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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2018 / January 

Virginia Tech researchers win award for analytics tools that identify product hazards

January 23, 2018

Representing the Virginia Tech team, Alan Wang (left) receives the award from Memorial University professor Jeffrey Parsons.
Representing the Virginia Tech research team, Alan Wang (left) receives the INFORMS ISS Design Science Award from Memorial University professor Jeffrey Parsons, who represented the judges, at the annual conference of the Workshop on Information Technologies and Systems last month.

A group of researchers at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business won the Design Science Award from the INFORMS Information Systems Society for creating a suite of text analytics tools that can identify hazards in consumer products before they intensify into a more dangerous situation.

The award was given at the annual conference of the Workshop on Information Technologies and Systems last month in Seoul, South Korea.

The team was led by Alan S. Abrahams, associate professor of business information technology, and includes Weiguo (Patrick) Fan, professor of accounting and information systems and professor of computer science; G. Alan Wang, associate professor of business information technology; and Richard Gruss, a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech and assistant professor of management at Radford University.

The award recognizes research efforts that use an experimental approach in building and evaluating working IT systems or creating IT artifacts as a vehicle for generating design science methods, principals, practice guidelines, insights, and lessons learned. It carries a $1,000 prize.

“In this age of burgeoning online sales, regulators like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Highway Transportation Safety Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration face daunting product safety surveillance challenges that cannot be addressed by traditional physical product testing alone,” said Abrahams.

“Online consumer reviews and discussions represent an increasingly viable mechanism for rapid, crowd-sourced quality intelligence that can help manufacturers remedy problems that in some cases, could be life threatening.”

The team’s submission, “Text Analytics Suite for Consumer Product Safety Surveillance,” discussed how the suite of tools the researchers designed provides quality management support through software for high-scale collaborative tagging. By pinpointing “smoke words” — words or phrases prevalent in posts about defects — they can score consumer postings and help manufacturers identify unsafe consumer products in real time.

For example, smoke words relating to car safety might include “bag” (airbag), “shoe” (brake shoe), and “guard;” in the case of toys, “skull,” “fall,” or “swallow.”

This text analytics research, initiated in 2011, was among the first efforts to establish the usefulness of online consumer postings for enterprise and regulatory safety management exercises.

In a letter supporting the nomination, Xiao Chen, vice president of Intertek Product Assurance, noted that big data and text analytics are relatively new to the field of consumer product safety.

“It is both fascinating and encouraging to see Professor Abrahams and his team conducting ground breaking research in this arena,” Chen wrote.

Nancy Cowles, executive director of Kids In Danger, also supported the team’s work. “The program developed by Dr. Abrahams and his colleagues opens up the possibility of finding hazards prior to injury — allowing companies, regulators and consumers to address the hazard without waiting for an injury,” she wrote. “This is a real innovation and addresses a long standing public health crisis — that of unintentional injury in children. For children over the age of 1, it is the leading cause of death.”

The team’s research has also been featured in the New York Times, public radio, and in popular trade publications.

The INFORMS ISS Design Science Award is open to university or graduate professional program faculty and students across any discipline, department, or school within a university that is engaged in designing, building, and evaluating IT artifacts for research and experimental purposes.

— Written by Barbara Micale