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I am looking for applications of OR for good causes, possibly with some literature. I intend a good cause loosely defined in the sense that the scope is that of improving the well-being of others, e.g., fighting poverty, raising charity funds, ethical use of resources, fighting hunger, saving lives, or similar scopes.

I am aware of the risk of this question being too vague. Nevertheless, I believe there are good resources out there.

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  • $\begingroup$ Isn't improving the efficiency of a business a good cause? Businesses are (on the whole) good. They give people jobs. They produce goods and services. Your entire way of phrasing the question seems to denigrate productive enterprises as being non-good. $\endgroup$ – John Coleman May 20 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnColeman If that is what you read in my question (and I see why one might read it in that sense) it is only poor phrasing. I found it hard to find literature motivated by a non-profit and altruistic cause (sincerely without any judgemental or denigrative intention on profit-driven studies, for the reasons you mentioned). I will be happy to rephrase the question and title if you can suggest a way that does not leave the impression of a judgmental post. $\endgroup$ – k88074 May 20 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ It was more of a quibble. It is a good question, and there is also no doubt that not all applications of OR to businesses are good in the sense of being moral (not exactly OR, but "Weapons of Math Destruction" is an interesting read). $\endgroup$ – John Coleman May 20 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ This seems like a poor place for a discussion of the merits and evils of capitalism, @JohnColeman. Let's perhaps not open that box, or at least not here. $\endgroup$ – TRiG May 21 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ The whole point of OR is to extremise something. So I would ask if there is something that if extremised would be a good cause. $\endgroup$ – copper.hat May 21 at 15:06
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A great cause would be supply chain in countries/regions with poor infrastructure and/or uncertain supply and high price fluctuations.

This is particularly important in many developing countries, because getting supplies to their destination and being able to do so on time is not straightforward.

Another amazing cause is to formulate & solve travelling salesman problems in order to figure out how medical personnel can effectively vaccinate a population, both before & during an outbreak.

These problems have absolutely unique constraints and dynamics, e.g., figuring out how to create herd immunity whilst avoiding a certain peninsula because warlords have been at war with each other & raiding villages for the last 3 months.

As you can imagine, niche technical expertise is not easy to find in NGOs & charities, and neither is specialised software for their unique needs, so these kinds of technical contributions can have massive impact in improving people's lives.

There are numerous ways to participate, e.g. through student initiatives, clubs, and internships for our younger people, or pro-bono work for the professionals. A notable factor here is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been instrumental in funding technological solutions in developing & developed countries alike - it's worth checking out their full range of activities for more details.

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  • $\begingroup$ Could you explain the relationship between TSP and vaccination? I can see that order of persons to be vaccinated matters in terms of groups (location, age, profession), but not really individually. $\endgroup$ – Robert Schwarz May 18 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ It's a common problem in developing countries, where the health workers have to travel to rural settlements to vaccinate the population, as opposed to the static facilities we are used to in wealthier countries. $\endgroup$ – Nikos Kazazakis May 18 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ @k88074 There is one company that comes to my mind that does use analytics techniques in practice for good cause and that's Zipline. $\endgroup$ – EhsanK May 18 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ "This is particularly important in many developing countries, because getting supplies to their destination and being able to do so on time is not straightforward." Would operations research really be able to help with things like corrupt officials delaying things until they're bribed? $\endgroup$ – nick012000 May 20 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 Surprisingly, this can be modeled. $\endgroup$ – Nikos Kazazakis May 20 at 16:02
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A new webinar series was just started: Analytics for a Better World.

The first two presentations cover health care (ventilator distribution for COVID-19) and the poverty (food distribution).

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Ifors has an entire page titled "Developing Countries OR Resources", where they list resources in topics such as:

  • Agriculture
  • Communication
  • Community OR
  • Current Events
  • Education
  • Energy
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Industry
  • Infrastructure
  • Labour
  • Law Enforcement
  • Safety
  • General Articles
  • Finance
  • Transportation
  • Free OR Software
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The journal Socio-Economic Planning Sciences often publishes such OR papers. Some recent examples include papers on public school districting1 and facility location for humanitarian relief.2

INFORMS has a paper competition on "Doing Good with Good OR," which has included work related to managing volunteers3 and Hepatitis B interventions.4

I've also included a couple of literature reviews5, 6 which you might find interesting.


(1) E. Bouzarth et al. "Assigning students to schools to minimize both transportation costs and socioeconomic variation between schools." Socio-Economic Planning Sciences 64: 1-8, 2018.

(2) N. Cotes and V. Cantillo. "Including deprivation costs in facility location models for humanitarian relief logistics." Socio-Economic Planning Sciences 65: 89-100, 2019.

(3) M. Falasca et al. "Helping a small development organization manage volunteers more efficiently." Interfaces 41(3): 254-262, 2011.

(4) D. Hutton et al. "Doing good with good OR: supporting cost-effective Hepatitis B interventions." Interfaces 41(3): 289-300, 2011.

(5) M. Johnson et al. "Emerging trends and new frontiers in community operational research." European Journal of Operational Research 268(3): 1178-1191, 2018.

(6) P. Leclerc et al. "Modeling equity for allocating public resources." In Community-Based Operations Research: 91-118, 2011.

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Partially overlapping with the other answers, but healthcare is a field where OR has many applications. See for example the Operations Research in Healtcare Journal, or this survey1.


References

Rais, A. and Viana, A., 2011. Operations research in healthcare: a survey. International transactions in operational research, 18(1), pp.1-31.

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OR also has applications in voting theory and fair divisions (best way to cut a cake).

This guy did his PhD on fairness (envy-freeness), applied to scheduling for employees.

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There's not much documentation (and no literature), and the applications are pretty basic, but you can find blurbs on several projects with nonprofits at the INFORMS Pro Bono Analytics "Our Work" page. The Operational Research Society's Pro Bono OR page also has links to examples of their work.

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Boston school bus routing and bell time optimization.

https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/sites/gsb/files/jmp_sebastien-martin.pdf

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The Effective Altruism movement aims for finding the best charities (among other things like finding the right profession). This naturally has plenty of applications of OR techniques. In the EA community, we want to find ways to save the most lives per dollar (actually, a bit more sophisticated, the most quality adjusted life years (QALYs) per dollar).

Out of this movement, charity evaluations have evolved (e.g. GiveWell). But also after such an evaluation, there are problems to solve. For example, while one charity A is better regarding cost-effectiveness. For you, the donator, it might be better to give your money to some other charity B because your donation there is tax-deducible for your country and therefore you might be able to donate more money to B, which saves more lives.

As a primer, you maybe want to check out Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save, which is available as a free download. Singer is one of the leading minds of EA.

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