the role of operations research in HIV prevention

FiveThirtyEight has a feature story on HIV prevention entitled “It Took 20 Years For The Government To Pay For An Obvious Way To Prevent HIV”. It’s a nice article, and I encourage you to read it. Needle exchanges is a simple evidence-based intervention that has drastically reduced the spread of HIV and other diseases among intravenous drug users. It’s not so obvious from reading the article that exchanging needles isn’t really a medical intervention — it’s the simple, low-cost process of letting intravenous drug users drop off dirty needles and pick up some clean needles.

I’m writing about this because Ed Kaplan of Yale (and current President of INFORMS) pioneered this work. He developed a probability  model of HIV transmission and ran the initial tests by labeling needles, lending them to users, and testing the needles for HIV when they were returned. He demonstrated that needle exchanges reduce the transmission of HIV by more than 33%. And then they became a thing. There were no great ways to treat HIV back in 1991–at least by today’s standards–and even now HIV treatment is really expensive. Exchanging needles is really cheap, so it makes more sense to prevent HIV than treat HIV.

I recommend reading Ed’s seminal paper in Statistics in Medicine and the associated Interfaces article. The New York Times had a nice write up of his work back in 1991. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Ed’s work in this area. Many of Ed’s papers are cited and discussed in the 1995 Institute of Medicine report “Preventing HIV Transmission: the role of clean needles and bleach” that supported needle exchanges after a mounting body of evidence suggested that needle exchanges make a difference. I also like Ed’s 1995 article in Operations Research about probability models associated with needle exchanges. The research in this area was put into practice, and the result was lower HIV incidence and lives saved. This is a great example of how operations research can make the world a better place. Ed Kaplan may be a professor but he doesn’t live in an ivory tower.

Read more about Ed Kaplan’s research in Yale Insights.



Ed Kaplan and collaborators on the needle exchange project

Ed Kaplan and collaborators on the needle exchange project

my course blog on public sector operations research

I am teaching a PhD seminar on public sector operations research this semester [Find it here!]. I am having students blog in lieu of problem sets and exams. You can read my welcome post here and you can read more about the course here. The course is a mix of application and theory, and I expect that the posts will be more about the application than the theory unless the students write about their research. But maybe they will surprise me.

The students submitted their first blog post today. A new post is due every two weeks until the end of the semester. I have to admit that their first blog posts really impressed me. Blog posts were about the students themselves, how they discovered operations research, and what they hope to learn in the class. Students discussed specific issues such as an internship at the State of Wisconsin, how to route a bus around a dangerous mountain path, how to measure performance in a human centered system, ethics, disasters, and sports scheduling.

Please leave comments if you wish. The students are required to read and comment on other blog posts as part of the course. Knowing that the course blog has readers will be a good motivator for the students.

The first two lectures overviewed the history of public sector operations research. Next, we will dive into models (both deterministic and stochastic). I’ll eventually post a list of some of our readings on Punk Rock OR. Stay tuned!

I am looking forward to a good semester with this group of students. On Wisconsin!



sports analytics featured in the latest INFORMS Editor’s Cut

An Editor’s Cut on Sports Analytics edited by Scott Nestler and Anne Robinson is available. The volume is a collection of sports analytics articles published in INFORMS journals. Some of the articles are free to download for a limited time if you don’t have a subscription. But there is more than academic papers in the Editor’s Cut.

Here are some of my favorite articles from the volume.

Technical Note—Operations Research on Football [pdf] by Virgil Carter and Robert E. Machol, 1971. This is my favorite. This article may be the first sports analytics paper ever and it was written in an operations research journal (w00t!). It’s written by an NFL player who used data to estimate the “value” of field position and down by watching games on film and jotting down statistics. For example, first and 10 on your opponent’s 15 yard line is worth 4.572 expected points, whereas first and 10 on your 15 yard line is worth -0.673 expected points. This idea is used widely in sports analytics and by ESPN’s Analytics team to figure out things like win probabilities. This paper was way ahead of its time. You can listen to a podcast with Virgil Carter here (it’s my favorite sports analytics podcast).

An Analysis of a Strategic Decision in the Sport of Curling by Keith A. Willoughby and Kent J. Kostuk, 2005. This is a neat paper. I have never curled but can appreciate the strategy selection at the end of a game. In curling, the choice is between taking a single point or blanking an end in the latter stages of a game. Willoughby and Kostuk use decision trees to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks associated with each strategy. Their conclusion is that blanking the end is the better alternative. However, North American curlers make the optimal strategy choice whereas European curlers often choose the single point.

Scheduling Major League Baseball Umpires and the Traveling Umpire Problem by Michael A. Trick, Hakan Yildiz, Tallys Yunes, 2011. This paper develops a new network optimization model for scheduling Major League Baseball umpires .The goal is to minimize the umpire travel of the umpires, but league rules are at odds with this. Rules require each umpire to umpire for all the teams but not two series in a row. As a result, umpires typically travel more than 35,000 miles per season without having a “home base” during the season. The work here helps meet the league goals while making life better for the crew.

A Markov Chain Approach to Baseball by Bruce Bukiet, Elliotte Rusty Harold, José Luis Palacios, 1997. This paper develops and fits a Markov Chain to baseball (You had me at Markov chains!). The model is then used to do a number of different things such as optimize the lineup and forecast run distributions. They find that the optimal position for the “slugger” is not to bat fourth and for the pitcher to not bat last, despite most teams making these decisions.

The Loser’s Curse: Decision Making and Market Efficiency in the National Football League Draft by Cade Massey, Richard H. Thaler, 2013.  Do National League Football teams overvalue the top players picked early in the draft? The answer: Yes, by a wide margin.

There are a couple of dozen papers that examine topics such as decision-making within a game, recruitment and retention issues (e.g., draft preparation), bias in refereeing, and the identification of top players and their contributions. Check it out.


The Editor’s Cut isn’t just a collection of articles. There are videos, podcasts, and industry articles. A podcast with Sheldon Jacobson is included in the collection. In it, Sheldon talks about bracketology, March Madness, and the quest for the perfect bracket:

A TED talk by Rajiv Maheswaran on YouTube is included in the collection (below) called “The Math Behind Basketball’s Wildest Moves.” It’s a description of how to use analytics to recognize what is happening on a basketball court at any given time using machine learning (is that a pick and roll or not?)

Other sports tidbits from around the web:

Read the previous INFORMS Editor’s Cut on healthcare analytics.

Here are a few football analytics posts on Punk Rock OR:

Who do you think will win the Superbowl? The Carolina Panthers or the Denver Broncos? Did you make this decision based on analytics?

operations research is optimistic

I am teaching a course on Public Sector Operations Research this semester. I included this quote from a paper by Rittel and Webber about optimism in my introductory lecture.

“Planning and the emerging policy sciences are among the more optimistic of those professions. Their representatives refuse to believe that planning for betterment is impossible, however grave their misgivings about the appropriateness of past and present modes of planning. They have not abandoned the hope that the instruments of perfectability can be perfected.”

Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning,” Policy Sciences 4, 1973.

Operations research is one part planning: we build math models to inform decisions. We do this because we believe we can make a difference. And we believe we can make a difference because we are inherently optimistic.

Do you agree that operations research is optimistic?

Happy 50th anniversary Transportation Science!

The early days of transportation science research

The early days of transportation science research.

Happy 50th anniversary Transportation Science. To celebrate, the editorial board put together a special issue of 12 classic papers published in Transportation Science over the past 50 years. I’ve pasted the list below – I believe all the articles can be downloaded without a subscription for a limited time. Head here to see the full list.

This is an excellent collection of papers – I’m even covering “A Maximum Expected Covering Location Model: Formulation, Properties and Heuristic Solution” by Mark Daskin in my course on public sector OR this semester.


An Algorithm for the Traffic Assignment Problem
S Nguyen
Transportation Science 8 (3), 203-216, 1974

On Stochastic Models of Traffic Assignment
CF Daganzo, Y Sheffi
Transportation Science 11 (3), 253-274, 1977

Traffic Equilibrium and Variational Inequalities
S Dafermos
Transportation Science 14 (1), 42-54, 1980

A Maximum Expected Covering Location Model: Formulation, Properties and Heuristic Solution
MS Daskin
Transportation Science 17 (1), 48-70, 1983

Network Design and Transportation Planning: Models and Algorithms
TL Magnanti, RT Wong
Transportation Science 18 (1), 1-55, 1984

The Distance Traveled to Visit N Points with a Maximum of C Stops per Vehicle: An Analytic Model and an Application
CF Daganzo
Transportation Science 18 (4), 331-350, 1984

A Column Generation Approach to the Urban Transit Crew Scheduling Problem
M Desrochers, F Soumis
Transportation Science 23 (1), 1-13, 1989

The General Pickup and Delivery Problem
MWP Savelsbergh, M Sol
Transportation Science 29 (1), 17-29, 1995

A Tabu Search Heuristic for the Vehicle Routing Problem with Soft Time Windows
É Taillard, P Badeau, M Gendreau, F Guertin, JY Potvin
Transportation Science 31 (2), 170-186, 1997

Flight String Models for Aircraft Fleeting and Routing
C Barnhart, NL Boland, LW Clarke, EL Johnson, GL Nemhauser, RG Shenoi
Transportation Science 32 (3), 208-220, 1998

A Joint Location-Inventory Model
ZJM Shen, C Coullard, MS Daskin
Transportation Science 37 (1), 40-55, 2003

Self-Organized Pedestrian Crowd Dynamics: Experiments, Simulations, and Design Solutions
D Helbing, L Buzna, A Johansson, T Werner
Transportation Science 39 (1), 1-24, 2005


Recommended: Anna Nagurney’s excellent post on Transportation Science’s 50th anniversary.

Related post:

do you have the next big idea in operations research? #orms

The National Science Foundation is one of the Federal agencies that supports basic scientific research in operations research. Most awards in operations research are less than $400K for a typical 3 year project and support research that is important yet incremental (the next obvious step).The operations research program at NSF (SMOR) is part of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation, which is looking to support riskier breakthrough projects that may result in transformative research:

CMMI is committed to supporting both single-investigator and team research, including larger-scale unsolicited proposals that are not feasible through a series of smaller projects and are not achievable by a single principal investigator (PI). These larger-scale proposals may request longer time frames (up to five years) and larger budgets (typically not exceeding $1,500,000) that reflect the scope of work. Larger-scale project descriptions must make a convincing case that collaborative contributions will be greater than the sum of each individual investigator’s contribution, and are expected to include a Collaboration Plan. PIs are strongly encouraged to discuss the objectives, scope, research team, and budget of larger-scale proposals with the appropriate CMMI program director(s) prior to proposal preparation and submission.

These larger awards will not just be for research in operations research. I talked with Diwakar Gupta (the NSF SMOR program manager), and he mentioned an interest in innovation in manufacturing, although innovation across all areas is welcome. If you have a big idea in operations research, it’s a good time to pursue it.


the newsvendor problem revisited: bad newspaper delivery routes in the news

The Boston Globe has had a delivery crisis, and it sounds like could have been avoided with operations research.

It’s hard for newspapers to operate in the 21st century. Like most newspapers, the Boston Globe is in cost cutting mode. The Globe switched to a new delivery vendor at the end of December to cut costs. The new vendor changed how it delivers newspapers to its subscribers: it cut staff and distribution centers and changed the routes. The routes were much longer than the previous routes. These longer routes led to dissatisfaction and many of the employees quit, which resulted in even longer routes for the employees who stayed. The problem snowballed and it resulted in 150 unstaffed routes, thousands of undelivered newspapers, and unhappy subscribers (112,000 reader complaints per day, up from the usual 2000 complaints!). Eventually, the Boston Globe hired another vendor to help deliver newspapers.

Here is a good article about the situation with Boston Globe delivery. Interestingly, the routes were blamed for the newspaper delivery woes. An excerpt:

Interviews with key executives within the organization reveal that the root of the delivery mayhem lies in something so simple that nobody gave it much thought until it was too late: sensible paper routes.

“Because route sequencing is a relatively easy part of such a difficult process, our team never called out sequencing as a major problem until we learned of it in real time,” said Andrew Perlmutter, executive vice president of Boston Globe Media Partners, who led the project.

I’m not sure that routing and scheduling is always so simple, but I am confident that operations tools are useful for solving this problem in an efficient manner. The vehicle routing problem to the rescue! A quick search through Interfaces shows many successful applications of routing and delivery, including

Fun fact: I once delivered newspapers as a teenager. I was given a set of houses in a neighborhood and I created my own route. I always had an eye for efficiency, even as a 13 year old.

What are your thoughts on newspapers and operations research? What is your favorite routing and/or delivery application?



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