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Engineering efficiencies to help the neediest

U of T's Mark Fox founds the Centre for Social Services Engineering

Two years ago, Professor of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering Mark Fox spent 36 hours living on the street. It was for a charity fundraiser – and also to get a better sense of how the homeless live and how social services are delivered.

“It led me to ask the question: What are we doing as engineers to address the needs of people less fortunate than ourselves?” he says.

As a result of his experience, Fox co-founded the Centre for Social Services Engineering (CSSE) at U of T. Now more than a year old, the centre applies industrial and systems engineering techniques – including mathematical analysis, big data and machine learning – to improve the delivery of goods and services to vulnerable populations in urban centres.

Fox, who was named U of T Distinguished Professor of Urban Systems Engineering earlier this year, has spent decades studying how to make organizations more efficient. In his field, industrial engineering, innovations like supply-chain management and just-in-time delivery are routinely used to help companies lower costs and improve performance.

The same techniques can be just as easily applied to other sectors. In the last 30 years, banks, hospitals and other organizations have increasingly hired industrial engineers to redesign their operations.

photo of Fox dressed as homeless person on streetAccording to Fox (pictured at right during his time on the street) there’s no reason why social services shouldn’t benefit as well.

How exactly does an engineer help meet social needs? Fox puts the case of a recent immigrant soon to give birth who has very little money and no social network to rely on. Meanwhile, a grandmother living in an affluent neighbourhood has crib, acquired for her grandchildren for but no longer needed.

“The crib has been sitting in the basement for the last three years, and she doesn’t even remember it’s there,” says Fox. "The grandmother doesn’t know there is a need in her community. Furthermore, because she’s forgotten it, she hasn’t even thought to post it on an online classified site or donate it."

Fox’s idea is to use the same tools that marketers use to build profiles of their target audiences – analyzing purchases from credit card data or looking at household surveys – to build up a picture of what resources are available and where. The goal, he says, is “to be able to learn what the supply side has, and then figure out a way in which we can reach out. Such a system would identify people who have goods and services that people need but are unaware of.”

In Ontario alone, Fox notes, there are 45,000 charities or non-governmental organizations that provide a wealth of services. ”Some may be furniture banks, some may provide transportation, some may just provide money,” he says. He envisions a kind of virtual NGO that would integrate all of these services and make them available through a single portal.

Fox also hopes to integrate the social needs marketplace into existing programs such as 211 Toronto, a hotline that helps Torontonians find social services.

Another Centre for Social Services Engineering project focuses on the representation and analysis of city indicators. It builds on the recently developed the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 37120 standard of 100 indicators to measure city performance, led by Professor Patricia McCarney at U of T’s Global Cities Institute.

The CSSE’s PolisGnosis project, named after the Greek words for “city” and “knowledge,” seeks to create a consistent and meaningful way of representing these indicators on the Semantic Web, an online network promoting common data formats, and automate the diagnosis of a city’s performance.

One such ISO indicator concerns the ratio of students to teachers in public schools. Many cities don’t yet provide the data from which their indicator was derived, and those that do could be using data inconsistent with the indicator’s definition. They might count school board administrators as teachers, or distinguish primary and secondary schools differently.

By enabling consistent analysis of such metrics, the PolisGnosis project aims to help lower-performing cities to make improvements by diagnosing the root cause of their underperformance.

Fox believes there are many ways in which engineering analysis can help make life better for those in need. While the CSSE is not the first attempt to use organizational management techniques to address these problems, Fox says it is the first time the practice has been raised to such a level within an engineering faculty.

“It's not a question of why is it opportune now,” he says. “It could have been done 30 years ago. It's really a question of why did it take so long.”

Learn more about the Centre for Social Services Engineering.