Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Informs Practice Conference and the OR think tank misses a trick or two

How can Informs make the Practice conference even better? An advantage of being an unofficial reporter is that I can avoid self-congratulatory blog posts and actually criticize without any sugar coating - in the hope that we get out of our comfort zone and make this an even better event next year.

Clearly some things were out of their control. All the OR folks in the world would not have been able to predict the impact of a volcano in Iceland on the travel plans of overseas visitors to the conference. Also, Dr. Micheal Trick, whose pioneering web page on O.R was the main source of information as well as inspiration for graduate students like me in the 1990s, and motivated me to join this exciting field, was missing, and one can't fault Informs for this. I was really looking forward to shaking his hands and thanking him for his service. 'Marketing in Online Social Spaces,' by Kevin Geraghty, Vice President, Research & Analytics, of 360i was a really good one (somehow I forgot to cover this in my daily conference tab). Kevin was providing an example of marketing campaigns using social networking data. He found out (using completely public domain tools!) that in the OR blog world, to the surprise of many, a certain Lieutenant in the Navy had more 'online friends' than Dr. Trick, so if one were to promote some hypothetical OR product, then he should be chosen as a first reviewer, assuming that those friends were OR types rather than 'sailors'. He also obtained other funny personal trivia from public domain, that I'll just leave out.

A second peeve I had was the highly limited lunch and dinner options for vegetarians (Two boiled asparagus roots and a turdy-looking cuboid of tofu does not an Edelman banquet make!). This should not be difficult to fix. If this doesn't change, I frankly don't see much point in shelling out two grand and semi-starve most of the conference. Thankfully, due to the purely individual initiative of the obviously superb Hilton staff, i was not totally inconvenienced. Kudos to those guys. They got their 'hospitality management OR' right.

Third, attendees should be able to obtain access to the video archive of the talks. Static slides don't cut it anymore. Unlike academic conferences, the value of practice-oriented conferences often lies in what is said in between slides.

On the positive side, the posters were a big hit. One can engage the presenters informally and in 5-10 minutes get a high-level idea of what their innovation is about. And the good thing is that you can visit them in your own time and network too. For example, I found out that the Sandia Labs in beautiful New Mexico, has this really cool Python-based modeling language (PYOMO?) that they used for stochastic programming. Can't wait to try it out. At the MPL booth, I found out that that they are making software available for free on a Windows environment. In tandem with COIN-OR (which they package MPL with, i think), you have a solid modeling and optimization package, free!

My best talks in no particular order - Sanjay Saigal (Intechne) on uncertainty , Jeffrey Cramm (Univ of Cincinnatti) on practical OR, Kevin Geraghty (360i) on social networking, John Osborne (Kroger) on OR innovation against all corporate odds, and any Edelman presentation.

overall grade: 7/10

I'll end on a warning note. The bottom line goal is that if people are thinking analytics, then O.R should not be far off from their thoughts. Well so far, O.R has been losing this battle on many fronts. Clearly, we do not want to lose our existing membership in any OR-friendly industries (most representative of the ones who showed up). However, we should be doing much more to attract members from the non-traditional, emerging industries (very few of those). At the end of the day, OR is an applied field, and while the analytics turf can be defended in journals, textbooks, and conferences, it can only be won in hard-fought battles by in-the-trenches OR foot soldiers, who need be to well-equipped and trained to build innovative, scalable, practical products and solutions for real-world problems in the 21st century - that is increasingly going to be marked by many terabytes of noisy data. When we start with "min z = c.x + y: ax <= b", O.R academic programs should first be teaching how and where to get the "a, b, c" in this and what is really means, rather than taking a short-cut straight to 'x, y, z' in the abstract world, like we have been doing the last few decades. If you have other questions, ping me and I'll tab it here ...


  1. I hated not being there, and I missed the chance to see lots of people I was looking forward to seeing. I hope to see you at a future conference (and good suggestions!)

  2. I would love that. I'll start negotiating with company management toward attending 2011-Chicago.

  3. Thanks for roundup Shiva. I was thinking about attending this one. From your feedback seems like it was good - may be next year.

  4. Just read your recap. It sounds like that we ran in different circles during the conference, so I appreciate hearing your take on what you saw there. I agree with your ideas for INFORMS, OR, and next year. Thanks for posting.


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