Order up: PhD grad helps Grubhub deliver food faster
December 12, 2018 / by Nanci Hellmich
“Mason gave me a way to pursue higher-level education in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do.”
— Ryan J. O'Neil, PhD in Systems Engineering and Operations Research
Ryan J. O’Neil, who’ll be awarded his PhD in Systems Engineering and Operations Research this month, developed a recipe to speed the pickup and delivery of takeout.
For his dissertation, the Mason Engineering doctoral student created algorithms that make it easier and more efficient for food-delivery services, such as his employer, Grubhub, to get meals to customers promptly.
His goal: Find the most efficient route for a courier to pick up deliveries and take them to diners. Another part of the equation: determining which orders a courier should be given for a route.
“We have to come up with good solutions quickly to do real-time routing,” says O’Neil, Grubhub’s director of decision engineering who earned his MS in Operations Research from Mason in 2010. “We have seconds to respond to new information, and we are getting new information all the time.”
It’s so complex that “we encode our decision-making strategies into software services,” he says. “During dinner rush, there are far too many orders to deliver and potential couriers for humanoid processing to be fruitful. The urgency of our decisions also motivates automation.”
O’Neil likes "to solve hard problems that are applicable to the real world. I’m not interested in theories or pure math.”
He earned his PhD at Mason while working remotely for Grubhub from his home in Washington, D.C. “Mason gave me a way to pursue higher-level education in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do.”
His dissertation examined multiple approaches and found one that used many different algorithms, called hybrid optimization, that established bounds on how far the solution was from the best optimal solution, says his faculty supervisor, Karla Hoffman, a professor in the Department of Systems Engineering and Operations Research.
She says O’Neil is “a talented mathematician and computer scientist, and he used both of these skills, coupled with his intimate knowledge of Grubhub’s operations, to create a new approach that is consistently better than any existing routing technologies.”