Saving lives with Mathematics

CWI's Rob van der Mei (CWI/VU) and Sandjai Bhulai (VU) won the prestigious Huibregtsen Prize 2021 with their research project 'Mathematics for a safer and healthier Netherlands'.

Publication date: 28-10-2021

Saving Lives with Mathematics

CWI's Rob van der Mei (Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica/VU) and his research colleague VU professor of Business Analytics and Applied Mathematics Sandjai Bhulai have won the Huibregtsen Prize 2021 with their research project 'Mathematics for a safer and healthier Netherlands'.

Minister Van Engelshoven, Rob van der Mei (CWI/VU), Sandjai Bhulai (VU) and Ineke Sluiter (KNAW). (Picture: Roemer Overdiep.)

"Among other things, we have developed methods and models that ensure that ambulances arrive on time more often. For us, it's not just about publishing in top scientific journals. Our work is primarily an example of how science can help save lives," says Rob van der Mei. According to the jury of the Huibregtsen Prize, Van der Mei and Bhulai deserve this recognition because they know how to combine scientific quality and innovation of their research with a special social value.

 When I obtained my doctorate in the mid-1990s, I was involved with post offices. Customers arrive there at random moments and each person needs a different amount of time. The question is then: how many counters are needed to get the average waiting time per customer, for example, below ten minutes? Later, the Internet and mobile networks emerged, raising similar issues. When and how long people call is a matter of chance. How many transmitter masts should be placed in which locations to ensure that the chance of someone not being able to make a phone call or use the Internet at a certain time is small enough?

More recently, we looked at ambulances. In life-threatening situations, they have to be on the scene within fifteen minutes. How do you ensure that as many ambulances as possible actually succeed in doing so? It is important to be able to predict to a certain extent where and when accidents will occur. We then do not automatically have ambulances drive back to their fixed location, but send them to a spot where the ambulance coverage is low at that moment. This way, they are already in the vicinity, should an accident happen. And this approach really works. During a pilot project, there were 30 per cent fewer cases where the ambulance had to wait longer than the prescribed 15 minutes. So you could say that mathematics saves lives.

Video about ambulance planning by Amsterdam Science Park

The fire brigade, the police and Prorail, among others, can also benefit from such models. In addition, we are now working on an algorithm that advises emergency services workers who chat with people who contact the suicide prevention line 113. We are also working on a project to improve acute care for the elderly. These are all wonderful examples of applied mathematics that are of enormous social importance.

For more than 20 years, Sandjai Bhulai and Rob van der Mei have been working together to find mathematical solutions to a wide range of social problems. Their method for planning ambulances reduced the number of late arrivals by 25 to 30 per cent. Their method is now used in a number of safety regions and can also be used for the fire brigade, police, road assistance and maintenance services. CWI spinoff Stokhos Emergency Mathematics emerged from this work and is now also active across the Dutch border.

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