‘Unsung heroes’ of computer programming awarded top honor
CLEMSON — Matthew Saltzman of Clemson University may not be the deliveryman who takes packages to your house or the scientist who makes sure you have clean water, but he plays a key role in helping those who do.
Tens of thousands of computer experts have turned to the free, open-source software developed by the foundation that Saltzman leads. The software is known only to the most tech-savvy among us but has quietly helped scores of companies, the government and the military run smoothly.
Saltzman and his team have been hunching over their computers and typing code for 15 years and are now enjoying some recognition among their peers.
The foundation, Computational Infrastructure for Operations Research, has won the INFORMS Impact Prize.
“We’re really excited,” Saltzman said. “We started with a number of goals 15 years ago. It’s nice to get recognition that we’ve made substantial progress.”
The foundation, also known as COIN-OR, began as an in-house project for IBM in 2000 and spun off as a nonprofit in 2004. It started with four projects and has since expanded to more than 50, Saltzman said.
You probably haven’t heard of the software unless you’re a computer expert, but the foundation’s projects have been used by the likes of Yahoo, the Environmental Protection Agency and Sandia National Laboratories.
“We’re the go-to source for open-source software for operations research,” Saltzman said.
Operations research is the study of mathematical methods for transforming data into insights for making decisions.
While it’s difficult to track exactly how many people use the software, Saltzman has a few numbers that show the foundation’s reach.
OpenSolver, an open-source optimization plug-in for Excel that links to COIN-OR software, has been downloaded 80,000 times.
Another project, Ipopt, has received 52,000 requests to solve problems through the NEOS Server, a free Internet-based service that accepts optimization problem data from users and returns solutions.
Yet another project, CBC, has had 31,4000 requests through the NEOS Server.
Saltzman described OpenSolver, Ipopt and CBC as “tools that help users solve optimization problems in manufacturing, scheduling, engineering design, finance and other areas.”
Saltzman, an associate professor of mathematical sciences, was the first researcher from outside IBM brought into COIN-OR. He has been the foundation’s president from the beginning.
Salztman said that while there is a market for commercial versions of the software, he approaches the work as a scientist.
“I’m interested in creating and disseminating knowledge,” he said. “I get to train students and help people in the field do their work. And I’m able to leverage the participation of the community to make the tools better, which is something you can’t do in a commercial environment.”
The IMPACT prize, given every two years, is among the top awards in analytics and operations research. It is awarded by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).
In an announcement for the award, the institute said that “software supported by COIN-OR has been an essential part of hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers and is embedded in dozens of software systems, including the most widely used environments for performing analytics.”
Jim Coykendall, chair of the mathematical sciences department at Clemson, congratulated Saltzman and his team.
“We’re extremely proud to have Matthew here at Clemson and in our department,” Coykendall said. “He and his team are the unsung heroes who keep things clicking smoothly for thousands of people. This is a well-deserved honor.”
In addition to Saltzman, the the prize recipients are Brenda Dietrich of IBM, JP Fasano of IBM, Lou Hafer of Simon Fraser University, John Forrest of IBM, Brady Hunsaker of Google, Laszlo Ladanyi of IBM, Robin Lougee of IBM and Ted Ralphs of Lehigh University.
“We are proud of what we have achieved and are looking forward to expanding,” Saltzman said.
For more on COIN-OR, go to www.coin-or.org.