Doing Good with OR: Applying Operations Research for Societal Impact

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Interested in highlighting the tremendous potential for operations research (OR) in non-profit/humanitarian domains, Georgia Tech Professor Ozlem Ergun and Northwestern University Professor Karen Smilowitz co-organized a symposium that was held at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held in Washington D.C. from February 16 through February 22, 2011.

Titled "Doing Good with Good OR: Applying Operations Research for Societal Impact, " the symposium introduced several rich problems that arise in non-profit/humanitarian applications, including disaster relief distribution and community health care delivery. It also showed that techniques developed in the commercial sector are often not applicable in non-profit/humanitarian domains, necessitating that new approaches be developed to incorporate crucial issues such as equity and efficacy. 

Unique to the symposium was the presentation of joint work of academics and practitioners to address these challenges with novel operations research techniques.  The broad range of speakers and topics discussed demonstrate the extent to which operations research has gone beyond traditional borders in terms of both research disciplines and application domains.

Speakers included Yann LeTallec of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, who discussed the use of Operations Research to address global health issues in resource-limited setting;  Jeremie Gallien of the London Business School, who discussed public distribution of essential drugs in Sub-Saharan Africa; and David Sarley of John Snow International, who discussed improving the equity and access to essential health through optimization modeling. The symposium also included two discussants – Nathaniel Hubert of the Department of Public Health, Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and Paul Detjen of the Mobile CARE Foundation. 

Though OR applications in non-profit/humanitarian domains are challenging from a research perspective because of the unique characteristics, the organizers agree that methodologies and insights derived from this research also can have substantial impact in society.

Both organizers are involved in humanitarian logistics centers at their respective universities. Ergun, associate professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, is co-director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Logistics at Georgia Tech, and Smilowitz, associate professor of industrial engineering and management sciences and the William A. Patterson Junior Professor in Transportation at Northwestern’s  McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, launched a Humanitarian Logistics initiative at Northwestern.

Ergun and Smilowitz  broke new ground with their symposium, creating a greater OR presence at the annual meeting. AAAS is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson, and professional association.


  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Edie Cohen
  • Created: 03/08/2011
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 10/07/2016

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