Peng Shi's Human Approach to Data

If the world is a global marketplace, Shi's research tries to help make it more efficient and equitable by applying mathematics to assess and improve the way we make decisions.
By Rosie Spinks,
Peng Shi, 29.

Moving from China to Canada at the age of 11—and navigating the linguistic, cultural, and educational changes that go along with that—will shape a person in profound ways. But for Peng Shi, a soon-to-be tenure-track faculty member in data science at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, the deepest change came from being exposed to the Christian faith.

"A family friend gave me a Bible and encouraged me to read it, and the message therein really connected with me," Shi says. "When I was around 13, I became a Christian, being the first in my extended family to make this decision, and this has profoundly influenced my values, goals, and perspectives."

While 28-year-old Shi describes his faith in God as a driving force in his personal and professional life, his academic work is decidedly grounded in the complexity of humankind. He works in the field of operations research and market design and holds a Ph.D. in the former from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Given how complicated Peng's research tends to get, it's refreshing to hear him explain it in simple terms: "I work on using data and mathematical modeling to improve the operations of real-world matching markets, which include, for example, systems that match students to schools, workers to employers, applicants to public housing, or patients to donated organs."

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

In other words, if the world is a global marketplace, Shi's research tries to help make it more efficient and equitable by applying mathematics to assess and improve the way we make decisions. His research is hardly bounded by the theoretical realm: In 2013, it was used by Boston's public school system to improve the division of assignment zones for elementary schools. His "home-based assignment plan" presents every family a set of typically eight to 15 school options that are guaranteed to include both every school within a certain distance from a home, and a base number of higher-performing schools, as defined by metrics decided by the school board. The Boston School Committee voted to implement it, resulting in the official end of its beleaguered busing program. It was described as a "historic step" by the New York Times.

"Such an opportunity to work closely with a real-world matching system does not come easily to academics," Shi says, "and I am very thankful for this opportunity to [give] students higher chances to go to schools they want, [and] reduce transportation costs, while maintaining community cohesion."

These days, the wisdom of the market often gets a bad rap. But Shi's approach suggests that, with the right options and incentives applied to the right market, the outcome can be something other than dog-eat-dog.

"There is an inherent beauty in mathematical models themselves and in their interplay with reality," Shi says. "If you design the right rules that govern a marketplace—despite self-seeking behavior from participants—the overall outcome can still be good for society."

Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here. (Lead 3-D Illustration: Comrade)

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