Tag Archives: social network

Can We Use Social Networks to Identify Poor Decision Making?

While suffering through the usual air travel woes recently, I felt compelled to tweet my feelings:

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Paul Rubin and Matthew Saltzman followed up with an interesting exchange:

Although I tend to agree with Paul that an outsider probably does not have enough information to decide whether or not the actions he/she sees are reasonably good given the situation (especially when it comes to the incredibly complex world or airline operations), I like Matthew’s general idea of an experiment to identify whether or not the outcome of a black-box decision making process is “good”.

Can that be done? Can we observe a black-box situation (or process) long enough to be able to tell whether the analytic machine inside the box could do better?

A large number of people carry smart phones these days, with constant connectivity to the internet. Twitter, Facebook, and FourSquare (to name a few) can determine our location, and there are other Apps that tell us which of our friends (and even non-friends) are close by. With all of this connectivity and location awareness, we can think of human beings as sophisticated sensors that collect and share information. We see a fire, a car accident, a traffic jam, an arrest, a fight, and immediately share that information with our network. In addition, human sensors are much better than electronic sensors because they can detect and interpret many other things, such as: the mood in a room (after the airline changes your gate for the third time), the meaning of an image, and so on.

Consider a hypothetical situation in which a crowded venue has to be evacuated for whatever reason. Perhaps some exits will be blocked and people will be directed to go certain places, or act a certain way. Human observers may notice a problem with the way security is handling the situation from multiple locations inside the venue, and from multiple points of view. The collection of such impressions (be they tweets, Facebook status updates, or something else) may contain clues to what’s wrong with the black-box evacuation procedure devised for that venue. For example, “avoid using the south exit because people exiting through there bump into those coming down the stairs from the second floor and everyone has to slow down quite a bit.”

In a world where Analytics and OR specialists struggle to convince companies to try new ideas, could this kind of evidence/data be used to foster collaboration? “I noticed that you did X when Y happened. It turns out that if you had done Z, you’d have achieved a better outcome, and here’s why…”

Is the airline example really too complicated to be amenable to this kind of analysis? I’m not sure. But even if it is, there may be other situations in which a social network of human sensors can collect enough information to motivate someone to open that black box and tinker with its inner workings a little bit. Those of you working in the area of social networks might be aware of something along the lines of what I (with inspiration from Matthew) have proposed above. If that’s the case, I’d love to read more about it. Please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Applications, INFORMS Monthly Blog Challenge, People, Social Networks, Travel

INFORMS 2010 Wrap-Up

I had a very productive and fun time at the INFORMS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. So I thought I’d share with you some of my observations about the meeting:

  • Analytics initiative by INFORMS: great idea! I believe that we (INFORMS members) have to jump onto the Analytics bandwagon and let everyone know that we can do Analytics too! It’s all about the power of words these days (see the country’s political arena for a perfect example). Starting today, I’ll tell everyone that I can do “Advanced Prescriptive Analytics” (optimization).
  • Panel on Social Networks: it was nice to hear from some of the most popular OR bloggers and learn about their motivations, fun stories, and blogging strategies. Great job Mike and Laura!
  • John Birge‘s plenary (Omega Rho Distinguished Lecture): very informative and entertaining. The simple and powerful take-home message was: align incentives. What’s good for the employees has to be good for the company as well.
  • RAS Problem Solving Competition: Michael Trick and I (a.k.a. Team MATHY) received an honorable mention at the Railway Applications Section (RAS) 2010 Challenge (certificate + photo :-). After watching the three finalists’ presentations, we were happy to see that our solution value of $11,399,670.88 was equal to the best solution found by the winning team, and better than the solution found by the other two finalists. Nobody managed to prove optimality, though. Interestingly, none of the finalists thought about scaling the problem (thinking in terms of tanks of gasoline instead of gallons of gasoline), which made a huge difference in the performance of our model. Overall, it was a lot of fun to participate in this competition and I want to thank the organizers for putting it together. Here’s a picture of team MATHY with Juan Morales from BNSF Railway.

    And here’s a picture of the railroad network we had to deal with:

  • Technical sessions: I watched many interesting and inspiring talks (as a matter of fact, I had some great ideas for my own research while watching a number of presentations). It’s nice to see that *a lot* of people are using Latex Beamer these days. Let’s aim for a Powerpoint-free INFORMS by 2020!
  • Idea for an iPhone App? I applaud the going-green initiative of reducing the number of conference program booklets that have to be printed out. However, for this to work it requires a lot of organization from each of us: we have to go over the program in advance, select the talks we want, and print the appropriate pages. I don’t know about you, but I never manage to get this done. So I propose we create an iPhone (mobile) app to allow participants to browse the program on-the-go. It’s not convenient to browse the program PDF on a phone. We need an app. We need to be able to filter by author, by chair, by topic/keyword, etc. We want a time-sensitive app that tells you what’s next. We want an app that sends notifications to your phone reminding you that a talk/event is coming up so that you ask for the check in time. If we had something like that, I think that a lot fewer people would ask for a printed program (myself included).
  • Thumbs up for all the vegetarian food: being a vegetarian myself, I was impressed with the generous availability of vegetarian food (i.e. not only salad) at both the Sunday and Tuesday receptions. Well done!
  • Austin’s Convention Center: in addition to being huge, the convention center’s numerous under-construction areas made it very hard to navigate from session to session. I always felt like I was taking the longest path from point A to point B.
  • Meeting old and new friends: it was great to make many new friends and to meet old friends from my PhD days at Carnegie Mellon at the Tepper Alumni reception. I also had some very productive research meetings with several colleagues.

Last but not least, I’d like to thank John Hooker, Christopher Beck, and Willem-Jan van Hoeve for agreeing to give a talk in my session, and Willem for inviting me to present in his session.

Time to say bye-bye to weird Austin and fly back to Miami! Hence, I had to put on my “U” shirt:


Filed under Analytics, Challenge, INFORMS, iPhone, Travel