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Engineering professor develops "Facebook for Decision-Making"

3/26/2013 11:35:00 AM

Should I buy a house or a condo in Chicago? Should I have this surgery? What can I do to impress my girlfriend’s mother? We make a host of decisions every day, some of them large and some of them small. But how do we decide?  Ali Abbas, an associate professor in industrial and enterprise systems engineering, is using our craving for social networking to provide a tool to help make the choices easier.

Abbas, an expert in the field of decision analysis, has developed a website called Ahoona.com or what he describes as the “Facebook of Decision-Making.”

Users can log on to the free site and post a decision, a poll, a thought, or a question either with their own name or anonymously. They can share that information with their own social network or to anyone on Ahoona. Other users can in turn give alternatives, make a recommendation, offer pros and cons, add uncertainties or share a link that might give more information to help decide. It’s possible to also access similar decisions made in the past.

“It collects everything relevant to the choices you’re making and offers a step-by-step process to help you make a decision,” Abbas said. “One day you could form groups of people that would talk about similar problems they are facing.”

Abbas has focused much of his decision analysis research on making tradeoffs between two different objectives. For instance, when purchasing that house how to weigh tradeoffs between location, cost, size, and other preferences in the home.

“How do you make tradeoffs that involve long and uncertain time horizons?” Abbas asks. “In climate change, we are making decisions about inconveniences today to help the future generation. Who is going to assess these types of tradeoffs?”

The Ahoona project is still in its development phase. Once Abbas and his fellow creators are finished exploring the commercial viability, they could then proceed with further software implementation.

“I would like to see decision making research make its way out to society,” Abbas said. “While there is a lot of research in decision-making, we have focused too much attention on research papers. Even decision analysis software is made for a decision analyst, not a person who wants to make a decision. The purpose here was to reach out more to society so the average person can make an informed decision with sound reasoning.”

Ali Abbas
Ali Abbas
Abbas incorporates the six elements of decision quality into his research – a helpful frame (What is it that I am deciding?), clear values (What consequences do I care about?), clear alternatives (What are my choices?), useful information (What do I know?), sound reasoning (Am I thinking straight about this?), and a commitment to follow through (Will I really take action?).

“For most, information is what leads to decision-making, but information is just one element of decision quality,” Abbas said. “You must not forget about preferences and you must not forget about the logic that is used in making the decision.”

For instance in the case of “What can I do to impress my girlfriends’ mother?” some users provided suggestions like “Take her out shopping” or “Remembering and visiting on her birthday.” Others provided relevant information including a link to a page titled “9 Tips on How to Impress Your Girlfriends Mother.” Still others posted bigger picture questions like  “Do you want to keep dating your current girlfriend?” or “Is your girlfriend’s mother the most important person in her family as far as impressing goes?”

Much like Facebook, the more users in the social network, the more valuable the tool, Abbas noted. 

“Suppose we could collect information from the population on how they have made similar decisions,” he said. “Maybe 80 percent put this much weight on a certain preference or that 95 percent of the population when they considered this decision also considered these three alternatives. My vision for Ahoona is that we would collect a large database to get the information element right and also collect a database of alternatives. We want to improve societal decision making as a whole.”

This isn’t Abbas first foray into applying his research in decision-making to society. Partnered with the Decision Education Foundation, he led a group to the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center, offering two four-hour workshops on making decisions, decisions vs. outcomes and the six elements of decision quality.

Decision-making analysis is becoming more and more a focus in colleges and universities.

“In an earlier era, when many people were involved in surveying land, it made sense to require that almost every student entering a top college know something of trigonometry,” writes Larry Summers in his New York Times article, What You (Really) Need to Know. “Today, a basic grounding in probability statistics and decision analysis makes far more sense.”

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Contact: Ali Abbas, Department of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, 217/265-7578.

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Mike Koon, writer/editor, Engineering Communications Office, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 217/244-1256.