Skip to Content

2007 HMC Mathematics Conference on Public Sector Operations Research: Abstracts

Arnold Barnett (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Is It Really Safe to Fly?

We discuss several data analyses about the mortality risk of passenger air travel. These analyses offer estimates of actual risk levels, as well as comparative findings about different periods, regions, and airlines. A question of practical importance that we confront is:

Given that two airlines fly a route nonstop, is there ever any reason related to safety to prefer one over the other?

We also consider some questions about air safety that cannot be answered with the data available now. Even here, however, we suggest that operations research reasoning provides some insight about what the answers might be.


Arnold Barnett's research specialty is applied mathematical modeling with a focus on problems of health and safety. His early work on homicide was presented to President Gerald Ford at the White House, and his analysis of U.S. casualties in Vietnam was the subject of a column by William F. Buckley. He has received the President's Award and the Expository Writing Award from INFORMS in 1996 and in 2001, and is a Fellow of INFORMS. Barnett has been called the "nation's leading expert" on aviation safety, and in 2002 received the President's Citation from the Flight Safety Foundation for "truly outstanding contributions on behalf of safety." He has written op-ed pieces for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and USA Today. He has been honored by students at MIT Sloan for outstanding teaching on ten occasions.

Margaret L. Brandeau (Stanford University): OR and Public Health: A Little Help Can Go a Long Way

How should the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revise national immunization recommendations so that gaps in immunization coverage will be filled in a cost-effective manner? What is the most cost effective way to use limited HIV prevention and treatment resources? To what extent should local communities stockpile antibiotics for response to a potential bioterror attack? This talk will describe examples from past and ongoing OR-based analyses of public health policy questions. We provide perspectives on key elements of a successful policy analysis, ways in which such analysis can influence policy, and modeling and policy challenges for the future.


Dr. Brandeau is Professor of Management Science and Engineering. She holds a B.S. in Mathematics and an M.S. in Operations Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Ph.D. in Engineering-Economic Systems from Stanford. She is an operations researcher and policy analyst with extensive background in the development of applied mathematical and economic models, and a distinguished investigator in HIV. Among other awards, Professor Brandeau has received a Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation, the Pierskalla Prize from the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS) for research excellence in health care management science, and the departmental Outstanding Teaching Award. She also holds a patent on a method for operation assignment in printed circuit board assembly.

Richard C. Larson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Designing and Managing Critical Infrastructures at the Intersection of Engineering/OR, Management and the Social Sciences

Infrastructures comprise society's lifelines. They provide connected networks facilitating transportation, communication, and daily life needs such as electricity, natural gas, water, and sewage disposal. Infrastructural breakdown implies societal breakdown in some form. And “infrastructure” is not limited to bricks, mortar, steel and fiber-optic cables. A functioning society operates with complex inter-connected social networks that also comprise critical infrastructure. A breakdown in social networks can be just as damaging as a collapsed bridge, a massive blackout or a broken fiber optic cable.

The design and operation of infrastructural systems requires deep knowledge on many fronts. Being society's lifelines, with many infrastructural systems incorporating all the complex and oftentimes beautiful complexities of human behavior, narrow purely technocratic approaches to the analysis of infrastructural systems are usually naively inadequate. Solutions almost always need to be created from multiple disciplines. At MIT we have drawn together three required disciplines under a new umbrella called “Engineering Systems.” This new field operates at the Venn diagram intersection of the fields of traditional engineering/OR, management and social sciences. Simultaneous attention to all three circles of the Venn diagram can pay off handsomely in infrastructural system design and operation.

In this presentation, we offer examples of MIT ESD infrastructure system research within the context of the Venn diagram overlap. We attempt to demonstrate that improved systems will emerge from an engineering and OR design approach that considers management and social science issues at the outset. These issues may be as important as Newton's laws of physics or Faraday's laws of electricity or even Little's Law for queues! They are not “side constraints”.

Our first two examples deal with demand management for critical infrastructures. Here we are speaking of congested infrastructural systems in which we want to shave peak time demands and fill in the valleys of demand. Examples are drawn from electric power distribution—using demand-dependent pricing, and from urban transportation—in which we discuss road-use and parking-use pricing schemes. In each case, there are rich complex narrowly technocratic engineering and OR issues to work out. But equally if not more important are human issues relating to how users of these systems will respond to alternative proposed system implementations. And the management of such systems is no small matter.

Our third example is drawn from disaster preparedness and response. Natural disasters, human caused accidental disasters, and terrorist acts can create havoc, damaging physical as well as social infrastructures. While we have studied a variety of disasters, our focus here is on hurricanes (also called typhoons and cyclones). The idea is that one obtains from aircraft and satellites updated information at given intervals on the state of the hurricane—the location of its center (the “eye”), its maximum wind speed, its movement vector, etc. As it approaches landfall, disaster management decision makers have a sequence of action timing decisions to make, related to mobilization of resources, positioning of supplies and equipment, and evacuation of coastal residents. The technical aspect of this decision problem under uncertainty can be captured as a complex stochastic dynamic programming problem. But there is so much more, not the least of which is the propensity of the population to follow evacuation orders. Here, previous highly publicized false alarms may give rise to a population-wide condition known as the “Boy-Who-Cries-Wolf syndrome.” This is a real first-order “social science” effect that needs to be incorporated into the mathematical planning analysis.

A fourth example is drawn from another type of disaster, what we call a Low Probability, High Consequence (LPHC) event. We select Pandemic Influenza, a condition that affects the world about three times per century, with one of those times being as terrible as the 1918–1919 great influenza, often misnamed the Spanish Influenza. For the most serious of these pandemics, the low probability is about 1 chance in 100 on an annual basis. The high consequence is that hundreds of millions of people worldwide could die from the infection. The death toll could be greater than a full nuclear exchange between nuclear-armed states. The engineering/OR challenge is to design a “'flu preparedness and response system” that minimizes illnesses and deaths. But at the heart of this system is human behavior: Will citizens of a country adhere to strongly recommended protocols related to “social distancing” and hygienic procedures? A major flu pandemic can have devastating effects on traditional physical infrastructure systems, as needs for maintenance and repair may go unanswered due to workers being sick or staying at home to care for sick loved ones and/or to isolate themselves from others who are contagious.

A fifth and final example deals with technology-enabled, networked distance learning in developing countries. We use as a case study an MIT-created volunteer effort, LINC, Learning International Networks Consortium, The underlying principle of LINC is this: With today's computer and telecommunications networked technologies, every young person can have a quality education regardless of his or her place of birth. The design and implementation of an e-learning system in a developing country has many of the quantitative optimization problems usually associated with OR, but it also has myriad issues related to management and social science.

Following the cases, we attempt to sum up lessons learned and to characterize how to undertake engineering systems activity in the Venn diagram intersection. We also discuss if we should collectively allow OR to be stereotyped as the “quant” part of the problem or if, like Philip M. Morse and other OR co-founders in the 1940's and '50's, we wish to go back to the roots of OR and greatly broaden its definition and role to include all in what many are now labeling “engineering systems.”


Dr. Larson is the Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the founding director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his Ph.D. from MIT.

The majority of his career has focused on operations research as applied to services industries. He is author, co-author or editor of six books and author of over 75 scientific articles, primarily in the fields of technology-enabled education, urban service systems (esp. emergency response systems), queueing, logistics and workforce planning. His first book, Urban Police Patrol Analysis (MIT Press, 1972) was awarded the Lanchester Prize of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA). He is co-author, with Amedeo Odoni, of Urban Operations Research, Prentice Hall, 1981.

He served as President of ORSA, (1993-4), and is Past-President of INFORMS, INstitute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. He has served as consultant to the World Bank, the United Nations, Johnson Controls, EDS, United Artists Cinemas, Union Carbide Corp., Rand Corp., the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, Predictive Networks, WebCT, Hibernia College in Ireland, Hong Kong University and the U.S. Department of Justice. With outside companies on which he serves as board member, most recently Structured Decisions Corporation, Dr. Larson has undertaken major projects with Citibank, American Airlines, Actmedia/Turner Broadcasting, the U.S. Postal Service, the City of New York, Jenny Craig, Conagra, Diebold, BOC and other firms and organizations. Dr. Larson's research on queues has not only resulted in new computational techniques (e.g., the Queue Inference Engine and the Hypercube Queueing Model), but has also been covered extensively in national media (e.g., ABC TV's 20/20). Dr. Larson has served as Co-Director of the MIT Operations Research Center (over 15 years in that post). Dr. Larson was first listed in Who's Who in America in 1982. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and is an INFORMS Founding Fellow. He has been honored with the INFORMS President's Award and the Kimball Medal.

From 1995 to mid 2003, Dr. Larson served as Director of MIT's CAES, Center for Advanced Educational Services. Dr. Larson's position at CAES focused on bringing technology-enabled learning to students living on the traditional campus and to those living and working far from the university, perhaps on different continents. During the years 1995–1999 he built the center from two to seven business units, encompassing MIT's production and R&D capabilities in educational technologies and its two major lifelong learning academic programs. His center produced the world's most ambitious point-to-point distance learning program, the Singapore MIT Alliance. He has been invited to give lectures on the future of technology-enabled education in testimony before the House Committee on Science (Washington, D.C.) and in North and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. He has served as Principal Investigator of several of MIT's most ambitious technology-enabled learning programs, including PIVoT—the web-based the Physics Interactive Video Tutor, Masters' Voices (sponsored by the Ford Motor Company), MIT World, "Inventing the Global Classroom," "Good Clinical Practices" and "Fungal Infections" (the last two sponsored by the Pfizer Corporation). He is Founding Director of LINC, Learning International Networks Consortium, an MIT-based international project that has just held its third international symposium. Dr. Larson also served as founding co-director of the Forum the Internet and the University, a not-for-profit organization affiliated with the Forum for the Future of Higher Education.

Eva K. Lee (Georgia Institute of Technology): Modeling and Optimizing the Public Health Infrastructure for Emergency Response to Bioterror Attacks and Infectious Disease Outbreaks

City readiness and emergency response for biodefense and infectious disease outbreaks involves multilevel strategic and operational planning of the public health infrastructure. We provide an overview of infrastructure networks and highlight some challenges in emergency preparedness and response. We then describe our experience with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and with state and county public health and emergency response administrators on large-scale dispensing of prophylactic medication in response to biological and infectious disease outbreaks. Strategic stockpile, medical supply distribution, locations of dispensing facilities, optimal facility staffing and resource allocation, routing of the population, and various logistics, transportation and dispensing modalities will be discussed and analyzed.


Dr. Lee is an Associate Professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Director of the Center for Operations Research in Medicine and HealthCare. She is also a Senior Research Professor at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. Dr. Lee earned a Ph.D. at Rice University in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics, and received her undergraduate degree in Mathematics from Hong Kong Baptist University, where she graduated with Highest Distinction. Dr. Lee was awarded a NSF/NATO postdoctoral fellowship and a postdoctoral fellowship from Konrad-Zuse-Zentrum Informationstechnik Berlin in 1995 for Scientific Computing. In 1996, she received the NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award for research on integer programming and parallel algorithms and their applications to medical diagnosis and cancer treatment. She was the first IE/OR recipient for the prestigious Whitaker Foundation Biomedical Grant for Young Investigators, awarded for her work on a novel approach for combining biological imaging and optimal treatment design for prostate cancer. In 2004, she was selected as one of the Extraordinary Women Engineers. In 2005, she received the INFORMS Pierskalla Best Paper Award for research excellence in Health Care and Management Science for her work on emergency response and planning, large-scale prophylaxis dispensing, and resource allocation for bioterrorism and infectious disease outbreaks. In 2006, she was chosen by the American Mathematical Society as the mathematician ambassador to speak and discuss individually to congressional leaders about her research advances in medical and healthcare domain, and the importance of mathematics in scientific advances. In 2007, she was inducted as the Franz Edelman Award Laureate, and together with Dr. Marco Zaider at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, their work on “Operations Research Advances Cancer Therapeutics” was selected as the winner of the 2007 Franz Edelman award. She has received seven patents on innovative medical decision systems and devices.

Lee works in the area of mathematical programming and large-scale computational algorithms with a primary emphasis on medical/healthcare decision analysis and logistics operations management. In medicine and healthcare, she has developed real-time computer decision-support systems to help analyze large-scale biological, DNA/genomic and clinical data to assist in health prediction, early disease prediction and diagnosis, optimal treatment design and drug delivery, treatment outcome analysis and prediction, and efficient and cost-effective healthcare delivery and operations logistics and processes.

In logisitics, Lee's research focuses on optimization and algorithmic advances for optimal operations planning and resource allocation. She has developed decision support systems for inventory control, large-scale truck dispatching, scheduling, and transportation logistics, telecommunications, portfolio investment, and emergency treatment responses and facility layout and planning.

Stephanie Snyder (USDA Forest Service): Applying Operations Research Tools to Important Public Sector Problems in Forestry and Habitat Conservation

Public land managers face a host of complex resource allocation, project selection, scheduling and routing problems. Decisions about the timing and location of forest management activities, fire crew and equipment allocation and deployment, and land acquisition to create protected habitat reserves are just a few of the problems which can and are increasingly being addressed through the use of optimization decision models and operations research techniques. I'll provide an overview of some of the major forestry and habitat conservation problems which have been addressed with operations research techniques as well as discuss emerging and unsolved areas of research in these fields where OR can make a difference.


Dr. Snyder is an Operations Research Analyst with the US Forest Service, Northern Research Station in St. Paul, MN. She held previous positions with the Minnesota Department of Transportation as an analyst and with the US Army Corps of Engineers' Institute for Water Resources as a policy analyst. She has a BA in physical geography from Boston University and an MA and PhD in applied operations research from the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses primarily on the development of discrete optimization decision models applied to practical, public-sector problems in timber harvest scheduling and habitat reserve design. She is an active member of INFORMS and has served on the editorial board of Forest Science.