Monday 18 March 2019

Ballincollig man using number power to help LA's homeless

Ballincollig mathematician Peter Fennell is undertaking ground-breaking research in the US
Ballincollig mathematician Peter Fennell is undertaking ground-breaking research in the US

Bill Browne

A boffin from Ballincollig is at the forefront of a ground breaking US research programme that is using maths to help address the problem of homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles.

Applied mathematics researcher Peter Fennell was last year granted a prestigious James S McDonnell Foundation post-doctoral fellowship in studying complex systems, worth a cool $200,000.

To put this achievement into context there were just nine of the fellowships awarded in 2015, only three of which went to applicants from outside the US with Peter being the sole Irish recipient.

The grant gave Peter, who completed his PhD in the University of Limerick's Mathematics Applications consortium for Science and Industry (MACSI), the golden opportunity to work in any institution across the United States.

"During my PhD I studied how phenomena spread through networks, groups of interconnected units, using tools such as mathematical modelling, calculus and statistics," explained Peter.

With that in mind he decided to take up a fellowship at the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute in LA under Professor Kristina Lerman.

An expert in social media, network analysis and machine learning, Professor Lerman's research has featured in top scientific publications as well as Forbes Magazine, The New Yorker, the Harvard Business Review and the MIT Tech Review.

With just a few weeks of his fellowship completed, Peter said he was already finding interesting applications for his work.

"For example, last week I had a meeting with people involved in the area of social work. The reason their work is interesting to me, and vice-versa, is because they are working with networks of homeless people here in LA," said Peter.

He said these people were interconnected through friendship and peer relationships, so the challenge for the social workers was how they could influence these networks.

"Many of the people in this network have addiction problems, so the social workers want to spread a good behaviour, like rehabilitation. We have to examine how to do that in the most effective way. People are influenced by their connections so if you can spread behaviour in a social network it can be more effective than trying to introduce it from the outside," said Peter.

"It is a classic problem in network science, who is the best person to seed or to start the spread of a good behaviour. If you focus your attention and resources on them, the behaviour can spread efficiently through the network," he added.

MACSI co-director James Gleeson said Peter's work could ultimately help "revolutionise the modelling of human behaviour."

"Peter's award demonstrates that the work we carry out here at MACSI and the University of Limerick is at the cutting edge of applied mathematics research and has significant societal and scientific impact," he added.