McCormick | Northwestern Engineering _

Karen Smilowitz

James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor in Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences

Design and Operation of Nonprofit Systems

Addressing such critical issues as food distribution and humanitarian relief requires new approaches. Much research has been conducted on related logistics problems in commercial settings where the goal is to maximize profit or to minimize cost. Less work has been conducted for non-profit organizations. In such settings, objectives such as equitable distribution of resources and societal welfare are often more difficult to quantify. As a result of the differences between commercial and non-profit systems, new mathematical models and solution approaches must be developed to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of non-profit operations. Our work can help organizations serve society better and improve resource utilization, as observed in the projects described below.


Community-based operations research. Joint work with Michael Johnson. "Community-based operations research" is the application of decision models to social issues of a local nature. The goal of this field is to design policies and tactics that have the potential to improve individual life outcomes and neighborhood-level outcomes by addressing welfare, equity and administrative efficiency simultaneously. Community-based OR problems tend to be "messy" and dependent on political and social considerations. This tutorial defines community-based OR in the context of public-sector OR/MS, highlights current research in a variety of domains and identifies a number of new research opportunities.


Food distribution. Joint work with Seyed Iravani, Robert Lien, Burcu Balcik and Joseph Warfel. Twenty-five million Americans rely on Feeding America and their network of pantries, shelters and soup kitchens for food. The matching of surplus food with those in need is a major distribution and inventory management problem that occurs daily at thousands of non-profit agencies. This project has yielded a series of mathematical models to generate simple decision rules and insights which significantly improve resource utilization and equity in non-profit inventory/distribution networks. In 2008, Ph.D. student Robert Lien was a finalist in a prestigious student paper competition for work related to this project.


Library services. Joint work with Michal Tzur and Peter Francis. The North Suburban Library System (NSLS) delivers interlibrary loan materials to libraries in the Illinois suburbs north of Chicago. We worked with NSLS to address critical operational and budget constraints on their interlibrary loan operations at a time of stagnant funding and increased demand. This work led to the development of a new variation of an existing problem in the operation research literature. Jan Hayes, Assistant Director of NSLS, noted that the project allowed NSLS to "expand our knowledge and understanding of principles and practices which has helped us in the long term with making decisions" and "NSLS was able to implement some changes almost immediately."


Mobile healthcare. Joint work with Sarang Deo, Seyed Iravani and Tingting Jiang. This project has focused on mobile delivery of asthma treatment and education. We are working with the Mobile C.A.R.E. Foundation of Chicago to improve their operations.


Humanitarian relief. Joint work with Irina Dolinskaya, Benita Beamon, Burcu Balcik, Michael Huang, and Luis de la Torre. This work has focused on logistical operations in disaster relief through three projects.


I. Composing Dynamic, Periodic Vehicle Routes


This project focuses on last-mile operations after supplies have arrived at a local warehouse or point of distribution. In this setting, we are studying strategies to distribute aid to beneficiaries spanning a time interval on the order of a few days or weeks. Relief strategies must be robust and dynamic. Operating policies need to address how drivers choose routes when encountering impassable links. While our work includes complex optimization models, we are also developing policy guidelines for implementation under limited access to information technology and computing resources.


II. Achieving Equity, Efficacy, and Efficiency in Relief Routing


This project seeks to balance the objectives of equity, efficacy, and efficiency in vehicle routing and inventory allocation decisions regarding the distribution of relief supplies. We formulate and solve models that incorporate metrics for these three factors, demonstrating how the delivery structure changes with priorities. We identify critical differences between routes designed solely to minimize travel distance, such as those obtained from traditional routing models, and those designed to account for multiple objectives.


III. Modeling Inventory and Distribution for NGO Last-Mile Distribution


Significant logistical problems in the last mile stem from the limitations related to transportation resources and emergency supplies, difficulties due to damaged transportation infrastructure, and lack of coordination among relief actors. In this study, our aim is to provide an analytical framework to assist relief agencies in making effective and efficient distribution decisions. The main operational decisions related to last mile distribution are relief supply allocation, vehicle delivery scheduling, and vehicle routing. We are developing decision-making tools to allocate supplies and schedule and route vehicles considering the high stakes associated with unsatisfied and/or late-satisfied demand and the strict financial limitations of NGOs.