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Research · Joe Naoum-Sawaya

Optimizing intelligent services

Jul 1, 2016

Car driving

Imagine having transportation personally catered to you. The minute you’re ready to leave for work in the morning, a car appears in your driveway. It takes you and two other passengers to work, finding the fastest route with the least amount of traffic, and drops each of you off with time to spare. The fare is split among you, making it cheaper than Uber, less stressful than driving, and more efficient than a bus or train.

To some, this may sound like a utopia in the far off future. But Ivey’s Assistant Professor Joe Naoum-Sawaya says otherwise.

“It will be here very, very soon – in the next few years,” he said. “Autonomous cars are already here. Electric vehicles are already here. This is the next step.”

Naoum-Sawaya’s research focuses on the concept of mathematically modeling decision making. In other words, he strives to turn everyday decisions into mathematical representations so that technology can help us solve problems and reach solutions. With that, we can then process bigger data and make complex decisions using a bigger scope of integrated information.

A big area of interest for Naoum-Sawaya is smarter mobility, where unstructured data like traffic footage, pollution, and individual travel patterns can all be analyzed when deciding how to get from one place to another.

“The main focus for my research is taking things that are very hard for a computer to analyze and creating mathematical models to make it easier for it to interpret,” he explained. “The goal is creating intelligent services that could optimize human behaviour and everything around us. We want to create services that would improve our way of life.”

The future of transportation

Naoum-Sawaya’s most recent published paper looks at the future of car sharing – a sort of Uber 2.0.

“The idea is to create a system that sees where people are, examines in which direction they’re moving, then predicts where they will go,” said Naoum-Sawaya, who has been a professor at Ivey since 2015, after completing his PhD in Management Science at the University of at Waterloo. “We can then propose optimal ride sharing.”

He points out that tracking locations and movements can already be done on almost anyone – people walk around with GPSs in their phones and Fitbits that track their movements. Further, most people do the same things every day, such as travelling from home to work. By looking at the data generated from different sources, intelligent devices can learn travel patterns.

“There’s a lot of concern about privacy, but the idea is to create these services using the minimal personal data,” he said, “All these mathematical models and all these technologies ask you very little about your identity.”

In addition to learning about an individual’s personal travel through the way they move, data driven models can also track and record data from inanimate objects such as roads, traffic lights, and parking meters. By installing sensors on these, we can track flow as well as noise levels and pollution.

Want to go for a walk on the quietest street in town? These mathematical models can tell you where to go. Want to travel a route that creates the least amount of pollution? They can tell you that too.

“Look at sensors on parking meters, for instance,” said Naoum-Sawaya. “You can see where there are parking spaces, which ones are free, and which ones are closest to where you want to be.”

Creating smarter cities

The advanced mobility system that Naoum-Sawaya’s research focuses on is only one piece of the smart technology puzzle. Smarter cities are the broader goal, with four subcategories: mobility systems, energy grids, water networks, and telecommunications.

“With smarter mobility systems, autonomous cars and electric vehicles are already on our streets,” said Naoum-Sawaya. “But when they become more mainstream they’ll disrupt our whole transportation system.”

All these aspects of a smarter city integrate with and affect each other.

“When these smarter mobility services suggest a route, it takes into account the energy prices and weather conditions, which in turn affects how much renewable energy you can use,” said Naoum-Sawaya. “It optimizes everything so you can actually do your travel at minimal cost and more importantly at minimal impact on the environment.”