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Archive: 2016 (Features)

Monday, 19 Dec 2016
Rob Chidley

by Gavin Blackett, OR Society Secretary and General Manager

It is 80 years since Alan Turing first raised the concept of a universal machine and 66 years since he described the ‘imitation game’ in which a person has to decide whether written answers to questions were generated by a human or a machine. In 2015, the Alan Turing Institute (ATI) was formed as a partnership of the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRSC) and five universities (Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford, UCL and Warwick) to ‘make great leaps in data science research in order to change the world for the better’ (their mission statement). The Institute has over 150 researchers and has formed strategic partnerships with Lloyd’s Register, GCHQ, Intel and HSBC.

ATI’s director, Professor Andrew Blake, gave the 2016 Blackett Memorial Lecture at the Central Methodist Hall in Westminster, just a stone’s throw from its base in the British Library. His thought-provoking title was ‘Machines that learn: big data or explanatory models?’.

The main thrust of his talk was the common conflict, or decision faced by modellers (depending on the circumstances, obviously) – whether to use an empirical classifier or some form of generative model (which Andrew also referred to as analysis by synthesis). Andrew used examples, including painful ones from his own background, to illustrate the struggle between the two approaches. The first examples included the Netflix challenge and face recognition software. In 2006, Netflix offered a prize of $1m to help design an algorithm for to make film recommendations to its users (if you enjoyed Groundhog Day, you’ll love …). In the case of face recognition software, the efficient, black-box approach, learning from masses of examples won out, and as we all know, for a number of years even the humblest of digital cameras has been making use of this to identify faces to help the camera user frame their shot.

Andrew gave us a live demonstration of the next success – image recognition. Even in the Microsoft Office suite there’s software which can pull out a particular item from a complex image, and insert it into (for example) a Word document. Andrew told us the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches needed to be considered, a lesson he’d learnt in his time with Microsoft working on the Kinect 3D Camera project. Andrew had nailed his colours to the generative model mast, but the modelling was proving difficult. Fortunately, a young tenacious researcher demonstrated that the black box approach could work, and the outcome is now sitting on top of TVs in many of your living rooms. Andrew also explained that there are gains to be made by combining both modes. 

The field is changing fast, and Andrew highlighted the magnitude of improvements over recent years. It’s not only the technology that’s changing, though. Data protection, ethical approaches and legal issues are also having an impact. The impenetrable nature of the empirical classifier (black box) approach can be problematic with an increasing need to be able to demonstrate the variables and data key to a model’s output. In some cases, generative models are being used to try to explain how the classifier models are obtaining their predictions.

Finally, Andrew gave us a brief glimpse into research into how to improve learning. The typical classifier models need many, many cases to learn from, and once they’ve learned the first thing, the same number of examples are needed for the second. Small children demonstrate a much more efficient way of learning. If they’ve had quite a few examples to learn how to identify a car, very few additional examples are required to allow them to identify lorries. Andrew’s talk was certainly entertaining, even if it might not have been what one or two were expecting from the presumably deliberately vague title. It could only ever be a flavour of the type of research work being done through the ATI. The concept of considering the modelling pluses and minuses of different approaches is definitely not a new one to the O.R. world but it was fascinating to see Andrew’s take on this.

Tuesday, 6 Dec 2016
Jeffrey Jones

Operations Research Society of America (ORSA), Annual Meeting in May 1953

The speaker was Phil Morse, the first president of the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA), and the occasion was the ORSA Annual Meeting in May 1953. Morse’s basic prescription – keep building up our theory; keep expanding our applications – works just as well today as a guide for the future of operations research.
Others have proffered up their own views of the future of operations research since Morse first looked into the crystal ball. Some of these are devastating in their pessimism. In 1979, Russell Ackoff wrote, “The life of O.R. has been a short one – it was born late in the 1930s – by the mid-1960s most O.R. courses were given by academics who never practiced it, depriving O.R. of its unique incompetence.” Ackoff argued that we “... should want to help create a world in which the capabilities of O.R. are considerably extended but in which the need for O.R. is diminished.” This does not sound like a recipe for growing a discipline. With a healthy 12,000+ membership, INFORMS has happily not followed Ackoff’s advice.
Others have provided more optimistic views. Ten years post-Ackoff, the irrepressible Alexander Rinnooy Kan wrote that, “The future of O.R. is bright – if there is anything worrying about the state of O.R., it is that our discipline seems to spend such an inordinate amount of time and effort worrying about itself.”
Who can’t relate to that? What should our name be: Operations research? Management science? Decision sciences? Analytics? Calcuholics?
In a 1952 article in the Journal of Applied Physics, Phil Morse wrote: “Personally, I would prefer to forget about definitions and get on with the work. After all, who cares what it’s called, as long as it’s useful and is used?” 1952!!
Operations research, unlike economics (or physics for that matter), does not possess a “world view” – we have no underlying holistic theory for how the world works. The natural unit of interest in O.R. is “the problem.” It shows in how we label things – the diet problem, traveling salesman problem, stochastic queue median problem, etc. – and it shows in how we decompose more complicated situations into something we can study, model, understand and perhaps improve.
But operations research has a mindset. Operations researchers are the masters of structuring messy situations into problems amenable to analysis. Operational science includes seeing or characterizing phenomena of all sorts as operations. Modeling science (or perhaps modeling art) calls upon our creativity to create new models for such operations. These are key O.R. skills, and they capture what many INFORMS members really do.
Phil Morse had it right 60 years ago. We need to develop new methodology and to adapt old; we need to generalize our basic theoretical techniques and broaden their range of application.
Some final thoughts from your departing member-in-chief: We can have a lot of fun doing these things while celebrating how our field has helped us lead more meaningful lives. Operations research is a terrific, wonderful area of endeavor of which you should all be proud.
Keep doing stuff!

From Informs website


Sunday, 20 Nov 2016
Jeffrey Jones

JORS, November 2016

Volume 67, Issue 11, November 2016

The latest edition of our main journal is now available to members, online and hard copy.

It contains 8 articles, covering a range of matters.

One of particular interest to many of us is “Creating seating plans: a practical application” (by Rhyd Lewis and Fiona Carroll) , which deals with the interesting problem of designing seating plans for large events such as weddings and gala dinners where, among other things, the aim is to construct solutions where guests are sat on the same tables as friends and family, but, perhaps more importantly, are kept away from those they dislike.

“Resource decision making for vertical and horizontal integration problems in an enterprise” (by Jih-Jeng Huang): In this paper, the integral method called dummy goal programming is proposed to deal with the HIP and VIP simultaneously.

“E-retailing of restaurant services: pricing strategies in a competing online environment” (by Xiabing Zheng and Xiaolong Guo): This study examines the optimal pricing strategy of restaurants in a competing environment when they participate in a relationship with a third-party website.

Also, in this edition:

An equitable DEA-based approach for assigning fixed resources along with targets

Ruiyue Lin, Zhiping Chen, Zongxin Li


Minimizing energy consumption and makespan in a two-machine flowshop scheduling problem

S Afshin Mansouri, Emel Aktas


MIP models for production lot sizing problems with distribution costs and cargo arrangement

Flavio Molina, Reinaldo Morabito


A consistency and consensus-based method to group decision making with interval linguistic preference relations

Fanyong Meng, Qingxian An, Xiaohong Chen

Wednesday, 12 Oct 2016
Jeffrey Jones

Ranyard, J. C., Fildes, R

In this article we explore the extent to which the ‘natural drift’ – the gap between academic research and the needs of clients and organisations (which is common to all professional occupations) - still exists for OR today and the consequential dangers to our profession. We summarise some corrective actions that are being taken in the UK and suggest further actions that could support the long term health of our profession.

The motivation

In our global survey of OR practice, we found that the IFORS representatives for many national OR societies had few, if any, links with practitioners, even though some of the countries had known practitioner communities. This indicates a lack of commitment to practice which we believe to be of concern. Also, national and international OR conferences are almost exclusively targeted at academics, although the UK’s national conference, which regularly attracts 30-40% practitioners, is an exception as is (possibly) the INFORMS practitioner conference (now labelled ”Business Analytics and Operations Research”). Finally we have concern that the academic literature, despite documenting key breakthroughs that are of relevance to practice, is largely impenetrable to practitioners. It is long-standing problem but as we will argue in the third article, it is perhaps even more important now than when Ackoff (amongst others) raised it in the 1970s.

Dangers of the Natural Drift

In our extensive literature review (Ranyard and Fildes, 2015), we noted that concerns about the natural drift have been raised for decades in the OR community but Corbett & van Wassenhove (1993) – building on Abbott (1988) - confirmed that this gap existed for almost all professional bodies. They believed that this gap is potentially dangerous for the long term survival of a discipline such as OR. Starting with the fundamental challenge of survival, the problems that arise from the drift are that the demand for OR and for OR qualified graduates diminishes; while the subject can survive in a university setting for many years, its declining influence, from an incapacity to attract students to limited research funding and no public profile, in the end can lead to its demise.  There is evidence of this in the US which typically have seen OR courses in MBA programmes dropped and specialist courses replaced by ‘Business Analytics’ or similar.

Corbett and van Wassenhove suggested two remedies:

  1. Better marketing of OR so as to raise the profile of OR’s relevance and effectiveness.

Much progress has been made in recent years, particularly by the US and UK societies, for example the ‘Science of Better’ initiative, the Edelman Award, the President’s Medal, HORF (The  Heads of OR Forum) and the INFORMS Roundtable, school’s initiative etc. Some believe that changing OR’s label to include business analytics and/or data science would enable wider understanding but the jury is still out on this! It is certainly true that OR has a much lower profile in the popular management forums than its potential challenger, business analytics.

  1. To regard OR as ‘Engineering’ so as to help to bridge the gap between research and practice.

The aim would be to prioritise the development of tools that are closely aligned with organisational problems…but in order to achieve this an understanding of the consultancy process and organizational context is needed. The proposed solution has to be ‘engineered’ into the problem context taking into account all the various constraints from data to the actors who are involved in any implementation.

OR in academia and its publications

Ormerod (2002) claimed that “OR is defined by its practice and not by the maintenance of its body of knowledge” but journals and most conferences show a dominance of abstract mathematical OR disassociated from practice. The few case studies that are published often omit rich detail on the process of achieving change. In Fildes’ recent Beale lecture, he demonstrated how few of the JORS papers were engaged with practice – most of those papers which included reference to an application just used stylised data.  The reasons for this are well known: editors (and conference organisers) insistence on ‘innovation and rigour’ and a readership targeted at those with an in-depth understanding of the specific problem area addressed in each paper. (We were surprised that the paper documenting the results of our survey of OR practice, sponsored by IFORS, was rejected by ITOR (the main IFORS journal) as not meeting its criteria!) The result is a style of paper that is largely impenetrable to practitioners. This seems to us to be a scandalous waste of research resources!

Some Solutions

Encouraging links between academics and practitioners and promoting collaborative research

In fact the OR Society has done and is doing much to encourage links between researchers and practitioners. In recent years, activities under the Making an Impact label at our national conference have helped to maintain the traditional academic/practitioner balance by providing activities aimed at specifically practitioner’s interests (such as workshops, tutorials, mentoring and networking). Making an Impact sessions were also provided by UK organisers at the EURO conference in Glasgow last year and will be continued at this year’s EURO conference in Poznan. In addition, EURO is setting up of a practitioner’s network, which should help to foster practitioner-academic liaison across Europe. COPIOR, the Committee of Professors in OR, and HORF are now meeting regularly to promote common interests and collaborative projects.

 The recent inclusion of ‘impact’ as a key criterion in the Research Excellent Framework - REF - (which prioritises research funding in the UK) is also an attempt to close the gap. Here the impact of theoretical work has to be substantiated by organizational beneficiaries. In the last REF a number of OR case studies were submitted, the Lancaster Forecasting Centre being one, where the gap between theory and practice is demonstrably linked. The OR Society’s new magazine style publication ‘Impact’ will also promote applicable research. The Edelman competition in the US as well as the President’s medal in the UK also aim to demonstrate and reward best practice. Also many  academic OR departments collaborate with local – and increasingly national – organisations, including offering cost-effective Master’s projects and internships.

Finally, a recent innovative initiative at Cornell universitie’s OR department in the USA has been to found a professorship of OR practice in honour of Art Geoffrion, one of OR’s influential thinkers about the relationship between theory and practice. 

Increasing the Accessibility of OR Journals

In some journals the theoretical focus we describe has come under fire. This concern has been emphasised in a paper by Tang (2015), referring to Operations Management, where he summarises the reasons for this status quo and offers some remedies. This has led to lively exchanges in an INFORMS online discussion forum and a number of practical suggestions for change. These include:

-          Insisting that all authors explain at the beginning of their paper, how their research is relevant to a real world problem

-          Ensuring that the introduction section is comprehensible to those outside the particular domain

-          Providing two abstracts, one aimed at researchers in the domain (the normal target audience) and a second – a marketing one – aimed at those outside the research domain who might benefit from the research.

Ormerod’s (2013) recommendations as to how applications should be written up to increase our understanding of practice are particularly helpful here and include discussion of the: roles of the author and other actors, the process and progress of the interventions and the barriers to improvement encountered.


To this we would add that paper titles could often be more helpful. A recent paper in JORS, 2014, entitled “A compromised multi-objective solution using fuzzy mixed integer goal programming for market-based short-term unit commitment problem” could have been entitled “Optimising power generation” and would have had a better chance of reaching those planning such operations! Perhaps there is a case for having two titles for some papers?  Seriously, editors need to expect authors who have any aspiration to an application to discuss the path towards implementation. Clearer labelling (through a key word or perhaps separating out theoretical papers from the remainder) would perhaps help. Sadly few case study papers are submitted to OR journals but those that are should be required to provide details of the implementation process, not just the approach and benefits .


The Way Ahead

In summary, there are a number of established and new actions that the OR societies are putting in place but there is still more to be done. We hope these ideas will lead to creative discussion within the UK OR community….and hopefully beyond.


Abbott, A. (1988). The System of Professions: an Essay on the Division of Expert Labour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Corbett, C. J., & Van Wassenhove, L. N. (1993). The natural drift - what happened to operations-research. Operations Research, 41, 625-640.

Ormerod, R. J. (2002). On the nature of OR: taking stock. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 53, 475-491.

Ormerod, R. J. (2013). The mangle of OR practice: towards more informative case studies of/technical'projects. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 65, 1-16.

Ranyard, J. C., Fildes, R., & Hu, T.-I. (2015). Reassessing the scope of OR practice: The Influences of Problem Structuring Methods and the Analytics Movement. European Journal of Operational Research, 245, 1-1Tang C. S. (2016) OM Forum—Making OM Research More Relevant: “Why?” and “How?”.  Manufacturing & Service Operations Management 18(2):178-183.



Monday, 22 Aug 2016
Jeffrey Jones

Martin Kunc, chair of ERC.

The overall aim of the ERC is to enable education and research in Operational Research (OR) to thrive and to have impact. In order to achieve our aim, we are working on different initiatives.
One initiative is to map the landscape of education and research, and use this knowledge to identify and respond to issues and identify opportunities. We have commissioned a charitable project to have a better understanding of the supply chain of people (practitioners, users and academics) in OR. In parallel, projects with students are also taking place in a similar area. The objective is to be able, by the end of 2016, to produce a document related to the current and future supply chain. Hopefully, the document can support the actions of academic and company-based OR groups in the future. This is a critical issue since the higher education landscape will be changing substantially due to the future legislation proposed by the government.
A current initiative also in the area of OR supply chain is related to OR in Schools. This initiative has been running for a number of years and it has produced important material (online and offline) for the dissemination of OR with Maths teachers. This initiative is a key action for the future of the OR supply chain given the recent changes in A-level curriculum. While there are almost 200 volunteers, the level of proactive volunteers is not large enough to raise the profile of OR among all secondary students. We need volunteers to attend schools and raise awareness so we can have a healthy supply chain of OR people. Please, contact your local school to give a presentation and then ORiS for materials. One presentation can make a large difference to the future of the OR profession.
Another initiative is to ensure that the OR Society voice is heard in relevant national bodies and consultations, with respect to OR research and education, and its impact. In this area, we have limitations. While the president of the OR society is engaged in scanning consultations and participating in meetings with learned societies, we don’t have the capability in place to scan all consultations. We also lack in-depth knowledge of the education landscape to produce fast and evidence-based responses to consultations. I would like to invite volunteers to contact us so we can create a database with the knowledge existing in different areas of OR education. Ideally, we should be in a better position after we finish the projects scanning the supply chain of OR people as well as an initiative, which is going to be launched in September, to collect, nationally, information about activities in OR academic groups.
Finally, the ERC has to enable the OR research community to have access to funding and the OR practice community to benefit from research and academic expertise. In this area, there is important news. A Research Panel has been formed with very experienced researchers to support the development of capabilities in the OR community to access funding from EPSRC. We look forward to learning more about the initiatives they plan to implement to achieve more successful OR researchers. Additional initiatives will take place in the rest of the year.
There are always opportunities to support the OR community in the areas of education and research so, please, contact us.

Tuesday, 19 Jul 2016
Rob Chidley

At the recent Annual Analytics Summit, Andy Hamflett, Co-Founder and Director of AAM Associates, and Giles Hindle, Senior Lecturer at Hull University Business School, described their part in supporting the Trussell Trust's foodbank programme through analytics and data visualisation.

Abstract: Andy and Giles present an impact case study of the emerging power of data visualisation within one of the UK’s most dynamic and talked-about charities. The RCUK funded NEMODE project – delivered by Hull University Business School, AAM Associates and London-based data science and machine learning company Coppelia - aligned the Trussell Trust business model with food bank data and a variety of open data sets. The team created the UK’s first dynamic visualisation tool for crises related to food poverty. The prototype uses foodbank data to map geographical demand and also aligns findings to 2011 Census data to predict where additional foodbanks may be needed. This led not only to immediate insights on usage patterns, and the development of a predictive tool, but also points to much greater strategic potential both for the Trust and for a wider community of charities working to counter UK poverty.


Monday, 18 Jul 2016
Rob Chidley

Abstract: A number of vital decisions are made across large organizations each day. Providing insight to support better decision making is essential in today’s competitive landscape, leading companies to become more data driven. One enabling element of this data-driven movement is the evolution of new technologies, such as the Hadoop stack, that allow greater access to large sources of information from which insight can be derived. However, the implementation of big data technology does not guarantee success within an organization. So how do you drive value from big data? Drawing on first-hand experience at Marks and Spencer, Pete Williams shares practical examples and advice on how to take your data culture and capability from walk to trot to gallop. Topics include:

  • The skills required to implement analytic approaches
  • The impact of proactive analytics on existing analytic behaviors
  • The structuring of analytic functions within a company
  • Building the links between business and analytic functions

Tuesday, 7 Jun 2016
Rob Chidley

Tins with overlay

This year's Annual Analytics Summit (21 June 2016, BMA House, London) features a packed rosta of speakers. Four analytics experts from the University of Hull, AAM Associates and data science company Coppelia will discuss their work harnessing the power of analytics for one of the UK’s most talked-about charities - the Trussell Trust.

Andy Hamflett and Giles Hindle will present an impact case study of the RCUK-funded NEMODE project which aligned the Trussell Trust business model with food bank data and a variety of open data sets. In doing so, the team created the UK’s first dynamic visualisation tool for crises related to food poverty. Richard Vidgen and Simon Raper will unpack it in the afternoon sessions.

The prototype uses foodbank data to map geographical demand and also aligns findings to 2011 Census data to predict where additional foodbanks may be needed. This led not only to immediate insights on usage patterns, and the development of a predictive tool, but also points to much greater strategic potential both for the Trust and for a wider community of charities working to counter UK poverty. 

Hear more about this fascinating project (and others) at the Annual Analytics Summit #TAAS16

£150 +VAT


Wednesday, 25 May 2016
Rob Chidley

David Goody

David Goody is a data scientist and operational researcher at the Department for Education. David will speak on how the Department for Education provides data-driven oversight for over 5000 education providers and ensures the regularity and propriety of funds spent within them. This involves using a scaleable systematic process of data collection and analysis to help identify and intervene where appropriate in cases of financial concern. His work has included developing predictive risk analysis systems, geo-spatial analysis tools, automated impact assessment modelling tools and performance measures. He has provided support for data science development across government and won the best speaker award at the 2016 Government Operational Research Service conference.

Key OR techniques that are used to support this work are:

  • Clustering and machine learning techniques to allow us to review and analyse a wide range of large and dynamic data sources. These include decision tree learning, lasso regression, k-means clustering and k nearest neighbouring clustering.
  • Advanced visualisations, including using interactive geo-spatial analysis showing areas served by different education providers.
  • Combining multiple data sources to create effective MI reports and presenting these in ways that non-analysts can understand.

In the afternoon, David will speak on 'How to Make the Leap into Data Science', with examples of data science techniques in action from the department’s work and examples that audience members can replicate.

The Annual Analytics Summit takes place 21 June 2016, London.

Book your place:



Monday, 25 Apr 2016
Rob Chidley

Operational Research (O.R.) is the science of better decision making and The Operational Research Society runs its Pro Bono O.R. scheme to match up analysts with charities and other third sector organisations to improve their operations - for free!

By Felicity McLeister

On a bright sunny morning in February a group of people gathered together in a function room at Southwark Cathedral to make a film to promote Pro Bono O.R.

Making such a film had been something I’d wanted to do for a little while and this was made possible by the arrival of a full-time marketing and communication manager at The OR Society.

Volunteers and third sector organisations who had taken part in the scheme would be invited to come and talk about their experiences of the scheme in an informal, script-free day full of cake, coffee and filming. 

A venue was selected, a date picked and the requests sent out and I was overwhelmed with the positive responses, given the relatively short notice. The day started bright an early, setting up the room and equipment at 8am for our first interviewee from Diabetes UK to begin at 9am.  Throughout the day we had 12 interviewees: six representatives from The Childhood Trust, Marie Curie, Dachshund Breed Council, Disability Law Service and Bloodwise; and six volunteers who were able to attend, many of who had worked with the charities that were represented.
Representatives of organisations who received Pro Bono O.R. support talked about impact of the project, and the effect of the volunteer who worked on it. Volunteers talked about what it is like to work for a different kind of organisation, how they used their skills on the projects they worked on and the benefits to volunteering.

For me personally this was a great opportunity to meet with many of the organisations and volunteers whom I normally only have email and phone contact with.  It was fantastic to hear first-hand about the projects and the enthusiasm and positivity that all who involved got out of being involved with the scheme.

There was so much footage one film has now turned into two.  One is aimed at encouraging more organisations to take up the offer of Pro Bono O.R. and the other is to encourage more O.R. analysts to sign up as volunteers.

Find out more at about the scheme here or tweet to Felicity McLeister at ‏@FMcLeister to get the conversation started.

Wednesday, 6 Apr 2016
Jeffrey Jones

OR Essentials is an exciting new concept. Our journals provide an important platform for disseminating knowledge across the vast field of what has become accepted as operational research. But if you are looking for papers on a specific technique or methodology or OR has been applied in specific area, searching through these journals for the best papers requires the knowledge and expertise of an expert. And that is precisely what OR Essentials is capturing.

The OR Essentials series presents a unique cross-section of high quality research work fundamental to understanding contemporary issues and research across a range of Operational Research (OR) topics. It brings together some of the best research papers from the Operational Research Society and its associated journals, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Our discipline of OR deals with the use of advanced analytical methods to support better decision making. It is multidisciplinary with strong links to management science, decision science, computer science and many application areas. It is practised in these application areas including commerce, defence, energy, environment, education, engineering, finance, health, logistics, manufacturing, public sector, services, and transportation. Each of the above has additional theoretical, methodological and technological subdomains. In short, there are a huge number of OR-related topics. As a discipline it has many “sub-fields” making it difficult for a student or novice to know where to begin! The OR Essentials series will help.

Each of the books in the series, and so far there are six with a further two in the pipeline, covers a particular topic. Dr Simon J E Taylor, Brunel University London, who developed the concept, is the series editor and the editor of the first book in the series: Agent-Based Modeling and Simulation. This was quickly joined by OR, Defence and Security (Forder); Operational Research Applied to Sports (Wright); Operational Research for Emergency Planning in Healthcare (Vol 1 & 2) (Mustafee) and; Essentials of Knowledge Management (Edwards). The two on the way are on System Dynamics and Discrete-event simulation and will be available shortly.

An OR Essentials book is therefore a convenient publication and key text that makes it easier for a student to find important publications when studying an element of OR, help an academic to recommend to his/her class background readings in an area of OR in a convenient manner and promotes industrial dissemination in OR. For a practitioner an OR Essential book represents important research papers that summarises an area of OR in an easily accessible form.

More details can be found at If you want to discuss a possible new title in the series then please contact the editor at

Thursday, 17 Mar 2016
Jeffrey Jones

What can we gain from a Europe-wide network of practitioners? What opportunities might it bring for cross-fertilising practice, cross-border implementations, larger collaborations? And why are there so many more practitioners applying optimisation on mainland Europe than in the UK?

Building on the success of ‘Making an Impact’ at EURO2015 in Glasgow, the 2016 EURO conference in Poland in July will be similarly providing activities designed to attract practitioners. And EURO2016 will be taking advantage of this gathering of practitioners to discuss how we can convert it into a more permanent European Practitioner Network.
The network's objective would be to support OR practitioners: people whose primary source of income is selling OR services (whether they call them OR, analytics, decision support, or whatever), either to their employer or to clients.

It would encourage and support the communication and exchange of ideas among practitioners in industry as well as practitioners operating as freelancers.

The participants would benefit from:
• finding out about practice across Europe, bringing in new ideas to their own practice from how things are done elsewhere;
• having access to complementary skills in various fields, e.g., transport, supply chain, cutting stock or energy; and making themselves visible to others working in complementary fields,
• having access to more people working in the same industry – particularly valuable where the UK sector is small, but the European community is larger
• the possibility of cross-country collaboration,
• and definitely from getting to know intellectually enjoyable individuals.

If you are interested in being part of the network, please email with a subject line of "PRACTITIONERS NETWORK", indicating whether you will or will not be coming to Poznan, any suggestions you have for what you would like such a network to do, and any contribution you would like to make to it.

And whether you are a practitioner or an academic, there is plenty going on at EURO2016 in Poznan: go to for more information.


Tuesday, 26 Jan 2016
Rob Chidley

On the face of it, this seems a bit of a strange title for a talk to The OR Society but Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor of The Economist, who presented this year’s Blackett Memorial Lecture soon made it clear that it was actually a very appropriate title.

Traditionally, O.R. has been about identifying and understanding the problem, deciding what data is needed, collecting it and making sure it is as “clean” as possible then attempting to isolate the causes. Big data, on the other hand, is not particularly concerned with a specific problem and it does not matter if the data is messy provided there is lots of it. If any correlations can be discerned from the data, again, it may not be critical as to whether A causes B, A is caused by B or that A and B are actually independent. If the data suggests that people tend to buy more “Pop Tarts” just before the weather turns bad then it makes sense to stack the shelves when bad weather is forecasted: if they buy more, great; if not, it is no great loss. Sometimes it does not matter if there is no causal relationship.

In the lead up to the 2008 Presidential Election, the Obama campaign had to choose from three or four website homepages that they thought would be the most effective. As it turned out, the most informal one “won” – no one knows why but it need not matter. Importantly, the effectiveness of the different homepages was measurable: the best-performing image and link drew in $60 million more in contributions than the least performing one.

Where big data has proved immensely successful has been in areas involving machine learning. If you write an algorithm which tries to answer all of the questions there are very few cases when you will succeed. Even in a simple game such as checkers (draughts), if you code all the rules and all the moves you can think of, the chances are you will still be able to beat the machine but if you write an algorithm which allows the machine to work out the best play for itself and let it play itself hundreds, thousands, millions of times, you will have produced a truly formidable player.

Spell-checkers, grammar checkers and translators are other areas that greatly benefit from a big data approach. Microsoft used four different algorithms to carry out grammar checking. The one which performed the best when taught using a small sample of cases performed the worst with large data, in fact it only improved a little. But the one which performed the worst with small data (trained with half a million words), performed far better than the others when given large data (one billion words).

In another example, Kenneth explained how machine learning had identified twelve critical markers when looking for cancerous cells. The experts had previously only recognised nine of these. In the case of cars, researchers in Tokyo fitted a seat with hundreds of sensors to identify people via their posture. It may be used as an anti-theft device: whether the person sitting is the legal owner. If every car was so fitted then it might be possible to determine when a driver was falling asleep or not paying attention and perhaps be used to avoid potential accidents. He also recognised the vast potential the Internet of Things could provide, most of which we have not yet thought about.

He finished on a more cautionary note. With machine learning we do not know how the rules have been derived or, indeed what those rules are. Not only that, but they are constantly changing as more experience is gained. So, for example, if the algorithm used by VW had been derived via machine learning would VW still be to blame? If a pedestrian is accidentally killed by a driverless car who would be responsible? If a train hits someone, unless the driver has broken the rules, there is usually no case to answer and we accept that, but trains do not have the ability to swerve, brake or take any other avoiding action. With the IoT, maybe the car will be able to alert the pedestrian via their mobile phone that they were so engrossed in when they stepped off the pavement!

Legislation covering data, data ownership, data protection, machine learning and this whole area is seriously in need of a major review.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 edition of Inside O.R.

January 2016

Monday, 4 Jan 2016
Rob Chidley

2016 could not have got off to a better start for The OR Society as we learned that our incoming president Ruth Kaufman will be awarded an OBE for services to Operational Research.

Ruth Kaufman OBE
When did you find out you were in line for this award?
Just a few weeks ago, a letter arrived out of the blue saying, in rather more flowery language, words to the effect of: ‘The Prime Minister proposes to recommend that The Queen approves your appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.’

How did you react? Given that I am a republican opposed to most of what this Prime Minister is doing, my first reaction was probably unprintable. My second reaction was ‘why me?’ Other people have done a lot more than I have. It took a while for me to realise that it is, literally, an honour that somebody out there thought it worth the effort of nominating me and pulling together all the supporting evidence. Once the news had sunk in, I realised that it’s not just gratifying for me personally, but also it will be really helpful in my push, as the new President of The OR Society, to increase the visibility and profile of OR.

What does ‘services to Operational Research’ mean? Good question! I don’t know exactly what they had in mind because, as the recipient, I don’t get to see the 10-page form that the nominator had to submit. But as head of an OR group in a government department, one-time chair of the Government OR Service, member of The OR Society Board for 7 years, and now OR Society President, I have persistently tried to do two things: to look internally, to improve the quality and effectiveness of OR practice and governance; and to look outwardly, to extend OR influence across professions or disciplines, across application areas, between OR commissioners and OR providers.

I’ve been involved with setting up Pro Bono OR, with building the ‘Making an Impact’ practitioner sessions at conferences, with raising the profile of OR in government, with representing OR at Executive Board level in a government department – every one of these has been a result of teamwork, but I’m very proud of my role within the team.

How did you get into OR? And what has kept you engaged with it as a discipline? I fell into OR accidentally, but it has kept me hooked. I studied maths at the University of Sussex’s cross-disciplinary school of social sciences and, not knowing what OR was, I looked for a job that would make use of both aspects of the degree. I found one that ticked all the boxes – as an OR analyst with London Transport. My work in OR has developed from doing the analysis to facilitating the analysis, to integrating it into strategy and change management. What keeps me in OR is the kick I get out of using analytical rigour and insight to make improvements happen.

"What keeps me in OR is the kick I get out of using analytical rigour and insight to make improvements happen."

This honour comes at the beginning of your time as President of The OR Society – what are your aims for the Society over the next two years? The OR Society is aiming to grow its reach, so that more and more people take an interest in its activities; to grow the visibility of OR and The OR Society; to promote the engagement of its members with each other and with the Society itself; to grow the “people pipeline”; and to nurture OR research. I want to focus on making this all happen: building on our recent successes – the growing analytics network, the launch of Impact magazine, the influx of student members, the Pro Bono initiative – in the context of the boom in demand for OR skills. There are a whole lot of opportunities out there, and I want to seize them.


Ruth tweets at @ruth_kaufman



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