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  • Dean Matter

Operations research for the helpless

Operations Research (OR) might seem like a widely-unknown field in South Africa, defined as “the science of better,” by INFORMS. In other parts of the world, perhaps more known.

Or perhaps we are just disguised as business modellers, data scientists, epidemiologists, quantitative analysts or whatever you want to call us. We love improving things by applying mathematics to complex problems, but it’s difficult to pin down the work we do to a single phrase or name. The truth is, OR has applications in nearly everything you can think of. There are problems and inefficiencies all around us, and endless possibilities for improvement if you look for them (can you see the similarities to entrepreneurship?).

With that being said, the immense progress society has made in the last century can be clearly seen once you are confronted with the difficulty of improving things further. Something that always reminds me of this is orange juice. We take juice as such a given; a solid, relatively healthy and altogether good choice of beverage. But when I think of how privileged we are to have it so freely available, I am taken aback. Rewind just a few generations and it’s a different story. Never before in the history of humanity have we had such abundance and efficiency. Joshua lead the Israelites into “a land flowing with milk and honey” in ±1250 BC. What kind of supermarket today doesn’t have milk? We are living in extraordinarily convenient and abundant times, and it’s important to keep that in mind when striving to improve things. As Charles Spurgeon says, “It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.” Be thankful for what you have already, or otherwise you’ll end up constantly looking for something else.

Perfectionists such as myself make wonderful operations researchers and entrepreneurs, but the pursuit of endless improvement is often tiring and fruitless (pun intended). In one of our postgraduate projects this year, we’ve been brainstorming social entrepreneurship ventures. The link between OR and entrepreneurship is undeniable, and both can be used to improve the lives of those who really need it. I can’t speak for the rest of SURGOR’s members, but I am more interested in improving the lives of the poor and helpless than making money for those who don’t really need it. I guess I sound like the millennial I am. Consumerism can so easily tempt us away from gratitude. Most of us, myself included, have more than we need – and we need to decide when enough is enough. I pray that I do not get so comfortable with the pleasures of modern life that I ignore the needs around me.

Fortunately, though, OR isn’t just for increasing profit. I, for example, have worked on a project this year which uses simulation and linear programming to investigate vaccination delivery strategies by UAVs that may reduce deaths in rural measles epidemics where communities are hard to reach by road. These kinds of applications of OR, I believe, have a far greater and more significant impact – and these projects are what I would rather spend my time working on.