Type II errors are the ones that get you fired: the Atlanta edition

A couple weeks ago, a comment on twitter reminded me about Type I and Type II errors, which in turn reminded me of my first introduction to Type II errors in a probability and statistics course as an undergraduate student.

A type I error is the incorrect rejection of a true null hypothesis.

A type II error is the failure to reject a false null hypothesis.

Type I and Type II errors are a little confusing when you are first introduced to them. To make things easier, my professor gave us some practical information about Type II errors to help us put them in perspective:

And that brings us to the mess that was Atlanta this past week. If you recall, about 3″ of snowfall iced over, leading to mayhem. Schools and government did not shut down before the storm. Instead, they all closed at the same time, leading to an incredible amount of congestion that overwhelmed the impaired transportation network. Cars were abandoned on the highway and students camped out at school and in grocery stores for the night (presumably, everyone was stopping for bread and milk on the way home). I recommend these two articles from the Atlantic Cities to see just how bad it was in Atlanta [Link and Link]. Here is a time-lapse of the highways in Atlanta. Traffic went from fine to a disaster in an hour:

In this case, the weather itself was not a disaster. Poor management of the situation led to a disaster. (That almost sounds like it should be a bumper sticker: Weather doesn’t make disasters, people make disasters! At other times, the weather really is a disaster) David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota (a former Atlanta inhabitant, find him at @trnsprttnst) wrote an excellent piece on CNN about his perspective [Link]. I don’t have a whole lot to add except that managing the effects of severe weather has been and will continue to be a big issue in operations research (and civil engineering too).

  • Should you instead try to mitigate the ice by investing in salt and trucks to prepare the roads? This is not very practical in the South where it rarely snows.
  • Do you always play it safe and close schools? I lived that way in Virginia, and while it is safer, the Type I errors aren’t ideal. One year, school was canceled 5 days for a sum total of 1″ of snow across all of the days of canceled school.
  • If you decide not to close schools and later change your mind, should you stagger the closures? Yes. This is critical in congested cities like Atlanta and DC.

Related posts:

Many of my readers are from or have lived in Atlanta. What is your take?



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