Category Archives: Uncategorized

Coles research symposium on Homeland Security

I recently attended the Coles Research Symposium on Homeland Security hosted by the Kennesaw State University Coles College of Business. The symposium was organized by Prof. Jomon Paul, and he made sure all attendees felt welcome. I gave a keynote talk entitled “New frontiers in homeland security: advances and opportunities.”

The symposium was focused and interdisciplinary, with a single track of engaging speakers. who discussed advances in homeland security research. The talks spanned economics, optimal control, operations research, behavioral economics, public policy and information systems. I hadn’t attended a small, interdisciplinary conference like this in years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I had sorely missed the opportunity to network and grow as a researcher at symposiums such as this. As a result, the symposium was more intellectually stimulating than usual. I was able to meet everyone at the conference and had research conversations with the other speakers and attendees during meals and breaks. We came from different quantitative disciplines, and our different assumptions and perspectives were complementary. The conversations energized me and caused me to think more deeply about important homeland security problems to address. I left the conference excited about my future research endeavors and starting new projects.

Papers I highlighted in my talk:

  1. Albert, L.A., Nikolaev, A., and Jacobson, S.H. 2022. Homeland Security Research Opportunities. To appear in IISE Transactions. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/24725854.2022.2045392.
  2. Enayaty-Ahangar, F., Albert, L.A., DuBois, E. 2021. A survey of optimization models and methods for cyberinfrastructure security. IISE Transactions 53(2), 182 – 198. https://doi.org/10.1080/24725854.2020.1781306
  3. Albert, L.A., Nikolaev, A., Lee, A.J., Fletcher, K., and Jacobson, S.H., 2021. A Review of Risk-Based Security and Its Impact on TSA PreCheck, IISE Transactions 53(6), 657 – 670. https://doi.org/10.1080/24725854.2020.1825881

Locating ballot drop boxes is NP-hard

The state of Michigan passed Proposition 2 on November 8, 2022, a bill that introduces several voting rights including access to drop boxes. Proposition 2 will lead to the widespread use and location of drop boxes in the state of Michigan, since it requires at least one ballot drop box per 15,000 registered voters with at least one drop box per municipality. There will be questions about where to locate the drop boxes, since “the boxes would have to be distributed in an equitable way.”

Operations research can help inform these important election decisions. Dr. Adam Schmidt and I studied issues surrounding the location of drop boxes in our recent paper entitled “Locating ballot drop boxes” (Read the preprint here). Our paper studies how to locate ballot drop boxes when considering multiple criteria such as cost, voter access, and equity. The paper abstract is as follows:

For decades, voting-by-mail and the use of ballot drop boxes has substantially grown, and in response, many election officials have added new drop boxes to their voting infrastructure. However, existing guidance for locating drop boxes is limited. In this paper, we introduce an integer programming model, the drop box location problem (DBLP), to locate drop boxes. The DBLP considers criteria of cost, voter access, and risk. The cost of the drop box system is determined by the fixed cost of adding drop boxes and the operational cost of a collection tour by a bipartisan team who regularly collects ballots from selected locations. The DBLP utilizes covering sets to ensure each voter is in close proximity to a drop box and incorporates a novel measure of access to measure the ability to use multiple voting pathways to vote. The DBLP is shown to be NP-Hard, and we introduce a heuristic to generate a large number of feasible solutions for policy makers to select from a posteriori. Using a real-world case study of Milwaukee, WI, we study the benefit of the DBLP. The results demonstrate that the proposed optimization model identifies drop box locations that perform well across multiple criteria. The results also demonstrate that the trade-off between cost, access, and risk is non-trivial, which supports the use of the proposed optimization-based approach to select drop box locations.

We published an op-ed in The Hill summarizing some of the key findings from this paper.

While I am thrilled to see Michigan introduce a legal requirement for ballot drop boxes in future elections, our research indicates that this requirement is not straightforward for election officials to implement, since decisions involving the location of drop boxes are hard from theoretical and computational perspectives. Tools such as our integer programming model can help election officials make informed decisions.

Dr. Adam Schmidt recently defended his dissertation entitled “Optimization and Simulation Models for the Design of Resilient Election Voting Systems” about election resilience, and his paper about drop boxes is part of his dissertation. He also studied the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on in-person voting and how to decide how to locate/consolidate polling locations.

I am exciting to see some states expanding the use of ballot drop boxes. Drop boxes have a place in our elections. The US states that are weighing legislation will define how and when drop boxes can be used. With research backed by proven scientific methods using operations research, we can truly make informed decisions about drop boxes and our voting systems.


10 simple rules for going away to college and being on your own

My oldest daughter started college this month, which was a milestone for her and for me. I drove her to her university and moved her into her dorm. When I said good-bye, I left her with a personalized letter expressing my confidence in her and other sentiments. I included a short list of advice at the end of the letter. While the note is only for her, the advice at the end is more general, so I included it here. I organized my advice into ten simple rules for going away for college:

  1. Take care of yourself. Wear sunscreen, eat vegetables every day, preferably green ones, and get 8 hours of sleep.
  2. Be someone you admire and respect, Make decisions that align with your values.
  3. Love and value you, and make friends with others who recognize your worth.
  4. Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, and don’t put up with those who are reckless with yours.
  5. Sometimes the most sensible course of action is to set a boundary. Don’t let anyone make you believe that this is selfish. 
  6. We cannot control everything. Focus on what you can control, and try not to waste time trying to control or change what you cannot.
  7. When extroverting isn’t for you, fake it until you make it. Really.
  8. Adopt a yes/and mindset instead of an either/or mindset.
  9. Laugh every day at least once.
  10. You’re not going to get everything right the first time, and things are often hard before they become easy. Be kind to yourself and use setbacks as learning opportunities. 

Preparing this list made me think of the 1999 hit music video by Baz Luhrmann entitled “Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen,” adapted from a column by Mary Schmich published in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 that meant to be a hypothetical commencement speech. (In full disclosure, I reworded #4 in my list to use Schmich’s wording after rereading her column).


10 Principles for Changing Your Name as an Academic

I recently published an article in ORMS Today entitled “10 Principles for Changing your Name as a Mid Career Academic” that, as the name suggests, describes my process of changing my name five years ago and the lessons I learned along the way. The article expands upon an earlier blog post that I wrote in 2019.

Changing one’s name is emotionally and professionally challenging. Both the blog post and article are personal, and I wrote them because the topic is important yet rarely discussed among academics. The article is not only meant for those interested in changing their name. I also wrote it for those who work with, evaluate and create policy for academics undergoing name changes. I hope you read it, and please share the article if you find it to be useful.

Head over to ORMS Today to read the full article.

“We face many difficult journeys during our academic careers. The process of changing one’s name should not be one of them”


Summer 2022 public outreach

I have three public outreach items to share from this summer. Details are below. I also recorded a podcast for the IISE Operations Research podcast series about OR for social good. This podcast should be released in September 2022. All my previous media appearances can be found on the “In the News” tab of this blog.

How are math and science used to affect traffic? A 2.5 minute video in UW-Madison’s “Were U Wondering” video series.

I published an Op-ed in The Hill with PhD student* Adam Schmidt entitled “States regulating ballot drop boxes should check the science first” based on his dissertation research that studies how operations research can help plan for resilient elections.

* Adam successfully defended his dissertation!

I was a guest on “Live at Four” on WISC-TV, Madison’s CBS affiliate to discuss whether you can increase your odds of winning MegaMillions (Spoiler: you can’t).

Science communication and public outreach are important, and I agree to as many of these requests as I can fit in my schedule.


dynamic risk management practices for cybersecurity

I’m at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Safe and Trustworthy Computing (SaTC) Principal Investigators’ (PIs) Meeting in Arlington, VA for my grant with Prof. Jim Luedtke entitled “An Optimization Framework for Identifying Dynamic Risk Management Practices.” You can read more about our project in the NSF award abstract and the UW-Madison news release.

I created a short video for public consumption explaining the project on a high level [2:35].

SaTC celebrated its 10th anniversary. This program’s goals are to “protect and preserve the growing social and economic benefits of cyber systems while ensuring security and privacy.” SaTC also supports education, workforce development, and transition to practice. What this program has supported in the past decade is impressive. Read more about SaTC here. SaTC Program Manager Jeremy Epstein encouraged PIs to tell the public about the importance of security research and the National Science Foundation. I was already on top of it 🙂


linear programming is a most unfortunate phrase

“[I]t seems to me that the term `linear programming’ is a most unfortunate phrase for this promising technique, particularly since many possible extensions appear to be in nonlinear directions. A more general yet more descriptive term, such as `bounded optimization,’ might have been a happier choice.

Philip M. Morse (1953). Trends in operations research. Journal of the Operations Research Society of America1(4), 159-165.

It’s interesting that the term “linear programming” has been disliked since it was introduced.

It’s also interesting to hear skepticism about the usefulness of linear programming. This reminds me of a story about George Dantzig in 1948, who also met skepticism regarding the usefulness of linear programming. Read my post “Happiness is assuming the world is linear” for more information.

What do you think of the term “bounded optimization?” Is it better or worse than the term “linear programming?”


Operations research was declared dead in 1979

When I was a PhD student in the early 2000s, my advisor, Sheldon Jacobson, told me that some had once predicted the death of operations research. This came as a surprise to me, because it seemed like the discipline was flourishing. He agreed with me and named a few reasons why he thought operations research overcame its early growing pains. He noted the increase in data availability and how the discipline had embraced new applications like homeland security and healthcare systems.

Recently, I finally looked into the claim that operations research was dying. I was surprised to learn that Sheldon wasn’t exaggerating: operations research was put on life support in 1978 and was declared dead in 1979! Here are the two papers I found.

1978 paper that put OR/MS on life support:

Hall Jr, J. R., & Hess, S. W. (1978). OR/MS: Dead or dying? RX for survival. Interfaces8(3), 42-44. https://doi.org/10.1287/inte.8.3.42

1979 paper that declared operations research to be dead:

Ackoff, R. L. (1979). The future of operational research is past. Journal of the operational research society30(2), 93-104. https://doi.org/10.1057/jors.1979.22. A companion paper outlines the roadmap for resurrecting operations research.

“Operations Research is dead even though it has yet to be buried. I also think there is little chance for its resurrection because there is so little understanding of the reasons for its demise.”

Russell L. Ackhoff, 1979

These two papers, plus several others, reflect a discussion that the OR/MS community had early in its life as a discipline. After reading these papers, it because clear that operations research has always been driven to solve real problems in advancing knowledge base, and the interaction between academics and practitioners has been instrumental in making both applied and theoretical advances. This is just one of many observations one could make from reading the papers.

I briefly discussed these papers in my 2021 Omega Rho keynote at the INFORMS Annual Meeting, noting how vibrant out community has become over the years. For example, the 2019 INFORMS Annual Meeting set the highest attendance of an INFORMS conference ever. I’m obviously enthusiastic about operations research and its future given that I’ve blogged about operations research for fifteen years. I’m curious about what readers of this blog think.

Why do you think operations research has survived and thrived?

For further reading:


Happy 15th birthday Punk Rock Operations Research!

It’s hard to believe that I started this blog fifteen years ago on April 2, 2007. Here are some milestones in the life of the blog:

  • I published 762 posts.
  • I started 105 drafts of blog posts that I never finished. Most of those drafts are a quick idea I saved to finish later, but inspiration for finishing the post never came.
  • I updated the blog theme at some point, but I do not remember when. It is perhaps due for another update.
  • The blog was nine years old when I introduced its logo, which I absolutely love.

Over the years, I am frequently asked why I started a blog. I started the blog. Here is the history.

In October 2006, Mike Trick gave the keynote at the INFORMS combined colloquium dinner at the INFORMS Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, where he encouraged everyone in the room—which was almost entirely filled with PhD students—to start an operations research (OR) blog.  I toyed with the idea of starting an OR blog since starting my first tenure track position that began two months earlier, but I was hesitant about starting a blog at the same time as my tenure clock. However, I was drawn to blogging and decided to give it a try a few months later.

My motivation for starting a blog was to use it as a platform to somewhat selfishly evangelize students about operations research. I found it difficult to find students inclined to study OR in my department. At the time, I was an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in the department of Statistics and Operations Research in a college of humanities. The number of undergraduate OR majors in the department was generally in the single digits, and the department did not have a PhD program at the time.  I naively thought that if I started a blog, students at my university would read it and want to perform research with me and pursue an MS in operations research. That did not exactly happen.

What are the benefits of being an operations research blogger?

I didn’t fail in my quest to draw more people into operations research. In the past 15 years, some of my posts have reached students outside of and adjacent to operations research at universities and high schools throughout the world. I love meeting people who tell me how they were introduced to operations research by a fellow student or professor sent them to Punk Rock Operations Research to encourage them to consider operations research. For some, this nudge apparently worked. It’s an honor to play a small role in someone’s professional journey. It’s one of the best compliments someone can give me, and I’m blushing as I type this. It seems like my original goal of evangelizing students about operations research was realized. Blogging has been a very rewarding journey 🙂

Blogging has been extremely rewarding for my academic career, although not in a way that I had once imagined. Blogging has also helped me broaden my professional network, and it has led to opportunities to give research talks to a broad audience.

How do you find time to blog?

Blogging takes time. I do not consider blogging to be wasted time, although it takes a certain amount of skill to identify how to blog in an efficient manner.  I try to limit blogging to the evenings or to time when I need a mental break, so that blogging does not take away from productive time. This works because for me blogging doesn’t seem like a chore. Sometimes blogging can be a chore, like I when I feel the time pressure to write a post about something in the news before the 24 hour news cycle loses interest and switches to another topic. Once micro-blogging became popular, I found less need to blog when I can post a quick tweet about a topic. Writing blog posts has indirectly made me a better teacher and grant proposal writer, and in this way, it is synergistic with other professional activities. I have blogged less as I have taken on administrative positions and need to balance a larger number of professional duties.

Why are you still blogging like it’s 2007?

Starting a blog in 2007 was the most 2007 thing one could do. ABC News named Bloggers the 2004 People of the Year, and in 2022 I find science blogging to be relevant and important. Blogs provides content that cannot be conveyed in a 280 character tweet (and definitely more than the old limit of 140 characters) or short LinkedIn or FaceBook post. Blogs continue to be a good medium for an operations researcher like myself to convey information in different formats that can be accessed in the same place. I have been on several scientific blogging and social networking panels, and they have all confirmed the importance of blogs.

OR blogs are often—but not always—read by our OR colleagues. People stumble across OR blogs for many reasons, and often they stick around. Reaching out to these readers is a tremendous opportunity to improve scientific literacy in the general public and to bring new people into the field. I am often disheartened by the state of scientific literacy in the US. I even blogged about this recently. We need to continue to tell our operations research stories educate the world about the benefits from applying advanced analytics to making decisions. While I’m just one blogger in a large sea, over the years many journalists have reached out to me for my operations research expertise based on blog posts they’ve discovered. Together we can broadcast our message to the world.


the mathematics of rare matchups in the March Madness tournament

This year’s Final Four is set in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, with Duke, the University of North Carolina (UNC), Kansas, and Villanova facing off this weekend. This is the first time Duke and UNC will play in the tournament. At first blush this is hard to believe when considering how often these two teams have played in the tournament (a combined total of 334 games!). It’s easier to believe when considering the mathematics used to create the bracket.

I once blogged about the constraints required to seed the 68 teams in the tournament and build the bracket. The NCAA’s website indicates the same rules are still in use.

First, the 68 teams are selected, sorted, and seeded. This is a long process. Then, the 68 teams are assigned to one of the four regions to create the bracket. There are many rules for this last step. Here is the rule that explains why Duke and UNC haven’t played in the tournament before:

“Each of the first four teams selected from a conference shall be placed in different regions if they are seeded on the first four lines.”

https://www.ncaa.com/news/basketball-men/article/2021-01-15/how-field-68-teams-picked-march-madness

Duke and UNC are almost always in the first four teams of their conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference. They typically play each other twice during the regular season and sometimes a third time in the ACC conference tournament. Duke and UNC played each other twice this season. According to the NCAA constraints for constructing a bracket, Duke and UNC are not allowed to meet in the tournament before the Final Four. This is when they are meeting in the 2022 tournament. Mathematical constraints secretly guide the tournament.

Fun fact: it is not always possible to create a feasible bracket that conforms to all of the rules.

There are several other constraints for constructing a bracket. Infeasibility can happen in real applications of mathematical optimization. Mathematical constraints do not make nuanced exceptions to the rules the way human decision makers do, so infeasible problem instances must be addressed with humans.

The selection committee addresses the problem of infeasibility by moving a team’s seed up or down by one and sometimes two. This seems like a small change, but it can drastically change a team’s path to the Final Four. The good news is that about a decade ago the rules were tweaked to change teams’ seeds less often, in a victory for the tournament and also for mathematics.