Let's talk about R&I

Àngel A. Juan: «We create smart algorithms that select the best option from multiple possibilities»

Researcher of the UOC Distributed Parallel and Collaborative Systems - Internet Computing & Systems Optimization research group

What is your academic background?

I received an official llicenciatura degree in Mathematics from the Universitat de València and then I got my doctoral degree in Industrial Engineering. Later, for professional reasons, I joined one of the Computer Science departments of the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications at the UOC, which gave me more training in computing. This has led me to focus my research on algorithms, with a major mathematics component as well as a great deal of computing and algorithms.

What kind of activity is your research group, Distributed Parallel and Collaborative Systems - Internet Computing & Systems Optimization, involved in?

The DPCS-ICSO is a group that has been operating for many years and basically follows two main lines of research. One is Internet computing, in which we work on Internet protocols and also online collaborative systems and software development. And the other line ‒ on which I am more focused, although the two lines do interact ‒ is systems optimization. In this second case, we develop algorithms and software to support decision-making in fields such as logistics, transport and smart cities. It is also linked to computational finance and telecommunications systems. Basically, we are concerned with developing algorithms and their transfer to business.

You have recently spent some time at Georgia Tech in the United States. How was the experience?

I decided to spend some time at Georgia Tech to complete the training because I know people there and we are working with some of them on research. It was interesting to be able to visit them and strengthen the links between that centre and the UOC. The stay was very positive because it has allowed us to participate in joint projects we are developing. Not only for me but also for other UOC colleagues with whom we continue working online. In other words, it has not only been an experience for me but also for the UOC research team I am part of. We produced a couple of scientific papers that we are about to submit to a few journals; they combine our expertise in algorithms with Georgia Tech’s know-how in transport systems. This has enabled us to open a new line of future cooperation that means that researchers at Georgia Tech can spend periods at the UOC, and our doctoral and postdoctoral students can go there.

How far is cooperation with other institutions an important aspect of your research group?

We are a research group that has been pursuing several lines of research for years. The first is for high-quality research, understood as international research. We endeavour to be a truly open university, working with universities in the rest of the State and, above all, internationally. Most of the projects we develop are in collaboration with international experts. The group coordinates a research project funded by the R&D&I National Plan and a network of excellence at State level. This allows us to establish many external contacts and collaborations. Moreover, we also promote a European network coordinated with other national universities, funded by the Erasmus+ programme, which provides us with funding to send our master's degree and doctoral students to spend two or three months in European centres we work with.

Recently Laura Calvet defended her thesis at the UOC under your supervision: to what extent are doctoral students the future of research?

Undoubtedly, our doctoral and postdoctoral students are highly talented and are the future of research at the UOC. We are training new generations of very valuable people with a highly interdisciplinary vision of research, who are highly competitive with any other doctoral students at European or world level. Recently Laura Calvet defended her thesis extraordinarily well, which has generated many papers in journals at international level and this is always very positive for the University, the research group and herself. So we believe that doctoral students are the future of the UOC.

You participated in the UOC Research Showcase 2017 debate on open access: what is your opinion on publishing research results openly?

Although we researchers are in agreement with the importance of open access, what I would like to make clear is that it involves some complexities in the implementation of the model that must be taken into account.

This year you participated in a congress with experts from companies such as Amazon and Google.

I participated as one of the three general chairs with Helena Ramalhinho, from the UPF, and Abraham Duarte, from Rey Juan Carlos University (URJC). The MIC is the most important international congress in the field of algorithms and metaheuristics. Therefore, we thought it was a good opportunity to invite companies such as Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Rhenus Logistics so that the experts working in their R&D departments could give us their opinions about the new challenges they see in the future. And also how those of us in universities and research centres can help them. The experience was very interesting because making contact with them, getting to know them personally as world experts and finding out about their needs is very valuable information for guiding our research. And also being able to establish personal collaborative links with them. For example, we currently have a very good relationship with Rhenus Logistics and Amazon. We even have an industrial doctoral student from the company Ubikwa doing a thesis at the UOC, which is very positive and confirms that we are positioning ourselves as experts in some fields of research.

Is the industrial doctorate an effective way of bringing together research and business?

It is a very normal practice in countries where they are a bit more advanced than us in these fields, such as Germany and Austria, where a doctoral degree is likely to be industrial, especially in fields like engineering. Here this kind of doctorate has not been as common, but now, gradually, with programmes like that of the Government of Catalonia, we are beginning to have some success in involving doctoral students and companies in their training at the highest possible level. And this has a very great impact on the transfer of knowledge from university to business and vice versa. We in the universities and research centres can learn a great deal about the real challenges that business must resolve and confront every day. And this has much to do with the competitiveness of the industrial sector.

One of your fields of research is metaheuristics: what is this about?

In life we often have to make complex decisions, which are difficult because they have an impact and because they involve multiple options. For example, in the markets we have to decide which products to invest in, which to avoid and how much to invest. In logistics and transport we have to decide where to send the products: consider companies like Amazon, which have to think about how to do the distribution as efficiently as possible, sustainable in time and at the lowest cost possible, to be able to offer their clients more competitive prices. In the world of telecommunications we have to decide where to locate the mobile devices, such as transmission systems, so they can supply a whole city as cheaply as possible, with the lowest deployment of devices possible, etc. And this in any of the fields you can imagine. In smart cities, for example, it involves city transit logistics or construction issues. The problem is that in these kinds of logistical, operational or strategic decisions, the number of possible combinations is almost infinite. In other words: very high. For a manager, making the right decision is very difficult without the help of a computer. What we do is to develop smart algorithms that study all these options and choose the best one, to save money, to make decision-making more sustainable, to follow environmental criteria, etc. We provide smart support for decision-making.

Do you think society values the importance of doing research in your field?

I believe so. At the UOC being a young university student has its disadvantages but it also has its advantages. Those of us doing research at the UOC are young, with very up-to-date training, aligned with the research carried out internationally. We are a state-of-the-art centre where you are unlikely to find outdated research. Moreover, as a young team at the UOC, we have this sensibility towards new technologies, new needs, new challenges and excellence.

Can you recommend a book in your field?

For an introduction to metaheuristics I would recommend the book Metaheuristics: From Design to Implementation, by El-Ghazali Talbi. And we are publishing a book about sustainable transportation with the publishers Elsevier, with the participation of international experts, to be released next year. The book will be called Sustainable Transportation and Smart Logistics (eds. Javier Faulin, Scott Grasman, Angel Juan and Patrick Hirsch).