Social Innovation

Data Analytics for a Better World

Algorithms that make the World Food Program more effective. Flood protection for the Netherlands using ‘business analytics’. Tilburg University wants to use data analytics to achieve a better and safer world. The Data Science Center Tilburg (DSC/t) participates in the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science (JADS) in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which was recently opened by Her Majesty Queen Máxima of the Netherlands.

The United Nations World Food Program helps people in crisis situations. One of the most important questions it faces is how the UN can help the maximum number of people within a given budget. In 2015 the UN approached Tilburg University with this challenge. Professor of Operations Research Hein Fleuren took up the challenge, supported by the Tilburg Center of Sustainability (TSC) and one of their PhD-students: Koen Peters. He created a model involving all the variables. What kind of nutrition does a human being need every day - and how much? What are the applicable food prices and where should this food be sourced? What is required in terms of logistics - and at what cost? By using the results of these prescriptive analytics models the UN has considerably improved its World Food Program in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Ethiopia.

Man with a mission

Dick den Hertog is professor of Operations Research at Tilburg University and Director of DSC/t. He is a man with a mission: “I want to improve our world using data analytics.” He gives an example: “The Netherlands has often been flooded. It is essential that the dykes are high enough to protect the Dutch population from rising water levels. However, the country has thousands of kilometres of dykes. So increasing their height is extremely expensive.”

The Dutch government asked Den Hertog to calculate the optimal balance between dyke heights, costs and safety. Numerous factors are involved in this. Tilburg University collaborated with many companies on the project. An example is Deltares, which was the lead in this project and provided all the data on costs and on the chances of flooding. Weather institute KNMI provided scenarios for climate change. This data enabled Den Hertog and his colleagues to calculate the optimum solution.

Cancer research

Research is also applied to more immediate, personal risks. Tilburg University is involved in cancer research, in collaboration with MAASTRO Clinic, Erasmus Medisch Centrum, and Harvard Medical School. Radiotherapy kills malignant cells, but must leave healthy cells unharmed. Large-scale optimization models determine the best radiation treatment plan for a specific patient.

“The results of these calculations have helped the UN to considerably improve its World Food Program in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Ethiopia.”

Dick den Hertog, professor of Operations Research at Tilburg University