If you caught a Lyft recently, you’ve already encountered the work of Prof. Siddhartha Banerjee, operations research and information engineering, whose studies online decision making to explain how Lyft decides what car to send to a customer requesting a ride.
“When you request a Lyft, there could be multiple cars which are nearby and Lyft needs to make a decision which driver comes and picks you up,” Banerjee told The Sun. “The problem is that when you get a ride, you have deprived another potential customer of their ride.
“Let’s say you request a Lyft from Rhodes Hall, where we were talking, and there’s a car in Collegetown and there’s a car which is maybe closer to the center of campus, and they decided to pick the Collegetown car,” Banerjee said.
As a result, Banerjee continued, “if someone in Collegetown requests a ride, they now don’t have a car” nearby, because the car is in use. Lyft’s response to this problem was to implement surge-pricing, according to Banerjee.
Banerjee will be researching better ways to predict the responses of systems to uncertainty. Although surge-pricing is an effective tool for ride-sharing systems, not all systems have a monetary component. Banerjee’s research looks at fixes for systems without monetary mechanisms.
Banerjee’s research earned him a Faculty Early Career Development Program grant from the National Science Foundation. He has been awarded $360,500 to date, according to the NSF.
Prof. Inna Zakharevich, mathematics, another recipient of the grant, uses K-theory perspectives in her research, making interdisciplinary connections via K-theory by looking at how geometric objects can be broken down and re-assembled.
In both of their proposals for the award, Zakharevich and Banerjee said that their projects would involve community outreach components. Even though she did not receive funding from NSF for her community outreach goals, Zakharevich said she “intends to establish a K-12 math circle available to all local children, and the organization of a district-wide math club for 3-5 graders,” according to her written proposal.
“I want people to see math as something beautiful, rather than as this big bat that we’re hitting people over the head with,” Zakharevich said. “In math, what you need is the bravery to do stuff you don’t understand and to be wrong ninety-nine percent of the time.”
Banerjee also talked about how his research impacts the real world. He referenced conversations he has had with Lyft drivers about the company.
“I used to like talking to drivers when I was taking a Lyft ride and just asking how they think about it,” Banerjee said. “It’s actually quite remarkable how much people are strategizing.”
Both Banerjee and Zakharevich said that research is rewarding in its own right.
“There is a pleasure in academia, you’re surrounded by smart people all the time,” Banerjee said. “The research is fun, it hopefully impacts people, but then you have this chance of learning new stuff and teaching other people about it.”