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University of Amsterdam teams up with MIT to use analytics for a better world

Dutch and US universities join forces with tech company to help non-government organisations and the United Nations to harness data analytics to achieve sustainable development goals

The Amsterdam Business School at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US have joined forces with technology company Ortec to establish the Analytics for a Better World Institute (ABW), which aims to use data and analytics to help achieve the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.   

The realisation that data analytics can and should be used more broadly came to ABW co-founder Dick den Hertog, professor of operations research at UvA, after reading two books. The first was Excellence without a soul by Harry R Lewis.  

“As a former dean at Harvard University, Lewis wonders whether we are still training our current students to do meaningful work,” says Den Hertog. “Of course we teach them what they need for their working lives, but do we inspire them enough in our education?” 

He says that got him thinking, because around the time he read the book, he was also looking for more meaning and purpose. “It’s wonderful to develop applications for commercial purposes, but as a privileged Western world, shouldn’t we be doing more?” he says.

The second book Den Hertog read was Weapons of math destruction by Cathy O’Neil. “That’s about the dark side of data science,” he says. “Although I thought it was a good and necessary book, I also found it a bit one-sided.”

The desire arose within him to counter this, and Den Hertog coined the term “Analytics for a better world”. That is the starting point for a new development that uses data science to work for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the UN’s sustainable development goals.   

Purpose and meaning  

Together with his US counterpart at MIT, professor of business analytics Dimitris Bertsimas, Den Hertog continues to build on the idea of ABW. “We started teaching courses at our universities and noticed that our idea resonated enormously with our students,” he says. “Generation Z is more focused on purpose and meaningful work. That’s why the vision has been enthusiastically received. What is more, data has expanded enormously over the past 20 to 30 years, giving organisations access to much more knowledge and information than before. All this made the time ripe for setting up an institute.” 

Then they needed to get expertise from the industry on board, as Den Hertog says the development of practical applications requires consultancy and software development skills. “If you ask an academic a question, he immediately looks for an answer. While a consultancy company will first ask questions and may conclude that you are asking one question, but actually want to solve another problem. In Ortec, we found a founding partner that meets our ambition and supports the launch of this non-profit institute with a generous in-kind and financial contribution.” 

Many companies use data analytics to create value for their organisation and data scientists are among the most sought-after IT professionals in the labour market and can choose from countless jobs. “And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that,” says Den Hertog. “But why not also open up these advanced techniques for humanitarian and sustainable applications? Suppose you can save 5-10% for a company – just think what you can do for an NGO.” 

Because data talent is scarce, many NGOs and governments fail to engage these people to make gains in relevant areas independently by using data analysis – and that is where the ABW Institute comes in, says Den Hertog. “In doing so, we want to contribute constructively to the 17 sustainable development goals formulated by the United Nations.” 

Mathematical puzzles  

What is striking is that the solutions to many different challenges are more similar than was first thought, he says. “In our field, issues that appear to be completely different can actually be very similar from an analytics point of view. There are also myriad degrees of freedom in the real world – too many for people to process, which is why you need smart algorithms and models to nail down the best solution.” 

For example, Den Hertog is currently working with the World Bank on a project on a small island near Indonesia. “The World Bank is helping with loans to improve the infrastructure in Timor-Leste,” he says. “This includes medical posts to ensure that the entire population has access to healthcare. One of the goals of the UN is that at least 95% of the population should have a health facility within reach.

“We are currently algorithmically addressing several questions. First: what is the percentage of the population that is already within that target? And second: where should the new medical centres be located in order to optimally meet the 95% target? That is a mathematically demanding puzzle.” 

However, the ABW Institute does not have to reinvent the wheel every time it faces such challenges. There are many similar issues, says Den Hertog. “Take the stroke centres in Vietnam. There are a number of them now, but more are needed. Where should they be located so that the population can benefit most from each new centre? Data science is the way to solve these kinds of issue. The same applies to the location of vaccination centres in Nepal.”

So different issues can be solved with mathematically identical models, although this does not always apply, he says, adding: “Sometimes it is necessary to make an application for one purpose, but when it can be more generic, we do everything we can to make that happen. For example, we develop all tools and technology in open source and put it in a public repository, so anyone can use it for free.” 

Asked where he sees the ABW Institute in, say, five years’ time, Den Hertog says: “I would very much like to see us making a substantial contribution to about 50% of the UN sustainable development goals by then, and that we will have been able to bind some 10 large NGOs, governments or humanitarian organisations to us. With ABW, we are pursuing long-term collaborations to really embed data analytics in the organisation, and thus generate more impact.”

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