RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
To carry of a well-run political convention, one involving thousands of volunteers and hundreds of free bicycles, just add one college math class. Youth radio reporter Pendarvis Harshaw sent us this story on that equation from Denver.
PENDARVIS HARSHAW: Standing on the corner of 14th and Stout Street in downtown Denver, there's definitely a chaotic feel. There are tons of people: Secret Service agents, groups of delegates and this guy.
Mr. BRAD LORVICK (Volunteer, Democratic National Convention, Denver): Can I help you find anything or get anywhere?
HARSHAW: It may seem random that Democratic convention volunteer Brad Lorvick found himself assigned to this corner, but according to Matt Nabity, there's a strategy behind the placement of every single one of the roughly 21,000 volunteers. And he says at the root of it all, there's a mathematical formula.
Mr. MATT NABITY: How do you take people and their availability and assign them paths and assign them times without abusing them? The list goes on and on. So it's a huge information problem, and there's so much data to go through.
HARSHAW: Nabity is pursuing a Ph.D. in applied math at the University of Colorado, where he took a course this past spring examining three practical problems that the convention would bring to Denver: One, how to organize thousands of volunteers, two, how to design a bike-sharing system, and three, how to assign space for various competing events. And to Nabity and his classmates, these problems aren't just quantitative.
Mr. NABITY: I mean, math is more than just computations. It's not just, you know, add, subtract this line, that line.
HARSHAW: He's not joking. The variables in their equations, which you need a math degree to follow, include a range of data collected from perspective volunteers. Brad Lorvick, that energetic volunteer stationed at 14th Street and Stout was surprised to be asked...
Mr. LORVICK: What area of town would you like to work in? What days are you available to work? What skills do you have? Even when it came down to the computer skills, they asked me if I was an Apple person or a PC person.
HARSHAW: The math students weren't really expected to predict how many Apple computer lovers might apply, but they were asked to estimate problems like how many total volunteers the convention would need, where the most volunteers would be needed and when the busiest times might be.
This issue of supply and demand came up over and over for the class, but oftentimes, they were working with abstract models. Take the bike-share problem. Today, there are 1,000 shiny, donated bikes with locks, helmets, lights and computers, but no one knew that number until recently, says Matt Nabity.
Mr. NABITY: We had to guess. We had to speculate. You know, what would you do based on what we think the demand is going to be? But once you have a model set up, those are just parameters to tweak, and those are not so hard to adjust as you go on.
HARSHAW: When Nabity was crunching the bike numbers, the project didn't even have a name. Now it's called Freewheelin, and free bicycles are available during the convention week at 10 stations throughout Denver. Freewheelin's Tim Blumenthal says his organization has tried to learn from a Paris-based bike-share.
Mr. TIM BLUMENTHAL (Freewheelin): And the problem that they had there was that nobody wanted to ride the bikes up the hill to this one famous church, but everybody wanted to ride the bikes back down.
HARSHAW: There aren't many hills in Denver, but Matt Nabity and his fellow students have run countless computer models, trying to ensure that all 1,000 bikes don't end up clumped at stations nearest the convention center. And as politicians, delegates and friends of delegates pedal their way to the evening speeches, most of them won't even realize that they're riding on a foundation built by math. For NPR News, I'm Pendarvis Harshaw.
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