Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Great Opportunities for Research from Our Plenary Speakers

To me, one of the best parts of going to conferences is the ideas that one comes back with.

Now that the First Northeast Regional INFORMS Conference has come to an end, there is some time to reflect on the talks.

As I wrote in an earlier blogpost, one of the highlights of this conference at UMass Amherst was the caliber of the plenary speakers and their presentations.

Dr. Brenda Dietrich, who is an IBM Fellow, and Vice President in the Research Divisions of IBM and leads IBM's efforts in business analytics and mathematical sciences, spoke on a Smarter Planet and identified some of the areas that we, as operations researchers, should be focusing on, which included:

  • text mining (we had hosted several computer scientists in our Speaker Series in the past to speak precisely on this topic),
  • visualization, since this is such an effective means in which to display scientific results in a graphic and more understandable way to clients, executives, users, etc.
  • spatial and temporal time series and data analysis (much of the GPS data as received from cell phones, for example, is in this format, since it is location and time-stamped),
  • including risk and uncertainty in our models for decision-making (a topic that we had spoken on at the conference in our work on mergers and acquisitions, outsourcing, as well as supply chain disruption metrics for critical needs products),
  • focusing more on policy analytics (the interest in this area is coming from Europe, according to Dr. Dietrich),
  • including people in the loop.
Dr. Alex "Sandy" Pentland, the Director of the Human Dynamics Lab, at the Media Lab at MIT, spoke on Building A Nervous System for Humanity: Making Health, Financial, Logistics, and Transportation Networks Work. He also emphasized how to include people in the loop through the measurement tools that he and his group have developed that were the subject of his brilliant book, Honest Signals. I have an autographed copy, since we hosted Dr. Pentland in our UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series in 2009 and I had the privilege of attending his tutorial at the SBP 2011 conference at the University of Maryland College Park last March. It helped that I was the tutorial chair of that conference.

Both Dr. Dietrich and Dr. Pentland spoke on transportation in their plenaries, a subject very dear to me.

Dr. David Simchi-Levi had a nice twist to his plenary. The theme of our conference was Theory to Practice and he spoke on Flexibility -- From Practice to Theory. He emphasized how ideas were generated by embedding students for months in corporations to observe operations and noted how one of his students spent over 6 months in a Pepsico plant and this enabled his group to develop theory regarding flexibility, as in the context of multiple plants producing multiple products. The results affected Pepsico's bottom line.