INFORMS Initiatives: INFORMS 2018 Government & Analytics Summit

INFORMS 2018 Government & Analytics Summit

The many opportunities for analytics to benefit policy-making extends to the U.S. Capitol.

First-of-its-kind event highlights the value of operations research and analytics to government officials and government contractors.

By Kara Tucker

Photos by Max Resnick

The first annual INFORMS Government & Analytics Summit was held on May 21 in Washington, D.C. INFORMS President Nicholas G. Hall (The Ohio State University) seized a unique opportunity for INFORMS to host an event that could improve understanding within government of the value of operations research (O.R.) and analytics work for solving important societal problems. O.R. and analytics is already used in many government-related areas such as national security and military logistics, scheduling flights and bus routes in transportation, and epidemic preparedness in healthcare. 2018 Summit chair Laura Albert (University of Wisconsin-Madison) discussed these examples and more in her opening remarks, bringing to light the vast and important work done by operations researchers and analytics professionals.

Summit chair Laura Albert.

Summit chair Laura Albert.

The notable keynote speakers drew a sizeable audience to this first-of-its-kind event. The audience heard from former Secretary of Transportation and former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., Anthony Foxx, and the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden. The summit was well-attended by policymakers, healthcare workers, transportation officials, and other society and institution members wanting to discover O.R. and analytics and find ways to incorporate them for their respective applications.

Summit keynote speaker Anthony Foxx.

Summit keynote speaker Anthony Foxx.

Secretary Foxx said that his first experience with O.R. and analytics was an eye-opening one. During his term as mayor of Charlotte, he was faced with a logistical transportation problem: There was a four-lane street that ran right through the middle of the city causing major traffic delays. The O.R. professionals tasked with helping him fix the problem suggested removing one of the lanes. After Secretary Foxx resolved his initial confusion about this suggestion, he realized it could actually work, and it did. Removing a lane and turning it into a three-lane road where both left lanes could turn left allowed for more through traffic and eased congestion. Secretary Foxx said, “INFORMS is like Jack Nicholson in [“A Few Good Men”] saying ‘you can’t handle the truth!’ But if we listen to the truth, we would make better decisions as practitioners.”

Summit keynote speaker Gen. Michael Hayden.

Summit keynote speaker Gen. Michael Hayden.

Gen. Hayden also spoke on truth and “post-truth,” or something becoming true simply because someone said it happened. It might not be fact (or data), but it is a form of information. It is the responsibility of O.R. and analytics professionals to convey the fundamental facts and data and get them into the mind of the decision-maker or policymaker. Gen. Hayden suggests the O.R. profession continue to focus on data and create boundaries with clients to maintain evidence-based outcomes.

National Security Panel

In a panel discussion on national security, David Alderson of the Naval Postgraduate School noted that the application of O.R. and analytics has exploded in industry in the last 60 years.  It is used so frequently, he said, that we almost take it for granted. Today, data are being collected in so many ways (cell phones, social media, etc.) that the ability to tie data to real-time decisions is increasing our ability to expand the problems that can be tackled with O.R. and analytics.

Yet, “with so much technology, why do we still have problems that need to be solved?” asked panelist Harrison Schramm, CAP, from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. It’s a question Schramm often asks himself, in addition to, what would he tell policymakers about what it’s like to do O.R./analytics? The short answer: O.R. and analytics professionals can help policymakers better understand the language of risk, and how best to proceed. O.R. practitioners need to provide insights, but also set parameters; it is their job to help with the decision-making process, but not be the decision-maker. According to Schramm, national security problems are vastly different than those facing the commercial space. They are far more complex, and the cost of making a mistake in the national security realm is much higher (think: military readiness and bombing accuracy).

Healthcare Panel

Don Kleinmuntz moderated the Healthcare Panel that included Sommer Gentry, Jim Bagian, Julie Swann and Eva Lee (l-r).

Don Kleinmuntz moderated the Healthcare Panel that included Sommer Gentry, Jim Bagian, Julie Swann and Eva Lee (l-r).

Making mistakes in the healthcare field can also be costly, both in terms of money and quality of life. However, when it comes to collecting data, panelist Sommer Gentry, United States Naval Academy, wants healthcare and government officials alike to know that they will not be penalized for “bad” data. “I think it’s really important if we want to have the healthcare community on our side, that what we do when we catch the car [big data] is not punish physicians for their outcomes, or organizations when they are not compliant,” she said. “Instead, we want to be on their side, and helping them make better decisions.” Gentry is also on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a senior investigator with the U.S. Scientific Registry for Transplant Recipients, where she has seen first-hand how regulations with data collection and electronic medical records (EMRs) make physicians more cautious in their decision-making, especially in regard to organ donation, which results in a bad outcome for everyone.

Transportation Panel

“We have a big mission, a big challenge, a big opportunity … to play an outside role in helping the federal government become more acutely aware of all the data that’s out there,” Secretary Foxx added.

The commercial space, like airlines, as well as local transit, use analytics to turn data into information, and insight into decisions.

Secretary Foxx created a Smart City challenge to focus cities to solve transportation problems. The city of Columbus, Ohio, where INFORMS President Nick Hall is employed, won the challenge with a plan for the Columbus community to attack congestion and equity. The plan included ideas for freight movement and autonomous/electric vehicles. Meanwhile, Charlotte, N.C., put forward $40 million for the challenge, and once completed had $500 million in combined public/private funds.

Summit participants exchange ideas during during lunch.

Summit participants exchange ideas during during lunch.

Leading freight expert Jose Holguin-Veras (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), noted in the panel on transportation that the U.S. economy is dependent on freight and is one of the most advanced in the world in terms of centers and distribution. To keep this up, freight needs to be as advanced as manufacturing. “We can’t have advanced manufacturing with dumb transportation,” he said.

Said Secretary Foxx: A good amount of transportation problems can be solved by integrating the work done by members of INFORMS.

The summit panelists and moderators are all INFORMS members, but the room full of attendees are not, which was the purpose of the event: bringing awareness about the Institute and the OR/MS profession to government officials and company leaders who work for the government. “Today’s event helped me gain a better understanding of the impact of operations research and analytics as it pertains to my organization’s customer base. After today, I look forward to attending more INFORMS events,” said Russell Huffman of Capture Manager at Triumph Enterprises, Inc.

Keynote speaker Anthony Foxx and INFORMS President Nicholas Hall.

Keynote speaker Anthony Foxx and INFORMS President Nicholas Hall.

The 2018 INFORMS Government & Analytics Summit was a first, successful step in an ongoing program designed to build awareness about INFORMS and the O.R. profession. The summit brought visibility to the Institute, but once the applause dies down from the initial event, INFORMS President Nick Hall wants to sustain it with a longer program of documented materials and nonstop information flow. The summit’s tagline is indeed memorable: “Saving lives. Saving money. Solving problems.” This idea was shaped by Laura Albert, chair, to help summarize INFORMS in an impactful way to the attendees of the one-day event, and by all accounts it left a lasting impression.

Kara Tucker is the assistant editor of OR/MS Today and Analytics magazine.

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