Tag Archives: operations research

What’s in a Name? The Other ICS Conference

(as always, see below for conference reminders and news)

Just after New Years I attended the INFORMS Computing Society (ICS) conference in Santa Fe. Fortunately or unfortunately their acronym works out as the same as our very own Institute for Computational Sustainability (ICS) . In a way this is fitting since a large number of their problems are sustainability related, particularly in power grid and water management.

The conference is meant to be a way for the Operation Research community to reach out to Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence researchers. The solution methods most commonly used are Integer Programming, Linear Programming and local search methods which are referred to as ‘meta-heuristics’. The focus is largely on exact optimization results but there is a growing amount of work on approximate solutions as well.

One exciting thing is there is a lot of interaction between this community and actual power supply or water management utilities in the United States. So it if you aren’t in this community it may be useful to consider comparing this work with your own learning and optimization methods on their problems or to compare to their methods. The abstracts are definitely worth a look and can be found here .

The conference was somewhat eye opening for me as someone in Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning to see how much work is still going in to making math programming optimization methods more and more powerful. It seems that at the very least these methods should be used for comparison when presenting clustering or planning results. Even better would be to increase the collaboration between these communities on using the best parts of different methods.

Here are some highlights from what I saw :

  • Rahul Jain at USC on MDPs for smart power grids as Linear Programs. Using the occupancy measure, how often states are visited, as a proxy for optimizing the policy directly. Modelled using conditional values as risk.
  • Michael Trick from CMU does the yearly scheduling for Major League Baseball amongst other things. He gave a very entertaining talk on how far LP solvers like CPLEX have come and how the process of many practitioners has shifted from trying to find ways to make the problem smaller, to trying to find ways to provide enough hints so that the highly optimized solvers can find better solutions. 
  • Warren Powell from Princeton spoke on general optimization techniques revising the tutorial he gave in Denmark last summer at ICS 2012 (The other ICS that is.). He also spoke on work their lab at Princeton is doing on management of power grids in real time where some of the relevant variables are highly stochastic such as weather or the hourly spot pricing for electricity.
  • A fascinating talk by Victor Zavala of Argonne National Labs on the need to optimize cooling in thermal power generation like nuclear or coal plants. This is hard because it relies on ready access to cool water so droughts, rain and humidity are actually very relevant for planning how to run your power plants. 
  • Nathaneal Brown from Sandia National Labs on the problem of planning maintenance of bridges and other urban infrastructure in such a way that effect of major earthquakes will be minimized. They consider maintaining multiple paths between major population centres and hospitals, etc.
  • Sarah Nurre at Renessealar Polytechnic Institute has an interesting problem of real time scheduling of power line restoration after hurricanes where requests arrive in real time but planning decisions about staff and materials need to be made beforehand and the goal is to restore power as quickly as possible.
  • Of course, I was there so I was presenting my own work in this area which is on policy gradient search methods for planning in spatiotemporal problems like forest management.

Some Light Reading For the Weekend

  • If you are looking for some light reading for the weekend the first mandated US National Climate Assessment has been released. It’s just 400 pages and includes the latest scientific knowledge on a range of topics in climate chance and sustainability with predictions and impacts on the climate in the US and at at least some data about Canada as well on brief perusal.


  • Conference: AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence with a special track on Computational Sustainability for the third year in a row. AAAI is Co-located this year with UAI2013.
    Deadlines: (Last Chance!) Abstracts: Jan 19, 2013. Papers: Jan 22, 2013.
    Time and Place:  July 14-18, 2013 in Bellevue, Washington, USA (near Seattle).
  • Conference: International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence The theme of IJCAI 2013 is “AI and computational sustainability“. The conference will include for the first time a special track dedicated to papers concerned with all the aspects of Computational Sustainability.
    Deadlines: Abstract: January 26, 2013. Paper: January 31, 2013.
    Time and Place: Beijing, China, on August 3-9, 2013.
  • (NEW) Conference: International Green Computing Conference including research on a broad range of topics in the fields of sustainable and energy-efficient computing, and computing for a more sustainable planet.
    Deadline: February 15, 2013
    Time and Place: Arlington, Virginia, USA. June 27-29, 2013.
  • Workshop: Energy Aware Software-Engineering and Development (EASED) provides a broad forum for researchers and practitioners to discuss ongoing works, latest results, and common topics of interest regarding the improvement of software induced energy consumption.
    Deadline: March 15, 2013
    Time and Place: Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenburg, Germany
  • Conference : ICT for Sustainability Conference : aims to bring together leading researchers to take stock of the role of ICT in sustainability, to create an interdisciplinary synopsis, to inspire new approaches to unleash the potential of ICT for sustainability, and to improve methodologies of evaluating, developing, and governing the effects of ICT systems on the sustainability of societal and environmental systems.
    Deadline: passed.
    Time and Place:  ETH Zurich, Switzerland. February 14-16, 2013.

Are we missing something? Let us know or join the CompSust community on G+.

Tusind Tak Copenhagen!

So the CompSust2012 Conference is over and our mixed band of computer scientists, ecologists, operation researchers, engineers, urban planners (and more) are dispersing back to their homes in Denmark, Jordan, Uganda, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and the USA (and that’s just people I talked to, who am I missing?).

I think everyone would agree it a was a very well run conference and very productive. Over powerpoint slides, posters, food and even beer we all gained insights into challenging computational and sustainability problems and topics we probably didn’t know about before we came.

We all know finding ways to improve the sustainability is full of important and challenging problems, but it a different thing to see exactly what people are struggling with around the world and what solutions they have found.

For example, did you know that…

  • if you count of all the wireless devices people have access to that the locations of about one third humanity is knowable in principle? Paul Luckowicz described this and other amazing facts about what he calls our digital shadows to us during his Master class discussion on Wednesday. This data can be used for good or for ill but it will be used; so it’s best to start thinking and planning for it, that’s what his FuturICT project is looking at.
  • the widespread use of Linear programming techniques for policy making was essentially kickstarted in the 1970s by the success of these methods at predicting the end of oil independence in US as demand grew? Warren Powell gave a rousing and thought provoking Master class seminar on the broad area of stochastic optimization in dynamic domains and described how he believes a broad range of methods from different communities can work together if there is increased communication between researchers.
  • in Uganda, smart phones with internet connectivity are becoming so common it is assumed that most research projects using technology to help with sustainability will utilize them? So that’s what John Quinn is doing. His machine learning group in Uganda is creating solutions for automated data collection and disease diagnosis using Android phones to augment the restricted access to trained experts on the ground. Their applications range from malaria detection, to plant disease spread to traffic monitoring.
  • owning and powering a fully electric car uses about as much power as an entire household? Hartmut Schmeck pointed out that the concern is not just that this costs a lot of money or uses energy, but also puts a huge new load on power systems already at their maximum level at the local distribution level. Several talks friday morning by Nick Jennings, Hartmut Schmeck and Holger Hermanns described these kinds of power grid challenges in the UK, Germany and elsewhere. The good news is there are ways to make this manageable if we are smart about it. The really good news is there are challenging computational research problems about how to do that.
  • some day your house might be able to learn it own customized weather forecast? It will do this by tracking the actual weather outside and learning how it drifts from the predicted regional forecasts, allowing your house to better manage it’s energy usage. This is one of the projects Nick Jennings is working which he talked about in his plenary talk.
  • some day consumers may be able to band together to demand better or more sustainable policies from their service providers such as power companies? Well, that’s already happening and researchers are using the techniques of co-operative game theory to work out how it would work.

This is just a sample of some of the topics from the plenary talks alone, there were also great parallel track talks on energy management, species distribution modeling and conservation planning, water management, social analysis and incentives and how to integrate computational sustainability into computer science education.

The full program can be found here and many of the slides from talks will be up on line at the conference website when they become available.

Finally, I’ll end this little summary where Carla Gomes began the conference, with her inspiration for the field of Computational Sustainability. She described it as being part of the evolution of Computer Science into what could be considered a third age. The first age included working out the practicalities or hardware, computation and networks; the second included, among other things, the creation of the powerful abstractions of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The third age involves these and other advances of computer science reaching out an integrating with other disciplines to bring the power of computational thinking to bear on the world’s most challenging problems.

Few problems are more challenging than how to make our growing civilization sustainable on the finite resources of the Earth; but that is what Computational Sustainability faces and it looks like we’re well on our way to contributing to meeting this challenge.

If you went to CompSust2012 keep the discussion going :