Wednesday, 13 August 2008

O.R. and the infrastructure

90 lengths today! (see yesterday's blog)

This week I watched the first episode in a new BBC TV series, Britain from Above. The opening programme focused on the infrastructure which lies behind life during a typical day in Britain. So there were mentions of transport, electricity supply, water supply and treatment, communications and so on. The filming was of a very high quality, and there were some good computer graphics, although quite often there was too little time to appreciate the message. The programme tended to move from topic to topic, trying to hold the viewer's attention -- and assumed a limited attention span.

I very much enjoyed reading Infrastructure: The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape which looks at the engineering behind a nation's infrastructure, and the BBC programme touched on this. But it also looked at aspects of control, and I wondered what would have happened if the presenter had been familiar with the work of O.R. scientists. For those who know how ubiquitous O.R. is, the programme emphasised that O.R. is the hidden science behind many things.

Sadly, for commercial reasons, much of the practical work of O.R. professionals in practice is never published. Why should you tell the world what you have done, and how you have done it, when your results could be exploited by your competitor?

To take one example from the programme, one that caught the attention of several commentators. At the end of the programme "Eastenders", there is a great surge in demand for electricity as well over a million kettles are switched on across Britain. The electricity industry has to cater for this demand, and we saw the man with the responsibility watching the demand rise, and bringing hydroelectric power stations "online" to cope with the demand. More power was bought from France. The same electricity industry uses O.R. to deal with the varying demand, with models (some of which are as simple as large linear programs) that show when diferent means of generating power should be used. When I talked about this with a researher in the industry, he spoke about the sudden demands for power during and at the end of TV programmes, and also of the difficulties that are created by having a cheap night-time tariff for electricity. Many users have timers which switch on appliances at the start of this tariff.

No comments: