The proliferation of data contributes to the common good

More and more data is being collected every day at alarming rates. The proliferation of data via the Internet and other electronic media has created opportunities, like no other time in history, to glean new insights into a variety of societal issues. The field of Operations Research and Advanced Analytics provides the necessary tools for extracting such information and Dr. Sheldon H. Jacobson, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign continues to be a frontrunner contributing to the field with innovative and necessary science. While his projects are varied ranging from big data analysis, to mass murder rates, to March Madness predictions, each is centered around the incredible information that can be pulled from the prodigious amount of data that has been collected. For this reason, there is no end to the research questions that Dr. Jacobson and his team can tackle; their interest in human welfare and solutions to societal issues however, has thus far been a guide to their diverse interests.

Dr. Jacobson’s research brings together a diverse group of people with graduate students and undergraduates from Computer Science, Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, Civil Engineering, and Mathematics. The team works on important societal problems with techniques that exploit interesting data sets in novel ways. The lab’s success to date has been driven by the ability to tie together data sets and ideas by weaving them into a mosaic of insight upon a collection of previously unexplored issues and challenges. The variety in projects as well as the range of investigating big data, middle data, and small data is a holistic approach to analyzing valuable information that has been waiting to be revealed by new tools of advanced analytics.

Current research includes:

  • The Gerrymandering Problem: The process of gerrymander is attracting significant national attention, since it weakens the democratic process by allowing legislators to pick their voters rather than voters picking their legislators. Algorithmic districting has been hailed as the solution to this problem. However, algorithms are only as effecting in reducing gerrymandering as the inputs used to drive them. Dr. Jacobson’s research on algorithmic political districting has led to new algorithms that provide a forum for transparency in the national gerrymandering debate. He is actively working to expand and enhance these algorithms to provide a practical and efficient process by which any interested stakeholders can assess districts drawn, and provide a mechanism to improve such designs, with the goal of creating an open system for the district dialogue.

  • BOSS: Making sense of big data, and assessing causal effects outside the randomized experimental milieu has been a challenge for almost half a decade. Dr. Jacobson is using the power of computing to unleash information hidden within such data to create the Balance Optimization Subset Selection (BOSS) problem as a mechanism to define appropriate treatment and control group for this data. By shifting the burden of analysis on the data into the computational domain, Dr. Jacobson would like to gain a better understanding of how to best exploit this idea, and how to optimally parse big data sets.

  • Election Analytics: Forecasting the outcome of the United States Presidential election, or which party will control the United States Senate (in off years) has become an event enjoyed by both pundits and armchair prognosticators. Since 2008, Dr. Jacobson and his research group have showcased their election analytics web site, ( ), as a venue for crunching polling data to provide an unbiased snapshot of who will win.   

  • Medium Data: Obesity and Transportation: In 2006, Jacobson and a colleague reported the impact of the obesity epidemic on fuel consumption in noncommercial vehicles in the United States. Since his initial contribution, which attracted widespread national media attention, Dr. Jacobson has reserved his line of research, to connect the association between obesity and transportation.

  • Mass Murder Rates: The proliferation of mass murders in the United States begs the question: Are there any patterns that can be found to provide law enforcement agencies with some guidelines on how to preempt such events? Dr. Jacobson has begun an investigation of the existing data on mass murders, and seeks to continue this work to help understand if such events can be predicted in addition to the best strategies in mitigating their impact on society.

  • Bracketology: March Madness draws an enormous amount of national media and popular attention; building the perfect bracket, or at least winning your bracket pool, is the goal of many sports fans. Given the complexity of the task, correctly picking the winner of all 67 games is a daunting task even for the most informed and knowledgeable pundits. Dr. Jacobson has delved into the data behind bracketology and has uncovered patterns that demonstrate how seeds promulgate through the tournaments. He has published his findings in several academic journals, and has created a web site,, which allows anyone to gain insight into their individual bracket.


Dr. Jacobson describes that even as a kid, he marched to the beat of his own drum. As an elementary student, he remembers teaching his fellow fourth graders the importance of compound interest and even today, he enjoys adding up his grocery store cart contents to the last cent when he reaches the register. Initially motivated to an academic research career by the search for the undiscovered, Dr. Jacobson has only grown in passion for his research. In addition, working with the next generation of scholars and contributing to their development continues to energize him each day. In fact, recently Dr. Jacobson and his wife built, and then proceeded to gift to one of his students, a program ( for medical residents where the process of scheduling residents during their graduate medical training has been sped up to a forty-five second algorithm. This highlights the joy he gets from encouraging his students and the selflessness with which he advances science. His research in Operations Research and Advanced Analytics allows his team to explore fundamental issues that have a critical impact on societal issues and problems. Moreover, the explosion of data, has been catapulted into a dominant position across every aspect of our lives.

In his free time, aside from research, Dr. Jacobson describes himself as a “gym rat” and has tracked 35,000 miles running, walking, and cycling in the last 21 years. He also enjoys spending time with his wife Janet Jokela, M.D. M.P.H., who is a physician and has often collaborated with Dr. Jacobson and his team.



Guggenheim Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 2003

Finalist, INFORMS Section for Public Programs, Services and Needs, Best Paper Award, 2012

Award for Technical Innovation in Industrial Engineering, Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE), 2013

Fellow, Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), 2013

University of Illinois Office of Public Affairs Award for Communications & Marketing Excellence - Media Relations, 2013