Monday, 20 April 2015

Clement Attlee on Operational Research in 1944

I was born several years after the second world war, so do not have any personal experience of that period of world history.  However, for various reasons, I have known about the secrecy associated with the work of British scientists during the war.  So I have been mildly annoyed when reading novels set in that time which make anachronistic reference to that work.  I won't name the guilty parties.  One had a character talk openly about going to Bletchley for a message to be decoded, when the existence of the operations there was a secret for a generation afterwards.  Over the last weekend, another book had a character assuming that the enemy bombers in a raid on Britain in 1942 had "flown under the radar".  Again, the word radar was seldom used at that stage in the war, although there was no way that the radar masts could be disguised, their purpose was secret and the term "radar" was little used, so the expression "under the radar" would not be in civilian usage.  By 1944 the government had admitted the existence and efficacy of Britain's radar system.

So, as I was a little irked by the anachronism, today I turned to an index to newspapers of the period, to find when the press had first used the term "radar".  The Times had used the term twice by 1942, and neither time was there reference to British radar systems.  But it was a 1944 reference which caught my eye. 

On Thursday April 20th, 1944 (six weeks before D-Day) there was a debate in Parliament about support for science; the debate seems to have proceeded on the assumption that the Allies would win the war.  Clement Attlee (then Lord President of the Council, later to be Prime Minister in the peace-time government after the election in 1945) said:
  • The country owed a great debt to scientists, for to a far greater extent than ever before the war had seen the application of science to the production of weapons of offence and defence in all three elements [land, air and sea].  In quality of research we fully held our own.  In the study and the laboratory the brains of our scientists had been pitted against the best brains of the enemy and they had not been found wanting.  Perhaps the most striking instance had been the development of radar.  Another was in operational research.  Today, after operations had taken place, there was a kind of post-mortem by trained scientists to make a careful examination of the facts which had led to success or failure.
So, there we have it.  Praise for operational research in the war effort, both for planning and for the analysis afterwards. 

Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister in the post-war government (picture from
 I wonder, on that April day exactly 71 years ago as I write, how many readers of The Times would have known anything about operational research? 

Friday, 17 April 2015

What is a system? A 19th century answer.

Frederic Bastiat is a name that is little known in Operational Research circles.  Actually, I hadn't heard of this nineteenth century economist until earlier this month.  Yet he wrote about one of O.R.'s essential features, the extent of the system being modelled or studied.  Frederic was a French economist, an essayist and member of the French assembly.  In 1850 he published a pamphlet containing his essay "Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas" ("What is Seen and What is Unseen") which included a story, sometimes called a parable, about the economic effects of a child breaking the glass in a shop-window.

He didn't use the word "system" in the essay.  I shall use that word, because it is part of the language of O.R.  Bastiat simply asked the reader to consider the extent of the effect of that damaged window pane.  "The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen."

But is that the extent of the system?  Bastiat argued that there is a larger system which is unseen.  "as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library."

"The window being broken, the glazier's trade is encouraged to the amount of six francs; this is that which is seen. If the window had not been broken, the shoemaker's trade (or some other) would have been encouraged to the amount of six francs; this is that which is not seen."  So the system affected by the broken window extends beyond the glazier to encompass the alternative businesses where that six francs could have been spent.

(some of Frederic's thinking was concerned with what would happen, economically, if all the buildings in a part of Paris were to be destroyed.)

Economists claim that this is the earliest discussion of "opportunity cost".  That is another term which arises in O.R., especially in the context of the sensitivity analysis of a linear programming solution, where the reduced cost (opportunity cost) is the amount by which an coefficient in the objective function would have to improve before it would be possible for the corresponding variable to enter the optimal basis of the solution.

So, rise up, you O.R. scientists, and praise the name of Frederic Bastiat!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Waste collection in Exeter - some good operational research

There is a Youtube video of how the city of Exeter (here in Devon) is using data collection as part of a suite of tools to monitor and manage the collection of waste in Exeter.  Waste collection is a classic example of a problem of stochastic vehicle routing and scheduling, and there are numerous papers in the O.R. literature about how to solve some of those problems.  (Not all the models are realistic; some are simply theoretical, adding new twists to earlier theoretical models!) The video does not go into great detail (shame!) but shows how there is technology in the vehicles to record information relating to each collection that has been missed or refused.  This is coupled with a display in the council office showing progress of the vehicle around the streets.  The commentary reports cost savings due to doing things better ("science of better" anyone?) and suggests how the GPS technology is being extended to other matters for which accurate spatial location is very important.

The video is obviously a promotional video to encourage the use of GPS for data collection and recording in local authorities and service industries, but behind the scenes is some very good O.R. work (probably not called that) relating to the routing and scheduling of a fleet, and some serious questions about quality of data and whether some data are really needed. 

There were a number of times during my academic career when I listened to a research paper at a conference, and really wanted to ask the presenter what "real" data they had used in their models.  Next time you are tempted to write a theoretical paper about vehicle routing, have a look at this to get a feel for some practical features of everyday life in the world of refuse collection.