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Geography Isn’t Just Destiny … It’s Districting

John Carlsson, Epstein Department industrial and systems engineer, studies problems in location theory.

John-Gunnar-Carlsson_lgDistance and location play a crucial role in many engineering problems. If you are designing a communication network, you will want to optimize your use of cables in order to save money. Or if you want to transport cargo from point A to point B, you will want to take the shortest route possible.

John Carlsson, assistant professor in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, is interested in studying problems that have some sort of geographic element. Through his research, the California native and Stanford Ph.D. determines things like where police stations should be built or where traffic detectors should go based on optimization algorithms.

“I am most impressed with John’s breadth of knowledge, rigorous mathematical skills and his passion for solving real problems,” said Yinyu Ye, Carlsson’s doctoral advisor at Stanford. “I strongly believe that he will make great contributions in the areas of transportation science and algorithm analysis.”

Carlsson’s latest research focuses on districting. This work is funded by DARPA and has earned him the organization’s Young Faculty Award along with a $292,800 grant, which are meant to support rising research stars in junior faculty positions in the U.S.

Carlsson caught DARPA’s interest by using a contour map of the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan to demonstrate how mountains could be seen as obstacles for remote-controlled machines.

“Since DARPA seeks to prevent strategic surprise, I felt that districting was a good strategy for them to allocate vehicles,” Carlsson said.

Districting, or map segmentation, is the process of dividing a piece of land into smaller portions. There are many situations in which a strategic division of land can come in handy for the military. Imagine that you have a series of drones that are searching for people in the mountain range over in Afghanistan. Wouldn’t it be easier to divide the region into sections so that each drone could focus on one?

However, districting issues are especially complex. That’s because of the difficulty of taking infinite variables into account to determine the shape of the regions into which the land is divided. This type of problem is called vector space optimization.

“I managed to identify some places in which districting issues were actually solvable, even though they were infinite-dimensional,” said Carlsson, who came to USC Viterbi this spring after six years at the University of Minnesota. “This caught DARPA’s interest.”

But 31-year-old Carlsson is not all about numbers.

A double major at Harvard, he obtained his joint degree in applied mathematics and music in 2005. He has played the piano since he can remember, and during his music career, he has performed with Monzy, Bhi Bhiman and Doug Ellington, among others.

“I was a pretty active jazz musician growing up, and I wanted to study academic music when I was an undergraduate,” he said. “However, I wasn’t enjoying music more by studying it than I was by jamming with my friends.”

Even though he decided to pursue a career in engineering, Carlsson still feels equally passionate about music. One of the highlights of his musical career was an opening show for the band The Roots in 2007, which he landed through his friends at Stanford. That same year, he backed up a group of nerdcore rappers at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

“Playing in a band is really fun, and I would love to do it again,” he said. “I can’t compete with the caliber of players at USC, but I need to find the right kind of amateurs to play with.”