Sunday, April 1, 2018

Outstanding Lecture by Humanitarian Logistics Professor and Operations Researcher Burcu Balcik

There are so many wonderful aspects to being an operations researcher, and one of my favorites is the fabulous researchers that we get to meet from around the world. Also, there is always some serendipity (and luck) when it comes to inviting speakers whose research is especially timely.

Since 2004, when we established the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter, I have been helping the students host the Speaker Series, and we have brought many amazing luminaries to UMass Amherst to deliver a seminar. This semester I am teaching two courses and also giving a lot of invited talks both in the US and abroad so scheduling of speakers is sometimes a bit of a challenge but we do make it work.

Propitiously, Dr. Burcu Balcik, who is the author of several papers that my students in the Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare class that I am teaching at the Isenberg School of Management this semester, has been on sabbatical in Montreal this year. She is an Associate Professor at the Ozyegin University'sIndustrial Engineering Department in Turkey. When she reached out to me a few months ago I knew that we had to bring her down to give a talk. And that we did! Last Thursday, she flew in from Montreal to Boston Logan, then made it to Amherst.

I had the pleasure of having dinner with her at Judie's restaurant in downtown Amherst on Thursday.

We had advertised her talk widely and the announcement even made the UMass Amherst homepage on Friday!  The title of her talk was: Site Selection and Route Planning for Post-Disaster Rapid Needs Assessment Operations.
I have known Burcu for a decade now and have enjoyed most recently conferences with her in Vienna, Austria on Humanitarian Operations (which was organized by my former Isenberg School PhD student, Tina Wakolbinger, who is now a Professor at the Vienna University of Economics and Business)  and also INFORMS in Houston.

Her lecture was simply outstanding - delivered with great clarity and generated many questions from the audience, which always demonstrates interest! I was delighted to see faculty and students from both the Isenberg School and the College of Engineering in attendance (even though it was just before an Easter and Passover weekend) and even students from my class came. We counted 12 different countries represented by the attendees in the audience!

I had the pleasure of welcoming her and the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter President, Deniz Besik, also gave introductory remarks.
Professor Balcik gave an excellent overview of the work that she has done in humanitarian logistics along with the methodologies that she has applied from two-stage stochastic programming to robust optimization. She also noted, on the practical side, what kind of organizations she has worked with, which have included: the Red Cross of Turkey, World Vision, the World Food Program, and when she was a postdoc at Northwestern, working with Professor Karen Smilowitz, the Chicago food bank.

She spoke on needs assessment, post a disaster, both short-term (within 72 hours) and long-term, and emphasized how different community groups may need different items from different sectors, such as shelter, food, medicines, hygiene, etc.  Needs assessments are critical since then one can have more accurate appeals to donors as well as prioritization. She mentioned that Field Assessment Coordination Teams (FACT) of the IFRC do needs assessments and deploy within 12-24 hours.

Although there are documents and practitioner-type studies on needs assessment, there is only limited scholarly research on the subject (besides the work that Burcu is doing and has done).  Of course, a team cannot visit all affected areas and there is a trade-off between doing sampling and timeliness. Purposive sampling provides one with initial understanding of the scope and needs.

I was delighted to see that when she listed literature on the topic she included as a first reference the paper that she wrote  and which appears in the Dynamics of Disasters volume that I co-edited and was published by Springer in 2016.

Professor Balcik spoke about needs assessment as including:

1. identification of community groups (including social and cultural aspects)

2. mapping of the sites and using a mapping matrix

3. site selection (and here efficiency does matter)

4. logistic (route) planning and the importance of checking resources to implement the site selection plan.

She described the mathematical models that she has developed with practical solution approach, involving heuristics, since many NGOs have no advanced computational resources. Her present research involves rapid needs assessment with uncertain travel times. This very much resonated with my students who have been learning about disasters and impacts on critical infrastructure. She described how to use robust optimization to model uncertain travel times and also discussed different tractable robust counterparts. The challenges include that probability distribution are not available although one might have estimates of lower and upper bound travel times associated with different links. She also presented computational results and many vivid illustrations of networks. Future research will include the modeling of uncertainty associated with the location of community groups and coordinated needs assessment and relief distribution.

After many questions and great discussions, Professor Balcik was presented with a gift from the Isenberg School (an umbrella, which was perfect, given the weather) and we took a group photo as a remembrance of her terrific talk!

I then hosted the lunch at the University Club  to continue the conversations.
And, as is our tradition, we shared desserts.

After the lunch, Professor Balcik spent some time at the Supernetworks Lab at the Isenberg School with my doctoral students. She presented me with a lovely t-shirt, compliments of Carlos Wachzetina and the Montreal INFORMS Student Chapter, and also maple syrup from Canada (where I was born)! It is truly special how Operations Research has no boundaries and the community that it supports around the globe is flourishing from students to faculty to practitioners!

She was also interviewed for the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter youtube channel. I will let you know when the interview airs.

We thank Professor Balcik for traveling to UMass Amherst to share with us her truly fascinating and very important research!

And, her next invited seminar will be at the University of Alabama, where she will be hosted by Professors Burcu Keskin and Emmet Lodree.  I was there last Fall to speak and told her that she will love it! And to further emphasize a great, wonderful wORld: Dr. Keskin and Dr. Wakolbinger both received the Judith Liebman Award from INFORMS and co-authored guidelines on how to run a successful student chapter. Plus, Dr. Lodree also had a chapter in our Dynamics of Disasters book!