Social Services Engineering: an Interview with Prof. Mark Fox

Throughout his career, Prof. Mark S. Fox has contributed to the creation of many academic units. In his early career, he was a founding member of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and the founding director of the Institute’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory. Then, here at the University of Toronto, he played a major role in designing the current Industrial Engineering program and in the creation of the Hatchery. Most recently, in 2014, he founded the focus of this article, the Centre for Social Services Engineering (CSSE), which aims to apply engineering principles to improve the services designed for and delivered to marginalized members of society.

Much of Prof. Fox’s work has been based on using constraint-directed reasoning to solve real-life problems, and representing the knowledge needed to solve problems using ontologies, a way of defining categories of and relationships between concepts in different subjects. His TOVE (Toronto Virtual Enterprise) project, for example, was a notable project investigating ontologies for modelling “enterprises” such as governments and businesses. More recently, his research has applied ontologies to represent information on cities, leading to his 2015 recognition as University of Toronto Distinguished Professor of Urban Systems Engineering.

The CSSE grew out of Prof. Fox’s urban research, for as the Centre’s website notes, “smart cities are not very smart if they ignore or disenfranchise any portion of their citizens.” Nonetheless, it is innovative in that it applies industrial and systems engineering to an area to which it hitherto had not been applied: that of social services.

“I’ve always been interested, in some sense, in giving back,” said Prof. Fox, “since I was in my teens.” Back then, it took the form of fundraising for heart disease and helping out the elderly, while more recently, he has sat on the boards of a number of community organizations, having spent 10 years with the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. The “big catalyst” for his founding of the CSSE, however, was an experience with the humanitarian organization Ve’ahavta. While the initiatives run by Ve’ahavta include a mobile response brigade of vans that provide food, clothing, and social worker services to the homeless; a 9-week Street Academy education program to help marginalized and homeless Torontonians reintegrate into society; and a health promotion initiative for indigenous communities, it was a fundraiser that had such a profound impact on Prof. Fox. It involved pledging to live on the street for 48 hours (in the summer), and so Prof. Fox experienced “begging for money on the street, eating in places like the Scott Mission or Lawyers Feed the Hungry, sleeping in Nathan Philip Square” like Toronto’s homeless population did everyday. He credits this with giving him a true sense of the challenges they faced; while places like food banks kept him from going hungry, sleeping for more than an hour at a time was difficult, and he was attacked by red ants in a park, until he was too worn out to continue, 36 hours in. “The most chilling thing,” he said, “was that I started to feel like I didn’t exist—I would’ve been talking to myself in 48 hours.”

A unique feature of the CSSE is its interdisciplinary nature in bringing together members of the Faculty of Social Work and the Department of Psychiatry with engineering professors, which Prof. Fox says introduces the challenge of “developing an understanding of each discipline’s unique approach to looking at a problem, thinking about a problem, and solving a problem.” For example, engineers often think of developing a quantitative model and identifying key variables and relationship while social scientists tend to think of descriptive theories or rules-of-thumb. This could be beneficial as well: for example, the social scientists in the lab tend to appreciate that “people from engineering have a more structured, disciplined approach to thinking.”

The CSSE’s initiatives are as wide-ranging as its members. Projects with which Prof. Fox is involved include PolisGnosis—a project to automate the analysis of cities’ performances according to indicators set forth by the International Standards Organization, a Social Services Simulator to facilitate the testing of new policies, a Social Service Finder app to help social workers connect those in need quickly to whatever they need (be it food or psychiatric help), and even an initiative to standardize Ve’ahavta’s Street Academy program.

The project that is consuming the greatest fraction of the CSSE’s resources, however, is an online Social Needs Marketplace to make the distribution of goods and services to vulnerable populations such as seniors, the infirm, and those living in poverty more efficient and effective. Team members are currently working on many different aspects of the platform, including data representation techniques such as ontologies for goods and services ranging from cribs to legal help, as well as ways to match needs to supplies in situations where constraints are complex, such as with moving services where location, the availability of both parties, and even the size of the car available have to be considered. The interface is also being designed, and data analytics are being done, for example with purchasing records, to figure out what goods and services different kinds of people in different areas might have to offer. At the same time as all this theoretical work is being done, the software itself is being developed, and a demonstration system exists for part of the platform already. In fact, Prof. Fox expects to have enough done to start testing the system this fall.

In addition to all this, Prof. Fox has worked on the applications of several of his research areas in India, including his work in smart city indicators as well as a sanitation block design project affiliated with the CSSE. This project was an Industrial Engineering capstone that required students to design buildings equipped with toilets, showers, and laundry facilities to serve 5000 – 50 000 people in slum areas. To better understand the problem, which involved managing the physical aspect of the building, including air flow, lighting, and cleanliness, as well as how it would be maintained by the community, the three students on the team had the opportunity to fly to Mumbai.

Prof. Fox invites interested students to contact him at any time. At the CSSE, he says, “we’re always happy to involve students.” Last year, three students contributed to the Social Needs Marketplace during the summer, and another student worked on various projects with the Centre throughout the year. The Social Service Finder, which was created by students, is also being developed as part of a capstone project. While the capstone projects Prof. Fox supervises are mostly Industrial, he is interested in having students from all disciplines: “they just have to be motivated!”