Can't make up your mind? Ask Point Wizard

National Business Review, 30 September 2005

By Mark Peart

Kiwi software will make tough choices for you and a whole lot else

Paul Hansen's long hair, trademark Hawaiian shirts and disarming sense of humour - something of a rarity among academics - conspire to confuse the uninitiated.

People meeting Dr Hansen for the first time could be forgiven for thinking he's just back from catching waves off Dunedin's St Clair beach. Lacking forewarning, they'd be shocked to learn that he's not some beatnik, but a former senior Treasury analyst, and one of New Zealand's brightest young economists.

Dr Hansen's quirky appearance is a badge of honour he wears proudly. Stereotypical he ain't.

Yet people who judge the 39-year-old senior lecturer in economics at Otago University as they might judge a book by its cover will invariably stray into dangerous territory.

On Monday, Dr Hansen was in Singapore, in distinguished company at the Asian Wall Street Journal's Asian innovation awards. The awards are Asia's premier honour for individuals and companies whose ideas improve the quality of life or enhance productivity.

Dr Hansen and his business partner, Wellington software developer Franz Ombler , were among six finalists vying for the Global Entrepolis@Singapore award, judged on business performance and commercial viability.

They missed out on the grand prize, but were still featured in the Asian Wall Street Journal several days earlier, along with the other finalists.

Mr Ombler said given that one of the criteria was growth over the past three years and his company, Point Wizard, was up against companies already turning over many millions of dollars, the pair were honoured to be finalists from a pool of 130 companies.

Their success in Asia came hard on the heels of Point Wizard's receipt in August of the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand's TUANZ healthcare award.

Point Wizard has also recently gone into the Upstart incubator in Dunedin, joining eight other technology-based companies.

Upstart chief executive Norman Evans says the company exemplifies Kiwi ingenuity.

"The timing is perfect for Point Wizard as they make their presence felt both in New Zealand and offshore. Their technology is ahead of the game and it's great they're getting the recognition they deserve.

"We are going to see big things from these guys in the next few years."

So what is Point Wizard, exactly?

It's a point-and-click software program that ranks individuals according to the user's preferences, based on a combination of selected criteria and answers to specific questions. Once the preferences, say for choosing an applicant for a job, have been ranked, a process of elimination follows involving two competing choices to produce a - hopefully - successful outcome.

One of the applications for Point Wizard is diagnosing or prioritizing patients for health treatment.

That was the catalyst for Dr Hansen developing it in the first place. He's been interested for nearly a decade in refining New Zealand's healthcare points prioritization system to make it more accurate and fairer.

It's since been feted as a means of finding the ideal bar to drink in, given the consumer's preferences, by using a mobile phone - a service currently available in Dunedin - or even finding the right social partner. The use of mobile phone technology is ironic.

Dr Hansen has a cellphone number listed on the PointWizard website, but when the National Business Review suggested it as a means of contact in Singapore, he recoiled in mock horror.

"I wouldn't have a clue how to use it," he gasped. He brightened considerably when email was suggested as an alternative for a long-distance chat.

Point Wizard's multitude of other potential uses includes:

* strategic planning;

* selecting immigrants;

* admitting students to restricted courses such as medical school;

* allocating student scholarships;

* assessing funding applications;

* performing environmental assessments;

* identifying new products for commercialization;

* choosing the best site for a building or house: or

* selecting a car.

Dr Hansen and Mr Ombler say the software is built on the principle that in business, government and everyday life, decisions involving multiple criteria are the most difficult to make, yet they are the most crucial.

"It lets the decision-maker determine the relative importance of the criteria that are relevant to his or her decision in a cognitively simple and intuitive way.

"The end result is that their preferences are represented exactly, leading to better decision-making."

The Cardiac Society has just finished using Point Wizard to produce a new cardiac waiting list.

The Ministry of Health is trialing it to prioritize patients for fertility treatment, cataract operations and orthopaedics.

Having spent three years developing the software, Dr Hansen said Point Wizard was poised for commercialization, not only in New Zealand, but internationally.

He and Mr Ombler are keen to identify prospective partners who could work with them in sales, technology, and consulting.

While Point Wizard might be a technological novelty, Dr Hansen makes no bones about the fact that this is fundamentally a moneymaking venture. Will it motivate him to quit his day job if he makes piles of it? Not likely. He enjoys it too much.