Dial a decision

by Hamish McKenzie / 12 February, 2005
One day soon, your cellphone may tell you what to do next.

You're on your way to a barbecue and you stop at the supermarket to pick up a bottle of wine. You want to limit the damage to your wallet, but you want to buy something decent. There are dozens on offer. How do you choose?

Help is at hand from a computer program that, in the not too distant future, could deliver an answer straight to the screen of your cellphone.

Decision-making is big business. A company may need to decide which of 150 job applicants to short-list. A surgeon has to choose which of 250 invalids wanting knee surgery will go under the knife.

These are the questions academics love to grapple with. They scribble stuff on napkins when they should be having lunch or they write long analyses for obscure journals like the Journal of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis. And these academics include Dr Paul Hansen.

A young economics lecturer at Otago University, Hansen has been interested in surgery waiting lists for more than 10 years, since New Zealand introduced a prioritising points system in 1996. His analytical brain was exercised by wondering how the points were allocated - and how we could know they were allocated fairly.

"One day I had a eureka moment, an enormous insight as to how the point values could be determined," says Hansen, sitting in an unkempt office strewn with takeaway coffee cups. He's a flurry of words as he squirms in his seat or bounds across the room to draw diagrams on his whiteboard. And the reason for his buzz is his new decision-making program, Point Wizard, which he hopes will revolutionise the decision-making process.

Hansen developed the system with Franz Ombler, a Wellington computer programmer also bitten by the problem-solving bug. Though it's still in its preliminary stages of development, a PhD student at the Australia National University is using the program to help East Timor decide what to do with the billions of dollars coming from its undersea oil fields. "Should they spend it on armaments to try and keep Indonesia at bay?" Hansen asks. "Should they blow it on a party? Should they put it into health or education?"

At its core, Ombler and Hansen's program makes the process of points allocation for priority lists fair and transparent. It also considerably simplifies multiple-criteria decision-making.

It's a more significant achievement than it sounds. The Ministry of Health is currently trialling the system to help devise waiting lists for heart operations, hip and knee replacements, cataract operations and fertility services. Dr Ray Naden, a physician working with the ministry, says it wants to improve its methods of assessing the relative priority of patients. It is difficult, he explains, to decide how much weighting to give social as opposed to clinical factors: how the wait for surgery will affect someone's employment, for example. Point Wizard allows doctors to determine the points weighting of each factor by answering a series of scenario questions.

"There's always a nervousness when the factors being assessed are entirely subjective," says Naden. "Maybe the doctor is being swayed by emotional things." Point Wizard removes the emotional element from the equation. It's a prospect that Naden says is looking "really good".

The program's use is not limited to life-and-death decisions. Hansen has a colleague who used it to help him choose a house. One popular girl used it to rank a list of 20 potential paramours.

"We imagine it being on people's cellphones, or certainly something that's on your laptop to help you when you're sitting in an airport lounge," says Ombler.

"We've even imagined it on automatic teller machines, where instead of it just giving you cash, you go there to make a decision," he chuckles. "But that's probably pushing it a bit far."

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