Monday, September 13, 2021

Helping Babies

Before I get to what's on my mind, let me start by giving a shout out to the Resoundingly Human podcast from INFORMS. In each episode, host Ashley Kilgore interviews one or more OR academics or professionals about interesting recent work. Frequently, though not always, the subject matter pertains to a recent or forthcoming publication, but the discussions never get very technical, so they are suitable for a general audience. Episodes typical run in the vicinity of 15 to 20 minutes, which I find enough for a full exposition but not long enough to be tedious. They are generally quite well done.

What motivated me to post was the most recent episode, "Helping valuable donor milk reach infants in need", which I listened to while walking on a nature trail, feeding mosquitoes. The guest was Professor Lisa Maillart of the University of Pittsburgh, discussing a model she and colleagues developed to help donor milk banks convert donations into products for end use. If you are not familiar with milk banks (I actually was, not sure why), think "blood bank" but with donated breast milk replacing donated blood and babies in need replacing surgical patients in need. For greater detail, I recommend listing to the episode (linked above, approximately 20 minutes duration).

The application is the sort of thing that tends to give one warm fuzzy feelings. (Who doesn't like babies?) Moreover, during the podcast Prof. Maillart made a point that I think bears some reflection. I have not seen their model (the paper is not out yet), but from the sounds of it I think we can assume it is a production planning/blending model that likely resembles other models with which many of us are familiar. Early results from implementing the model seem to have produced substantial gains to the milk bank with which the authors collaborated. Prof. Maillart noted that, given the variety of constraints involved and the number of decisions to be made, scheduling production manually (based on experience, intuition or maybe just guesswork or subconscious heuristics) is challenging. In other words, for the non-OR person doing the planning, it is a "hard" problem, in part due to the number things to be juggled. To an OR person, it may not seem that hard at all.

For me, at least, "hard" means difficult to formulate because it involves some complicated constructs or some probabilistic/squishy elements, or difficult to formulate because something is nonlinear (and not easily approximated), or possibly difficult to solve because feasible solutions are in some way tough to find or the minimum possible scale (after decomposing or clustering or whatever it takes to get the dimensions down) still overwhelms the hardware and software.  (At this point I'll stop and confess that my perspective inevitably is that of an optimizer, as opposed to a simulator or a stochastic process <insert your own noun ending in "er" here -- I'm at a loss>.) For a typical person, going from five constraints of a particular sort (for instance, capacity limits on individual workers) to ten can be "hard". For an OR person, it just means the index range of a single constraint changes.

After listening to the episode, I am left wondering (not for the first time) how often people in the "real world" stare at "hard" problems that would seem relatively straightforward to an OR person ... if only we knew about them, which usually requires that the problem owner know about us. INFORMS is working to publicize both itself and the work of the OR community, but I think we still fly below almost everybody's radar.