed that in the routing service of the SOA system, improving that aspect without affecting the rest of the system. This is exactly what is needed for continuous improvement, and exactly what OR is good for.

Within OR, we often don’t track IT concepts such as SOA or business intelligence, but we should: it can have a great effect on how our work is used in organizations.

I thought this was another very good plenary, and again the audience seemed quite engaged with in.

Opening Session at IFORS

IFORS 2008 BannerAfter a somewhat rocky start (an electricity substation in Joburg failed, resulting in large traffic delays, so the student assistants were late so the rooms didn’t have computers on time), the IFORS conference officially opened with a fantastic opening session. Of course, I am biased, since I am on the IFORS board with responsibility for meetings. But I do think it went very well.

IFORS 2008 Minister Mangena and Hans IttmannFirst, there was dancing and singing by a choir and drums which set the African mood. Then Elise del Rosario gave a terrific welcome, talking about the promise of Africa and the role operations research plays in achieving that promise. This was followed by a welcome by the Minister for Science and Techology, Mosibudi Mangena. Minister Mangena is one of us: he has a masters degree in applied math, and he gave a talk that suggested he understood operations research. As a colleague said, the talk also suggested a speech writer familiar with the Science of Better web site. The minister took the opportunity to tweak Hans Ittmann, Organizing Chair for the conference, for not offering enough operations research to his department. Hans promptly promised to work hard to embed OR throughout the South African government. Could people even 15 years ago imagine a South Africa where an esteemed black Cabinet Minister would tease a (white) operations research professor about the role operations research plays in the government? I will write later about how I feel holding a conference in South Africa at this time, but I loved the exchange.

One person who gets credit in South Africa for the amazing transformation over the last two decades was the opening speaker Clem Sunter. Clem is a Brit who has been in Africa for 35 years, working for the Anglo American Corporation and more recently heading up the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund, a corporate social responsibility fund.

Clem does “scenario planning” and has been described as Africa’s Alvin Toffler. In short, he is a futurist. In the 1980s, he developed two scenarios for South Africa. The “High Road” was a South Africa transformed by negotiation leading to political settlement (I do not need to remind people that South Africa in the 1980s was torn by the odious apartheid). The “Low Road” was confrontation leading to a wasteland. He talked about these scenarios to both FW de Klerk, leader of the National Party, and the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Mandela and de Klerk shared the Nobel Prize for their combined work to end apartheid.

Clem opened his talk by suggesting scenario planning is like poetry, where operations research is like an essay. He uses possible futures to frame debates about where companies, countries, and societies are going. When speaking about South Africa, he clearly sees the problems: crime, HIV/AIDS, and a declining infrastructure for some. But he also understands the strengths: resources, tourism, and its role (like that of Dubai in the mid-east and Hong Kong in Asia) as a gateway to Africa. In his view, one key to success is the turnaround in Zimbabwe. He believes that President Mugabe is in an endgame, and once he is gone, tremendous investment will flow back into Zimbabwe, with much going through South Africa, and with much of the rebuilding being done by South Africans.

I must say I am not a great fan of futurists. They are either so vague they become like horoscopes in that you can read almost anything into what they say, or make so many “predictions” that almost any future will have been predicted by them. Clem seemed more thoughtful on the purpose of scenarios. He has scenarios not to predict the future but to frame the debate. It is in this approach that he sees poetry in scenario planning.

There was a terrific question right at the end of the talk (if anyone noted who asked the question, please let me know September 8 addition: asked by Jonathan Rosenhead of LSE) about the role of operations research in scenario planning. We do scenarios all the time: we create stochastic models of the future and simulation then provides us with scenarios that we can optimize over. How does this relate to Clem’s use of scenarios. He said that there was a large difference, whereby his scenarios change conversation while technical scenario building has not had the same broader impact. And, he said, there is a Nobel Prize in the waiting for someone who combines the two. You can find out more about Clem and his thoughts at a website for him and his colleague Chantell Ilbury

I enjoyed the talk a lot, and learned a lot about South Africa and the challenges the country faces. And I was a little inspired to think about how the things I do can change conversations. I am sure there are differing opinions, since this was not a typical OR talk.

Unusually for an operations research conference, not a single person (out of 500 or more) left the plenary once Clem began speaking. That is the sign of a successful opening plenary!

Up tomorrow, back to traditional OR with one of my favorite people in the field (and my co-advisor 20 years ago), Don Ratliff from Georgia Tech on Lean Supply Chains.

IFORS 50th

IFORS 50th logo

The International Federation of Operational Research Societies (IFORS) is holding a conference in a few weeks in South Africa. Part of the festivities is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the organization. I am putting together a presentation on the history of IFORS and would very much welcome anything anyone has that might be relevant (including pictures from conferences, pictures of Presidents (pre-1995 or so: I think I can find Tom Magnanti on the web!) and so on. Let me (trick@cmu.edu) know if you have something! Please, please, please!

There is a wonderful indexed photo of the first international conference (Oxford 1957) available. It is too bad that conferences have grown so big that such pictures are now hardly ever taken. It is fascinating to see some of the “big names” in our field as young men, and sometimes women. Can you pick out Dantzig without checking the index? Hint: he is in the front row.

One striking aspect of the history is the variety of backgrounds of the early Presidents of IFORS. Sir Charles Goodeve was the first president of IFORS (I have a family connection with Sir Charles). He had done tremendous work in OR during World War II. The next President, Philip Morse, also did significant work during the war and went on to found the Bookhaven National Laboratory, among other institutes. The third president, Marcel Boiteux, led French Electricity and was a leading proponent of nuclear energy for that country. After Charles Salzmann finished Boiteux’ term (I know little about Salzmann), Alec Lee, a manager at Rolls-Royce became President. That is two physicists, an economist, and an automobile executive as the first presidents! Many more recent presidents (Pierskalla, Bell, Weintraub, Toth, Magnanti) are mainstream academics, though the current president (Elise del Rosario) made her mark with the San Miguel corporation, a food, beverage, and packaging company in the Philippines and South East Asia.

It has been interesting to look into the history of IFORS. For a number of reasons (primarily because its members are societies, not individuals), it is less well known than groups like INFORMS, but I am glad to be part of it. More about IFORS in the coming weeks leading up to South Africa.

Travel to South Africa

With the upcoming IFORS meeting in Sandton, South Africa, it was disheartening to see the recent violence in South Africa.  Of course, the violence against “foreigners” was not against tourists:  it was against Zimbabweans and other non-South Africans living in the townships.  Things seem to have calmed down, and here is one recent summary of the situation:

TravelHub (www.travelhub.co.za) – Xenophobia

THERE have been no further incidents of xenophobic violence reported since Sunday, May 25. South Africa is now in the process of dealing with the aftermath of the violence, notably the humanitarian crisis that has developed due to the thousands of displaced immigrants being housed in camps across the country. These people lack basic necessities such as food, blankets, toiletries and clothes. Recent reports confirm that violence between those displaced has broken out in some of these camps. Government is expected to announce its plan of action for dealing with the crisis later today (May 29).

The other major problem, which is affecting tourism, is the country’s image. Despite the calm of the last few days, countries are continuing to issue travel warnings for their citizens who plan to visit South Africa. No alerts have told travellers to avoid South Africa completely but a number of countries, including the United States, have issued warnings against travel to township areas. Yesterday Australians were told to avoid township tourism, and the general advice for visiting South Africa remained the same: exercise a high level of caution.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued a similar warning yesterday, advising travellers to avoid Gauteng townships.

The warnings acknowledge that tourists are not the targets of the recent violence, but point out that they might be caught up in surrounding violence, should it flare up again. This poses a major problem for companies involved in township tourism, who are trying to carry on business as usual and convince tourists that the townships are safe. Townships in the Eastern Cape, which had no reported incidents of xenophobic violence, Orlando West in Soweto and others that have been calm over recent weeks, should be safe to visit but it will take months, if not years, before the horrific images of the violence broadcast internationally will fade and tourists will again readily head to South Africa’s townships.

I am very much looking forward to both the conference and the side activities I have planned in South Africa.  I have even bought a new camera (DSLR: Canon EOS) with a big (300mm) lens for the safari part of my visit. I hope to see many of you there!

IFORS 2008: Time to get your abstracts in!

I just posted this in sci.op-research and comp.constraints

There is still time to get your abstracts in for IFORS 2008. IFORS
(International Federation of Operational Research Societies) is an
umbrella organization for national OR societies. Every three years,
IFORS holds a conference. Recent past conferences have been in
Edinburgh and Hawaii. In 2008, the conference will be held in
Sandton, South Africa. Sandton is a suburb of Johannesburg, and has
outstanding conference facilities (I am a VP of IFORS, so I visited
the site two years ago). The conference is shaping up to be a very
interesting one, with an emphasis on how OR enhances and links
communities. The dates of the conference are July 13-18 and all the
info you need is at http://www.ifors2008.org

In addition to a top-notch scientific program, Sandton offers some
great outings, before, after, or during (IFORS conferences have a
traditional Wednesday outing) the conference. I particularly enjoyed
visiting Soweto as well as the “Cradle of Humankind”. I also highly
recommend visiting Cape Town (though winter weather there can be a
little dicey: there is a reason all those ships are sunk at the
Cape!). Right now, I am checking out safaris (winter is a great
time, since the animals are easier both to find and to see).

Due to restrictions at the convention center in Sandton, we won’t be
able to keep accepting abstracts after January 31, so get your
abstracts in!

If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to write

I really did enjoy the trip two years ago and am very much looking forward to this year’s conference.