O.R. by the Brazilian Beach: SBPO in Ubatuba

Ok, I’ve kind of stolen Tallys Yunes blog name for the post title, but I could not resist: it is winter time in Brazil but it is a sunny and hot day in Ubatuba, where the 2011 Brazilian Symposium on Operations Research (SBPO) is being held. I’ve presented my paper this morning and now I can watch the rest of the event without worrying about it at all (I love presenting earlier). In the hope to get some readers tempted to attend to the next SBPO editions, here goes some pictures of the conference hotel, the sea view and my colleagues working under extremely hard conditions:

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When Brazil excels for real (or floating point): International Olympiads in Informatics

One gold and three bronze medals out of four competitors: that would be routine for some countries, but it meant a lot to Brazil in the 2011 edition of IOI. It was the best result of the country ever, achieved after more than a decade of continuous hard working by many people, including some professors and colleagues of mine from the University of Campinas – Unicamp – and the University of São Paulo – USP – but also from many other places. Like some friends of mine, I got more proud of that result than I would be of a World Cup title.

I had the opportunity to participate on the training for selecting the Brazilian competitors for the 2003 IOI and, despite scoring very bad at that selecting contest, I left it motivated to keep studying and practicing. In the years that followed, I tried my best in the South American and the Southwest European ICPC contests and achieved a humble result of three bronze medals. But the best part of it was that I learned a lot during those five years and so did most of my colleagues that went on the same direction, building a network of professionals that indicate each other for interesting jobs.

I do not think it is very common that IT undergrads follow the path towards an OR specialization, but that happens more often among those that engage in programming contests that valuate algorithm design and implementation skills. Such contests represent a great opportunity to leverage the area in Brazil, since the training required by the new generations can be supported by a number of professors that had their abroad doctoral studies sponsored some decades ago. Despite how far we are from devising strategic plans to excel somehow, good ideas here and there (even if decades ago) and the passionate effort of great individuals are playing an important role to the development of our country.

Offshore Resources Scheduling and the Brazilian Symposium on Operations Research

On August 17th, I will present an article about what I’ve been working on my M.Sc. thesis at the Brazilian Symposium on Operations Research (shortened SBPO in Brazil). This article is authored by me and some colleagues from work. We are tackling the problem of scheduling offshore resources to develop oil wells with Constraint Programming (CP). It took a great effort to present so much about the problem and how to solve it in a way that it accessible to a broader audience (I hope we have managed to do that). There are four other papers competing for the best paper award. We will try our best there. Anyway, I’m glad by the nomination.

The 2011 SBPO will be held in Ubatuba, a beach town half-way between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The model as a spell and the solver as a wand: O.R. magic for a muggles’ world

Who cares about O.R. magic?

When I said once to my sister that my former job was to put more fridges on each truck to save delivery trips (something that many of my colleagues consider a joyful job), she couldn´t be less interested. Maybe I should have tried to use magic metaphors to describe models as spells, solvers as wands and programming contests as Quidditch games for students. Despite those interested in profits and costs, operations research practice sounds really boring to the general audience.

Who believes in O.R. magic?

We are embedded in optimization problems that are usually overlooked. As a result, tackling one of them might look like plain witchcraft to an outsider: how come that costs were reduced by 5% or profit raised by 20% just like that? Of course that such witchcraft may need to compete with quack consultants selling a sole system supposedly capable of solving whatever problem the client has. Apart from a parcel of executives and engineers, O.R. seems to be hovering between unfamiliarity and suspicion to many, what means a lot of opportunities lost.

How to bring them in or back to OuR magic?

Paul Rubin had many insights about that: he presented a very sound analysis about “hitting muggles” on his blog to target high-level executives, business students and small organizations. Indeed, I’ve been on training classes at Petrobras along with many young economists that have been just hired and most know little but are very interested about operations research. I hope they enjoy the O.R. lectures to be held.

Nevertheless, I would like to praise for a holistic education about O.R. for engineers and IT professionals. Being so diversified, O.R. involves fields as diverse that practitioners of some are not fully aware about the existence of others that would suit their needs. Moreover, complex software systems are very likely to require O.R. at some point but system analysts and system architects might not be aware about that. In both cases, an interesting application – if not ignored – might be approached with the wrong spell or wand! Despite how much I believe in magic, I know that I’m a muggle sometimes.

Brazilian IT (and OR) salaries, and our rickshaw-like cars

Contemporary economy and the rickshaw-like cars

The first elected president after the military dictatorship in Brazil was quite a controversial figure. He was responsible for the first steps towards opening our economy to free trade. By that time, he argued that the Brazilian cars were like rickshaws. Still, two decades after, I bought a brand new car from FIAT whose floor gets wet inside when it rains. Nevertheless, things have been changing quite a lot due to what he and his successors did.

IT demand and IT paycheck

Due to a number of favorable conditions, our economy is growing faster now. That implies a greater demand for qualified workers, what includes IT experts. However, both Brazilian and foreign companies are reacting as if a free lunch was still possible: they complain about the scarcity of high skilled workers but also say that the available professionals are asking too much to be hired, as told on a report of Info magazine. It might be true that many people are earning more than their technical skills deserve, but that only happens if the recruitment process is scant. Besides, such higher salaries only exist because some employers sensed that IT has a great value in their business. Such conclusion became crystal clear to me when I saw a debate among three professionals in a class of optimization in finance at IME-USP. Two of them were agreeing on that common-place complaint when they were interrupted by the third, which has just arrived in Brazil to start a branch of his investment firm. In his opinion, technical skills are not as valued in Brazil as interpersonal skills are, which means that a salesperson earns a lot more than those that make things work behind the scenes.

What about OR?

I wish I could say that things are better for OR analysts here, but that is not often the case. Albeit the fact that our profession demands higher academic degrees and the availability of technical resources is not so generous when compared to what is offered to software development, the relation between workforce offer and market demand is smaller. In São Paulo state, I would guess that there are as many specialized consulting firms to work in as there are good degree programs involving OR, which means that those firms can bargain salaries very easily. Instead, I think that it is better to be an OR specialist outside such consulting firms, moving towards the end user or bigger software houses. Doing that, you can be considered as an IT professional that is specialist in strategic software, which alone means a better paycheck. Of course, there is yet another option: starting your own consulting firm.

Is it the end of “rickshaw-like salaries”?

For the good of our profession and all those which are very specialized, things have been changing a lot. Brazilian companies like Petrobras and Vale have been investing a lot in research institutes as well as on hiring and valuating high skilled professionals. Besides, foreign companies like DuPont, GE and IBM have decided to create research units here, whilst other companies like Google are developing their products here (as opposed to simply adapting them as global manufactures have been doing for ages). I read somewhere that there are two times more PhDs working outside than inside the universities in the USA. According to a report of Estado, our balance in Brazil is quite the opposite right now but there is a clear trend that this is changing. I hope that those companies used to how things were in the old times starting considering a new approach for their own good. With a higher demand and better recruiting, it seems that unfair “rickshaw-like salaries” in Brazil might be about to end.

Optimizing Public Policies for Urban Planning

Another possible title would be “Marrying an urban planner up to her research problems”.

It all happened when I started hearing my fiancée explaining the problems of Brazilian housing policy and ended up with an interesting model for sustainable housing subsidy that she presented at the Latin American Real Estate Society meeting of 2009.

The problem: Housing policy in Brazil 

The main housing subsidy for low-income families in Brazil is based on a federal program roughly called “My House, My Life”, in which public subsidy consists of an amount of money for each constructed housing unit that varies solely according to the city.

In a place like São Paulo, the unavoidable consequence of such policy is to further sprawl low-income families towards suburban areas.
Most of them already spend much more than two hours per day to go to work.
Moreover, great distances prevent them from going to work on foot or bicycle, what raises public transportation demand and decreases their purchasing power.

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São Paulo in 2009: Job offer vs. low-income settlement (source: SEMPLA).

What we did: A model for variable subsidy

We started looking for the main problems of distant placement of such families:

  • Bad life quality due to the time wasted for displacing. 
  • More pollution due to the large displacements. 
  • Public expenditures to support the public transportation system.

    Instead of creating a complex multi-criteria model to tackle that, we just considered that people must be placed at most one hour apart from 50% of the jobs in the city (seems fair, right?) and considered the criteria in which anything is actually done: money!

    After all, how much does it cost to the government if families are so far from their jobs?

    • If the place is too far, one must account the per-family cost on bringing adequate public transportation infrastructure up to there. 
    • Depending on the modal of transportation, there must be public subsidies and also the carbon footprint cost, which were accounted for two people per family to work for one generation (25 years).

      Thus, if you have a 20K subsidy to place a house or apartment anywhere in the city, it would be fair to raise that in places where nothing else must be done. For instance, we realized that extending a subway line costs about 20K per family, that is, government actually spends the double to bring adequate infrastructure, if not more.

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      São Paulo’s downtown: A very good infrastructure and many abandoned buildings.

      What’s next?

      To what concern the O.R. community, it is not a challenging problem in terms of algorithms but there is a lot of room to improve modeling.
      Unfortunately, we did not apply our model completely due to the lack of data, but we hope to do that someday.
      However, it is already possible to devise the possibilities of reducing public expenditures, and forthcoming approaches would provide integrated decision models for housing subsidy and infrastructure investments.

      Talking about multidisciplinary: O.R. at the Public Sector

      A multidisciplinary approach might start at your own home, and it may point out interesting challenges that academia might not have been devised so far.
      In Brazil, where public sector decisions are all but technical, there are big opportunities yet to be explored.

      About the paper

      We were glad to have had support from Prof. J.C.S. Gonçalves, which previously was Sabrina’s advisor at FAU-USP and also coauthored this paper.

      S. Harris, T. Serra, J.C.S. Gonçalves: Critical Analysis of Brazilian Housing Policy and Proposal of Subsidy Calculation Model Based on Transportation Sustainability Criteria.
      In: Proceedings of LARES Conference 2009, São Paulo, Brazil.