PRESIDENT'S DESK: 'Member-in-Chief Memo'

Make the world a better place

Ed Kaplan
INFORMS President
president@informs.org

Ed Kaplan

Ed Kaplan

The tiny Central American nation of El Salvador has a population of about 6.5 million. Bordered by Honduras, Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean, the geography of this beautiful land ranges from mountain vistas to jungle and lush rainforests to picturesque coffee farms to spectacular beaches. Yet as reported repeatedly in the news, this small country also suffers from gang violence that is completely out of proportion to the size of the population. El Salvador has averaged 23 murders daily during the first part of this year, the majority due to gangs, and some parts of the country have effectively fallen out of government control. On top of this, El Salvador is in the midst of an outbreak of Zika virus.

Facing such problems, the government of El Salvador has ratcheted up both anti-gang and anti-Zika campaigns. However, there is another group that has come together to inspire education and research to address these and many other of El Salvador’s societal problems. Under the leadership of Professor Oscar Picardo and with an assist from the Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center at Arizona State University, San Salvador’s Universidad Francisco Gavidia (UFG) just established the Centro de Modelaje Matemático “Carlos Castillo-Chávez.” Named for Professor Castillo-Chávez of Arizona State, this is El Salvador’s first-ever center for mathematical modeling.

So it was that in February, your member-in-chief (MiC) had the privilege of representing INFORMS at the Centro’s inaugural conference. In the presence of the deputy minister of education and the UFG rector, professors and graduate students from El Salvador, South America and the United States presented talks applying models to gang violence, prison management, household control programs for Rhodnius prolixus (the main transmitters of Chagas disease), population mobility and the spread of Zika, HIV prevention and terrorism.

Citation The opening of this center prompted quite a bit of Salvadoran media coverage, which caught the attention of the government. Professors Picardo, Castillo-Chavez and yours truly were invited to a hastily arranged meeting with the minister of National Security, the head of the National Police and the deputy head of the Prison Service to discuss what to do about the gangs of El Salvador, their internal organization and attendant violence. Without claiming expertise on the topic (though high-level expertise in this area does exist within INFORMS; Jonathan Caulkins’s work comes to mind), there are really two basic ways to control the size of any population: increase the rate that people leave, and decrease the rate that people join. Applied to gangs, the police are responsible in the main for the first of these tasks, and the thousands of gang members arrested and in prison is testimony to this. Starving the gangs of new members requires much more than law enforcement. In those parts of the country with low school graduation rates and insufficient job opportunities, improving educational and job creation/training programs is imperative to provide alternatives to gang membership. Of course, this is easier said than done: As was pointed out at the meeting, most government buildings – whether post offices, schools, hospitals or police stations – are tattooed with gang graffiti, calling into question who the real authorities are. Nonetheless, diverting youth from joining gangs is crucial.

Establishing a mathematical modeling center will not make El Salvador’s problems disappear, but there is no question that mathematical modelers, and obviously that includes operations researchers, can contribute. As noted in the February memo, the INFORMS Board unanimously adopted “making the world a better place” as an inspirational goal for our organization. Getting involved with centers such as El Salvador’s is one way to do this, though there are many such opportunities around the world. As another example, your MiC will be accompanying INFORMS member Jim Cochran of Statistics Without Borders fame on a visit to Mongolia to explain basic operations research methods to statisticians (apparently there are few operations researchers in Mongolia, but there are statisticians).

Of course, making the world better does not require traveling to another country. Our own communities have plenty of problems that can benefit from the expertise INFORMS members have to offer. The INFORMS Pro Bono Analytics initiative (https://www.informs.org/Pro-Bono-Analytics) is a great way to connect with agencies or programs that could benefit from your efforts to help out.

Finally, as both inspiration and a ready source of public sector examples for your students or your own interest, check out the new Editor’s Cut titled “Confronting Public Problems with Operations Research.” Here you will find many published examples showing how operations research modeling has shed light on important societal issues. With both recent applications and classics from the archive, this volume highlights some of our members’ best work. Remember – operations research is not a spectator sport, so let’s keep doing stuff!