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Know Your Madisonian: Analytics keep UW-Madison professor running
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Know Your Madisonian: Analytics keep UW-Madison professor running

Laura Albert

Analytics make UW-Madison professor Laura Albert an expert on everything from homeland security to the NCAA tournament.

It’s a good thing that Laura Albert specializes in analytics. The UW-Madison associate professor of industrial and systems engineering uses it in myriad amazing ways, including social media, but her best use of it may be keeping her wild schedule straight.

When she isn’t working with students as an associate professor or her other role as assistant dean of graduate affairs, she’s writing on her “Punk Rock Operations Research” blog about analytic research that piques students’ interest. She also can be found on Twitter and is asked to do interviews with local and state media about analytic issues, including the NCAA basketball tournament. She is the director of Badger Bracketology, which can be found on the school’s website and on Twitter.

So it’s not a surprise that Albert is popular with students. She was given the Harvey Spangler Award for technology-enhanced teaching by UW-Madison for her use of sports and their ever-present data to teach students in one of her engineering classes last year.

The 39-year-old Albert also is a devoted mom to three daughters and an avid runner who hopes to someday run in the Boston Marathon.

“My life is a well-oiled machine,” said Albert. “I apply the principles to my life. I don’t sit down a whole lot, but, especially when I’m at home, I just have a system for everything. I have a lot of energy. I think that helps, too.”

The native of Schaumburg, Illinois, played badminton and volleyball in high school. She went to the University of Illinois, where she received her bachelor's and master's degrees in general engineering and her doctorate in industrial and systems engineering.

Albert has written or co-written more than 70 papers since 2011 on subjects pertaining to everything from airline and airport safety — her research while pursuing her Ph.D helped lead to the creation of the passenger pre-check system — to disasters, emergency response, public services and health care.

Is there a mathematical answer for just about everything?

That’s a tough question. Maybe not. I think politics sometimes can be a little bit messy, but you know, you’d be surprised how many places you can use math or at least use the mathematical way of thinking just as a way of looking at the world. And that’s where I would say yes, there’s a mathematical way to look at almost everything. I don’t know if it’s always the right answer, but it’s a useful lens.

Is sports opening the world to analytics and, in some ways, making analytics better?

What I like about sports is that sometimes these models are not perfect, but they’re always refined. What is not obvious to the average person is how you might use a model for the draft, but then you can see how you did and you have some ways of evaluating it. If the model doesn’t work very well, we fix it and it’s held accountable in a way.

In some of the domains where we’ve seen analytics being used, we don’t do that step. We get it wrong and then there’s not a corrective action. In sports, I think the process is really good and that you build a model and improve, you validate it by comparing it to what actually happened and there’s continual improvement every year.

What kind of changes would you like to see coming with aviation and airport security?

It’s interesting that most of the focus at the security lines has been on finding bad things. They are things we shouldn’t have, whether or not we have bad intentions. I hope that there is a move towards really designing a system that has some security devices and other components that are really focused on bad intentions.

You can’t catch all of the bad intentions at checkpoint security. We send our devices through and these TSA officers observe our behavior. But there are various points throughout the airport when they can make more behavioral observations and see if anybody’s acting in ways that would raise suspicion. And I think that that’s where we might have some more opportunity down the road. We need to have a layered system where we can do more monitoring for bad intentions.

— Interview by Rob Schultz

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the description of Laura Albert's background. Albert played badminton and volleyball in high school. She went to the University of Illinois, where she received her bachelor's and master's degrees in general engineering and her doctorate in industrial and systems engineering.]

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