Bringing the benefits of in-person collaboration to the virtual world

Over the past few months, while many workers were adjusting to a newfound reliance on Zoom meetings and Slack messages, employees at companies including toy designer Mattel, banking giant BNP Paribas, and the multinational energy corporation Enel Group have been collaborating in shared spaces. They’ve been using whiteboards and sticky notes to organize ideas, and even finishing up work sessions with handshakes and high fives, all without the slightest concern of contracting Covid-19.

That’s because they’re meeting virtually on the platform of Spatial, a startup using augmented and virtual reality to improve remote collaboration. The platform works on most virtual reality headsets available today, simulating the experience of in-person meetings with life-like avatars, dynamic sound, and interactive controls. It also allows users to generate and manipulate content including 3D models, images, videos, and PDFs, with simple hand gestures and voice commands.

“Spatial is a collaborative, holographic, augmented reality solution,” Spatial co-founder and Chief Product Officer Jinha Lee SM ’11 says. “You can teleport to someone’s space, work as an avatar sharing that 3D space, and use it instead of a screen to manage a project, present an idea, and more.”

The company has been working with design and innovation teams at large companies since its founding in 2016. Now, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Spatial has made the enterprise version of its platform free for everyone. It has also created a web browser version of the platform so users can enter spaces without a headset.

“Before coronavirus, most of our interest was from enterprise,” Lee says. “They were big companies interested in using Spatial to connect remote office spaces or review 3D models and large data sets and things like that. After coronavirus, interest went up 1,000 percent, and a big part of that was from smaller businesses, hospitals, schools, and individuals.”

The new offerings are part of Spatial’s long-term mission of accelerating a future where people can enjoy meaningful, productive interactions without sharing the same physical space.

Experiments in virtual creation

Growing up in Korea, Lee describes himself as a wannabe artist, and he brought that perspective to the University of Tokyo, where he studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate.

“To me, the computer was really frustrating to use, because its 2D screen and mouse is kind of a frustrating tool as a creator when you want to express yourself by using gestures, or when you’re building things,’ Lee says. “A computer doesn’t capture human creativity well.”

Lee joined the Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group as a graduate student in 2009, where he worked on projects including a 3D interface that sits on a desk like a computer, and a fashionable wristwatch that uses a raised metal ball for an hour hand, allowing visually impaired people to feel the time display as easily as others can see it.

“[The watch project] was an opportunity for me to see that you can use your idea not only for research, but also to help people solve real problems in the world,” Lee remembers. “That was a big transitional moment for me.”

After leaving MIT, Lee worked at Samsung for four years, where he led its Interaction Group that created new user interfaces, including a platform that allows people to share content from their phones to nearby television screens in order to create things like song lists, photo albums, and maps of restaurants.

“That helped me confirm that the computer really has to be used by people, not a person,” Lee says. “It has to be collaborative.”

Following his experience at Samsung, Lee met Anand Agarawala, who had created BumpTop, an interface for organizing information on computer desktops similar to how one might store files on an office desk. The pair realized they shared a vision for improving virtual collaboration, and partnered up to create an augmented reality platform that used avatars to help simulate in person interactions.

Facilitating real connections, virtually

The platform the founders created is designed to be easy to use while providing all the most important features of in person and online collaboration. To get started, users upload a photo of themselves that is used to generate a 3D avatar. From there, they can enter virtual workspaces with people from around the world, drawing on whiteboards, reviewing 3D objects, and sharing windows or apps from their computers.

Spatial works on all the major virtual reality headsets, including the Hololens, Oculus, and HTC Vive, leveraging their motion tracking and spatial audio features to simulate the experience of standing next to someone.

“When you can capture people’s creative expressions and gestures, it shortens the gap between what users think and what is visually in front of them,” Lee says.

Users can pull in files from their computer or use gestures, like holding two fingers in the air, with voice commands to search the internet, populating the virtual environment with web results.

An example of Spatial’s virtual workspaces.

Spatial’s platform has radically changed workflows for remote teams — an unfortunately large segment of the workforce at the moment.

“There’s a lot of Zoom fatigue right now, and I think the biggest reason why is because the video format really forces you to be 200 percent focused when you’re presenting or listening, but you can’t do something together,” Lee says. “You can’t be in this space, looking at things together and pointing at things. This feeling that we’re in the same space can only be achieved through a 3D physical office, and that’s some of what Spatial is trying to achieve in virtual form.”

Remote teams at Mattel, for example, traditionally used email and Slack messages to plan designs, then shipped 3D printed prototypes to multiple offices for review. With Spatial, workers can upload 3D models to their virtual workspace at any stage of the design process and invite different stakeholders to check them out. Reviewers can walk around the object and enlarge it during inspection, then leave comments and other markings for the team to consider.

The design and engineering industries make up a big part of Spatial’s customer base, but the company is also working with large financial institutions, biotechnology companies, and software companies in Silicon Valley.

Since making Spatial’s platform free, Lee says they’ve been getting a lot of interest from academic institutions looking for innovative ways to interact with students, and from hospitals trying to improve connections between doctors and patients.

Those interactions are much different from a product team’s design review, but they still benefit from Spatial’s personal virtual environment, which Lee thinks can aid creativity as well as collaboration.

“Creativity is about connecting dots — your thoughts — which could seem unimportant or random until they are connected with others,’” Lee says. “In Spatial, ideas can be shared with others much quicker than through video calls, and in much more raw form, through your gestures, notes, or drawings. In this way we are hoping to help remote teams stay creative as a group even when distributed.”

Studying the cultures of companies

While shadowing human resources employees at a fast-growing technology company, Summer Jackson began to notice a strange pattern. The well-intentioned company was struggling to achieve its diversity goals, but it was reluctant to use recruiting tools that could help. The issue was the way these sites displayed underrepresented candidates in an e-commerce-like interface. “They want you to shop for people?” the HR team members bemoaned.

Their moral discomfort surprised Jackson, because the team used similar but less race-oriented tools all the time in their early rounds of hiring. This was not the coded racism about candidate quality she might have expected, but it still presented a barrier to improving diversity in the workplace. She was so intrigued by the subtlety of this issue it became the topic of her dissertation.

In her work as an “organizational ethnographer,” Jackson says the first rule is to take your time. She spent months embedding herself at the company, so that “people just forget that you’re there.” While the word “ethnographer” may bring to mind anthropologists who study rural or isolated communities, in many ways, high-tech companies are no different from other cultural groups. They too have their clothing, rituals, events, and, as Jackson points out, their own moral understanding and values.

Now in her sixth year as a PhD student at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Jackson became interested in this field through her own professional experiences. After studying international relations as an undergraduate at Stanford University and then in a master’s program at Brandeis University, she landed what she thought was an ideal job: working as an evaluation specialist in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. After two years, she quickly grew frustrated –– but also fascinated –– by the “bad incentive structures” she encountered there.

Great public policy and international development research was getting lost in the bureaucracy, she says, and employees went to great lengths not to share anything negative about their development projects because they thought it would reflect poorly on themselves. She felt it would have been much more productive to openly embrace the difficulty of addressing complex economic situations, and to create a workplace culture conducive to experimentation. The situation “did not need another evaluation specialist,” she discovered. “This was an organizational structure, incentives, and workplace dynamics issue.”

That realization led her to MIT Sloan, where she now studies those dynamics as part of the Behavioral and Policy Sciences group under the advisement of Kate Kellogg, Ray Reagans, and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan. Her research investigates how social structures of oppression play out in the workplace; she has studied microaggressions, public defenders, and police officers, in addition to her focus on diversity and inclusion in the tech sector. These issues are “just what I care about, and even if I consciously try to avoid it, I end up back there,” she says.

Multicultural narratives

Jackson was born in Mallorca, Spain, but grew up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where her father worked as a mechanical engineer. In Saudi Arabia, Jackson formed a diverse group of friends ––Nigerian and Korean Christians, Muslims from India and Pakistan and Lebanon. At first, Jackson, who comes from a multinational, multiracial family, thought this group formed naturally, but over time she noticed how in her siblings’ classes, kids formed more homogeneous social circles. She realized that it took more than just putting different kinds of people in the same place to create a truly diverse environment. “You have to have structures in place that allow for people to interact equally,” she says.

She had only just returned to high school in the States when the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11 occurred. The resulting conversations she had at school forced Jackson to examine the ways her own experience conflicted with popular impressions of Saudi Arabia and its relationship with the U.S. “There was this large narrative of what is this country and who are the people that live there, and it didn’t resonate with my experiences,” she says. She even had to question what it meant to be American: Abroad, people had been surprised to meet an American who was neither white nor culturally insensitive; at home, she found it strange how Americans didn’t consider those living abroad to be “real” Americans.

This experience contributed to Jackson’s growing interest in marginalized voices and the intersecting hierarchies of power and oppression, which today unites her international relations background and her current work in organizational diversity. With these inequities exposed more than ever by Covid-19 and incidents of racism and police brutality, she has been noticing the ways the interactions in her daily life, such as during a run or a trip to the grocery store, could be potential points of escalation. “Everyone’s just on heightened alert,” she says.

Make, master, matter

Quarantining in a small town in Vermont while protests have rocked the nation has been a “real cognitive dissonance experience,” Jackson says. Lately, she has been thinking about some words of advice from Daymond John, the Black founder and CEO of FUBU and an investor on the television show “Shark Tank,” who said, “Make it, master it, then matter, usually in that order.”

“Sometimes especially for underrepresented group members, there’s this heightened pressure to do all of that at once,” Jackson says. But she is trying to resist that as she works toward her degree: “There’s enough other barriers in the way that I don’t need to self-impose new ones.”

Unfortunately, Jackson said, there are still so many reasons that underrepresented students “sort out, leak out, and lean out” of the talent pipeline. She remembers how some people discouraged her from pursuing a PhD because she had too much work experience, or her research questions were too practitioner-oriented, or she did not have the theoretical background. These were all the “gatekeeping exercises” that unfortunately still exist in academia, Jackson says.

Counter to all that advice, Jackson has flourished at MIT. She was recognized as an MIT Presidential Fellow in 2015 and was named a 2019 Graduate Woman of Excellence. Now she participates in The PhD Project, an initiative designed to increase representation in business PhD programs. “I don’t want anyone to feel that,” she says, thinking back to her own experience as a prospective PhD student. “I remember how terrible it felt.”

She says she loves her program at MIT Sloan –– diving into the questions that interest her most, developing ideas and language to engage with those questions. But observing MIT’s own organizational culture, she encountered a certain “Iron Man mentality” that she had to learn to filter out.

When she would describe a bike ride or run with her husband over the weekend, sometimes people would tell her, “It’s great that you don’t take your work so seriously, that you can take time off on the weekends.” And she was stunned when, after taking a survey, she was invited to join a committee dedicated to incentivizing students to sleep. “It’s okay and it’s actually necessary to take this time for yourself,” she likes to tell new PhD students. “It’s not a sprint. It’s like a marathon.”

Jackson plans to enter the job market for faculty positions at business schools this fall, and is optimistic about what the future holds. “The issues that I care deeply about are now more common topics of discussion in corporate America,” she says. “I’m excited to bring my research into the classroom and to really work with my undergraduate and MBA students.”

Our itch to share helps spread Covid-19 misinformation

To stay current about the Covid-19 pandemic, people need to process health information when they read the news. Inevitably, that means people will be exposed to health misinformation, too, in the form of false content, often found online, about the illness.

Now a study co-authored by MIT scholars contains bad news and good news about Covid-19 misinformation — and a new insight that may help reduce the problem.

The bad news is that when people are consuming news on social media, their inclination to share that news with others interferes with their ability to assess its accuracy. The study presented the same false news headlines about Covid-19 to two groups of people: One group was asked if they would share those stories on social media, and the other evaluated their accuracy. The participants were 32.4 percent more likely to say they would share the headlines than they were to say those headlines were accurate.

“There does appear to be a disconnect between accuracy judgments and sharing intentions,” says MIT professor David Rand, co-author of a new paper detailing the findings. “People are much more discerning when you ask them to judge the accuracy, compared to when you ask them whether they would share something or not.”

The good news: A little bit of reflection can go a long way. Participants who were more likely to think critically, or who had more scientific knowledge, were less likely to share misinformation. And when asked directly about accuracy, most participants did reasonably well at telling true news headlines from false ones. 

Moreover, the study offers a solution for over-sharing: When participants were asked to rate the accuracy of a single non-Covid-19 story at the start of their news-viewing sessions, the quality of the Covid-19 news they shared increased significantly.

“The idea is, if you nudge them about accuracy at the outset, people are more likely to be thinking about the concept of accuracy when they later choose what to share. So then they take accuracy into account more when they make their sharing decisions,” explains Rand, who is the Erwin H. Schell Associate Professor with joint appointments at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

The paper, “Fighting COVID-19 misinformation on social media: Experimental evidence for a scalable accuracy nudge intervention,” appears in Psychological Science. Besides Rand, the authors are Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Regina; Jonathan McPhetres, a postdoc at MIT and the University of Regina who is starting a position in August as an assistant professor of psychology at Durham University; Yunhao Zhang, a PhD student at MIT Sloan; and Jackson G. Lu, the Mitsui Career Development Assistant Professor at MIT Sloan.

Thinking, fast and slow

To conduct the study, the researchers conducted two online experiments in March, with a total of roughly 1,700 U.S. participants between them, using the survey platform Lucid. Participants matched the nation’s distribution of age, gender, ethnicity, and geographic region.

The first experiment had 853 participants, and used 15 true and 15 false news headlines about Covid-19, in the style of Facebook posts, with a headline, photo, and initial sentence from a story. The participants were split into two groups. One group was asked if the headlines were accurate; the second group was asked if they would consider sharing the posts on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

The first group correctly judged the stories’ accuracy about two-thirds of the time. The second group might therefore be expected to share the stories at a similar rate. However,  the participants in the second group shared about half of the true stories, and just under half of the false stories — meaning their judgment about which stories to share was almost random in regard to accuracy.

The second study, with 856 participants, used the same group of headlines and again split the participants into two groups. The first group simply looked at the headlines and decided whether or not they would share them on social media.

But the second group of participants were asked to evaluate a non-Covid-19 headline before they made decisions about sharing the larger group of Covid-19 headlines. (Both studies were focused on headlines and the single sentence of text, since most people only read headlines on social media.) That extra step, of evaluating one non-Covid-19 headline, made a substantial difference. The “discernment” score of the second group — the gap between the number of accurate and inaccurate stories they shared — was almost three times larger than that of the first group.

The researchers evaluated additional factors that might explain tendencies in the responses of the participants. They gave all participants a six-item Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), to evaluate their propensity to analyze information, rather than relying on gut instincts; evaluated how much scientific knowledge participants had; and looked at whether respondents were located close to Covid-19 outbreaks, among other things. They found that participants who scored higher on the CRT, and knew more about science, rated headlines more accurately and shared fewer false headlines.

Those findings suggest that the way people assess news stories has less to do with, say, preset partisan views about the news, and a bit more to do with their broader cognitive habits.

“A lot of people have a very cynical take on social media and our moment in history, that we’re post-truth and no one cares about the truth any more,” Pennycook says. “Our evidence suggests it’s not that people don’t care; it’s more that they’re distracted.”

Something systemic about social media

The study follows others Rand and Pennycook have conducted about explicitly political news, which similarly suggest that cognitive habits, more so than partisan views, influence the way people judge the accuracy of news stories and lead to the sharing of misinformation. In this study, the scholars wanted to see if readers analyzed Covid-19 stories, and health information, differently than political information. But the results were generally similar to the political-news experiments the researchers have conducted.

“Our results suggest that the life-and-death stakes of Covid-19 do not make people suddenly take accuracy into [greater] account when they’re deciding what to share,” Lu says.

Indeed, Rand suggests, the very importance of Covid-19 as a subject may interfere with readers’ ability to analyze it.

“Part of the issue with health and this pandemic is that it’s very anxiety-inducing,” Rand says. “Being emotionally aroused is another thing that makes you less likely to stop and think carefully.”

Still, the central explanation, the scholars think, is simply the structure of social media, which encourages rapid browsing of news headlines, elevates splashy news items, and rewards users who post eye-catching news, by tending to give them more followers and retweets, even if those stories happen to be untrue.

“There is just something more systemic and fundamental about the social media context that distracts people from accuracy,” Rand says. “I think part of it is that you’re getting this instantaneous social feedback all the time. Every time you post something, you immediately get to see how many people liked it. And that really focuses your attention on: How many people are going to like this? Which is different from: How true is this?”

The research was supported by the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Initiative of the Miami Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; the Omidyar Network; the John Templeton Foundation; the Canadian Institute of Health Research; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Empowering kids to address Covid-19 through coding

When schools around the world closed their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, the team behind MIT App Inventor — a web-based, visual-programming environment that allows children to develop applications for smartphones and tablets — began thinking about how they could not only help keep children engaged and learning, but also empower them to create new tools to address the pandemic.

In April, the App Inventor team launched a new challenge that encourages children and adults around the world to build mobile technologies that could be used to help stem the spread of Covid-19, aid local communities, and provide moral support to people around the world.

“Many people, including kids, are locked down at home with little to do and with a sense of loss of control over their lives,” says Selim Tezel, a curriculum developer for MIT App Inventor. “We wanted to empower them to take action, be involved in a creative process, and do something good for their fellow citizens.”

Since the Coronavirus App Inventor Challenge launched this spring, there have been submissions from inventors ranging in age from 9 to 72 years and from coders around the globe, including New Zealand, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Italy, China, India, and Spain. While the App Inventor platform has historically been used in classrooms as an educational tool, Tezel and Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering in Computer Science, explain that they have seen increased individual engagement with the platform during the pandemic, particularly on a global scale.

“The nice thing about App Inventor is that you’re learning about coding, but it also gives you something that you can actually do and a chance to contribute,” says Abelson. “It provides kids with an opportunity to say, ‘I’m not just learning, I’m doing a project, and it’s not only a project for me, it’s a project that can actually help other people.’ I think that can be very powerful.”

Winners are announced on a monthly basis and honor apps for creativity, design, and overall inventiveness. Challenge participants have addressed a wide variety of issues associated with the pandemic, from health and hygiene to mental health and education. For example, April’s Young Inventors of the Month, Bethany Chow and Ice Chow from Hong Kong, developed an app aimed at motivating users to stay healthy. Their app features a game that encourages players to adapt healthy habits by collecting points that they can use to defeat virtual viruses, as well as an optional location tracker function that can alert users if they have frequented a location that has a Covid-19 outbreak.

Akshaj Singhal, a 11-year-old from India, was selected as the June Inventor of the Month in the Young Inventors category, which includes children 12 years old and younger, for his app called Covid-19 Warrior. The app offers a host of features aimed at spreading awareness of Covid-19, including a game and quiz to test a user’s knowledge of the virus, as well as local daily Covid-19 news updates and information on how to make your own mask.

The challenge has attracted participants with varying levels of technical expertise, allowing aspiring coders a chance to hone and improve their skills. Prayanshi Garg, a 12-year-old from India, created her first app for the challenge, an educational quiz aimed at increasing awareness of Covid-19. Vansh Reshamwala, a 10-year-old from India, created an app that features a recording of his voice sharing information about ways to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and thanking heroes for their efforts during the pandemic.

Participants have also been able to come together virtually to develop apps during a time when social interactions and team activities are limited. For example, three high school students from Singapore developed Maskeraid, an app that connects users in need of assistance with volunteers who are able to help with a variety of services.

“The ultimate goal is to engage our very creative App Inventor community of all ages and empower them during this time,” says Tezel. “We also see this time as an incredible opportunity to help people vastly improve their coding skills.  When one is confronted by a tangible challenge, one’s skills and versatility can grow to meet the challenge.”

The App Inventor team plans to continue hosting the challenge for so long as the pandemic is having a worldwide impact. Later this month, the App Inventor team will be hosting a virtual hackathon or worldwide “appathon,” an event that will encourage participants to create apps aimed at improving the global good.

“Our global App Inventor community never ceases to amaze us,” says Tezel. “We are delighted by how inventors of all ages have been rising to the challenge of the coronavirus, empowering themselves by putting their coding skills to good use for the well-being of their communities.”

The urban job escalator has stopped moving

The great U.S. economic boom after World War II was an urban phenomenon. Tens of millions of Americans flocked to cities to work and forge a future in the nation’s middle class. And for a few decades, living in the big city paid off.

By 1980, four-year college graduates in the most urban quartile of job markets had incomes 40 percent greater, per household, than college graduates in the least urban quartile. And workers without four-year college degrees (“non-college” workers) in the same urban areas had hourly wages 35 percent higher than their rural counterparts.

But those were different times. Since 1980, the U.S. landscape of work has changed “remarkably,” says MIT economist David Autor, who has produced a new study showing how much middle-paying jobs and incomes have receded in cities. From 1990 through 2015, the wage advantage for non-college workers in the most urban quartiles of the U.S. was chopped in half, with African American and Latino workers most affected by this shift.

“It used to be [cities] were a magnet for people who were less fortunate, fleeing discrimination or underemployment, and served as an escalator for upward mobility,” says Autor, the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT. But today, he adds, “urban workers without college degrees are moving into lower-paid services rather than higher-paid professional jobs. And the extent to which that is occurring is larger among Blacks and Hispanics.”

Even in the same locations, Blacks and Latinos are more affected by this shift. The wages of white workers without college degrees in the most urban quartile of the job market have risen slightly since 1980, compared to non-college workers in the least urban job markets. But for Black and Latino men and women without college degrees in those places, the reverse has happened.

“The urban wage premium has risen a bit for non-college whites, but fallen for everyone else without a college degree,” Autor says.

This wage stagnation also helps explain why many workers without college degrees cannot afford to live in big cities. Yes, home prices have soared and cities have not produced enough new housing. However, Autor suggests, “The change in wages alone would be sufficient” to price most non-college workers out of cities.

Autor’s new white paper, “The Faltering Urban Opportunity Escalator,” was released today in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s Economic Strategy Group. In examining the hollowing out of economically secure middle-skill jobs for non-college workers, the research also addresses a core topic of MIT’s Work of the Future task force, an Institute-wide project Autor co-chairs.

“The set of economically secure career jobs for people without college degrees has narrowed,” Autor says. “It’s a central labor market challenge that the Task Force is focused on: How do you ensure that people without elite educations have access to good jobs?”

What kinds of work?

To conduct the research, Autor drew on U.S. Census Bureau data and his own previous research examining the changing structure of urban labor markets in the U.S.  

As Autor details in his report, in the U.S., as in most industrialized countries, employment has become increasingly concentrated in high-education, high-wage occupations, and in low-education, low-wage jobs, at the expense of traditionally middle-skill career jobs. Economists refer to this phenomenon as employment “polarization.” Its causes are many, rooted in both automation and computerization, which have usurped many routine production and office tasks; and in globalization, which has substantially reduced labor-intensive manufacturing work in high-wage countries. As polarization has advanced, workers without college degrees have been shunted out of blue-collar production jobs, and white-collar office and administrative jobs, and into services — such as food service, cleaning, security, transportation, maintenance, and low-paid care work.

In 1980, U.S. employment was roughly evenly divided among three occupational categories: 33 percent of workers were in relatively low-paying manual and personal-service jobs; 37 percent were in middle-paying production, office, and sales occupations; and 30 percent were in high-paying professional, technical, and managerial occupations. But by 2015, just 27 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in middle-paying occupations.

That shift has mostly been felt by non-college-educated workers. More specifically, in 1980, 39 percent of non-college workers were in low-paying occupations, 43 percent were in middle-paying vocations, and 18 percent were in the high-paying, occupations. But by 2015, just 33 percent of noncollege workers were in the middle-paying occupations, a 10 percentage-point shift. About two-thirds of that change has moved workers into traditionally lower-paying jobs, occupations that require less-specialized skills. These jobs, accordingly, offer fewer opportunities for acquiring skills, augmenting productivity and pay, and attaining job stability and economic security.

A key finding of Autor’s work is that this change has been “overwhelmingly concentrated in urban labor markets,” as the paper notes. In the study, Autor analyzes 722 census-defined “commuting zones” (local labor markets) in the U.S. from 1980 through 2015, and finds that in the country as a whole, non-college urban workers with high school diplomas saw their wages fall by 7 percentage points relative to their non-urban equivalents; for urban workers who did not finish high school, the relative fall was even steeper, at 12 percentage points.

The jobs most affected are manufacturing and office clerical jobs, which have largely vanished from cities. As Autor’s study shows, these positions — along with administrative and sales jobs — made up a much bigger share of employment in cities than in non-urban areas in 1980. But by 2015, they represented a roughly equal share of employment in both urban and rural settings.

“Cities have changed a lot for the less educated,” Autor says. In the past, “non-college workers did more specialized work. They worked in offices alongside professionals, they worked in factories, and they were [performing jobs] they didn’t have outside of cities.”

Losing ground

Given the demographic composition of U.S. cities as a whole, any large shift in urban employment will affect African American and Latino populations, Autor notes: “African Americans and Hispanics are heavily represented in urban areas. Indeed, the Great Migration brought many African Americans from the South to Northern industrial cities in search of better opportunities.”

But as Autor’s study shows, African Americans and Latinos have lost more ground than whites with the same education levels, in the same places. Take again the top quartile of most-urban labor markets between 1980 and 2015. Among whites, Blacks, and Latinos, by gender, employment in middle-paying jobs among non-college workers declined sharply in this time period. But for white men and women, that employment decline was just over 7 percent, while for Black men and women and Latino men and women, it was between 12 and 15 percent.

Or consider this: Among workers with a four-year degree in the same urban settings between 1980 and 2015, the only group that saw a relative wage decline was Black men. In part, Autor says, that could be because even middle-class Black men were in more precarious employment situations than middle-class workers of other racial and ethnic groups, as of 1980.

“The black middle class … was more concentrated in skilled blue collar work, in clerical and administrative work, and in government service than non-minority workers of comparable education,” Autor says.

Still, Autor adds, the reasons for the relative decline may be deeply rooted in social dynamics: “There is no ethnic group in America that is treated more disproportionately unequally and unfairly than Black men.”

Push or pull?

While no social circumstance that pervasive has easy solutions, Autor’s paper does suggest setting an appropriately calibrated minimum wage in cities, which would likely erase some of the pay gap between whites and Blacks.

“There’s a lot of evidence now that minimum wages hikes have been effective,” Autor says. “They have raised wages without causing substantial job loss.” Moreover, he adds, “Minimum wages affect Blacks more than they affect whites. … It’s not a revolutionary idea but it would help.”

Autor emphasizes that boosting wages through minimum wage hikes is not a cost-free solution; indeed costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, and sharp hikes may tend to put low-productivity employers out of business. Nevertheless, these tradeoffs may be appealing given the falling earnings power of workers without college degrees — who constitute the majority of workers — in U.S. cities.

The current research also suggests that the crisis of affordability in many cities is more than a shortage of affordable housing. While many scholars have criticized urban housing policies as being too restrictive, Autor thinks the problem is not just that workers without four-year degrees are being “pushed” away from cities due to prices; the relative wage decline means there is not enough “pull” being exerted by cities in the first place.

“Cities have become much more expensive, and housing is not the only factor,” Autor says. “For non-college workers, you have a combination of changing wage structure and then rising prices, and the net effect is making cities less attractive for people without college degrees.” Moreover, Autor adds, the eroding quality of jobs for non-college urban workers “is in some sense a harder problem to solve. It’s that the labor market has changed.”

Autor will continue this line of research, while also working on MIT’s Work of the Future project along with the other task force leaders — Executive Director Elisabeth B. Reynolds, who is also executive director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center, and co-chair David A. Mindell, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, the Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing at MIT, and founder and CEO of the Humatics Corporation.

The MIT task force will deliver a final report on the topic this fall, having published an initial report in September 2019, which observed the economic polarization of the workforce, detailed technological trends affecting jobs, and contained  multiple policy recommendations to support the future of middle-class work.

Remote panel of “oldest old” finds virtual life amid pandemic

Since 2014, the MIT AgeLab has hosted a bimonthly research panel of adults aged 85 and older — the fastest-growing age demographic in the United States — on the MIT campus. AgeLab researchers have queried the “Lifestyle Leaders” panel on life’s smallest details and the most universal issues — sex, death, politics, loneliness.

Drawn from the Boston metropolitan area, the 85-plus-year-olds who comprise the Lifestyle Leaders panel are more educated, wealthier, and healthier than most Americans of their age group. AgeLab founder and Director Joseph Coughlin views the group as representing the future of aging in America. “They’re an example of William Gibson’s adage that the future is already here, but just not evenly distributed yet,” he said. “They live on the frontier of aging today, but for future generations, I think this cohort will serve as a model for our common life experience.”

The panel has been a research boon for AgeLab investigators. Findings from the Lifestyle Leaders workshop have been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed conference papers and journal articles. And the benefits are mutual. The panelists have attested to the value of talking about their lives and experiences in a group setting, as well as enjoying making contributions to a scientific enterprise.

Beginning in March 2020, in-person meetings of the Lifestyle Leaders panel were indefinitely postponed due to the spread of Covid-19 in the United States. Because of the high susceptibility of older adults to the virus, the initial decision to postpone the group was made well before MIT transitioned its operations to remote work. Given the special risks entailed by the age group, it was difficult for AgeLab researchers to imagine when the panel would be able to meet safely again.

To remain in contact with the panel, AgeLab researchers organized a remote study and outreach initiative called the “Day in the Life” study to offer support to the Lifestyle Leaders and to better understand their experiences during the pandemic. During their outreach, the researchers discovered that many of the Lifestyle Leaders were using communication technologies to stay connected despite being physically distanced.

“Members of the panel who wanted to keep up with their long-running group activities had become adopters of Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms,” says Taylor Patskanick, who co-organizes the Lifestyle Leaders panel. “We have a number of MIT alumni in the panel, so we weren’t too surprised. And on the whole, older adults are more-eager tech adopters than most people think.”

Given the promising technical capabilities of the panelists, AgeLab researchers decided to try hosting a virtual Lifestyle Leaders meeting over the Zoom videoconferencing platform, with a contingent of staff available to exclusively assist with technical support. “We had confidence that it would be a success, but at the same time, we had no idea what it would be like to host this group virtually,” says Julie Miller, who also organizes the panel. “We expected both a very productive meeting and some pitfalls.”

The topic of the workshop was creativity: What activities did the Lifestyle Leaders participate in to express themselves, to pass the time, and to discover new sources of meaning in their lives? To help facilitate the group, the AgeLab invited members of the Elder Ensemble of Prometheus Dance, a modern dance group of women aged 65 and older, to speak about their art form.

The discussions among the Lifestyle Leaders revealed the range and depth of activities the group participates in. John Nelson, a member of the Lifestyle Leaders who participated in the workshop, says that he has been an avid woodworker for 70 years. “So far, I’ve only lost half of one digit, so I’m doing okay,” he says. “I’m just absolutely smitten by wood. I love the grain, I love the feel, I love the smell. Besides my wife, it’s the next thing I like.”

Anne Umansky, another member of the panel, spoke about the rewards and challenges of being a memoirist. “[It’s about] looking for something that you will probably never really find … I think it’s a way of completing the puzzle of your life, and figuring out how it all connected.”

Umansky, along with some other group members, observed that exercising creativity during the pandemic was not always easy. “I want to get back some energy that I’ve lost. I’ve just been stopped in my tracks,” Umansky says.

Some technical issues during the workshop were unavoidable. A few participants never figured out their audio settings; closed captioning for hearing-impaired panelists faltered; and the move into Zoom breakout rooms generated some disorder.

But overall, this virtual workshop of the “oldest old” was a success. “This is a safe way forward for us to continue our research and outreach during the pandemic,” says Patskanick. “And it’s an example that, regardless of age, it’s always possible for us to come up with new solutions for us to better live our lives, not to mention to create meaning.”

Due to Covid-19, the Lifestyle Leaders panel currently meets virtually over the Zoom videoconferencing platform. The MIT AgeLab is recruiting nationally within the United States for participants ages 85 and older who would like to participate in remote surveys and focus groups.

What is the Covid-19 data tsunami telling policymakers?

Uncertainty about the course of the Covid-19 pandemic continues, with more than 2,500,000 known cases and 126,000 deaths in the United States alone. How to contain the virus, limit its damage, and address the deep-rooted health and racial inequalities it has exposed are now urgent topics for policymakers. Earlier this spring, 300 data scientists and health care professionals from around the world joined the MIT Covid-19 Datathon to see what insights they might uncover.

“It felt important to be a part of,” says Ashley O’Donoghue, an economist at the Center for Healthcare Delivery Science at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “We thought we could produce something that might make a difference.”

Participants were free to explore five tracks: the epidemiology of Covid-19, its policy impacts, its disparate health outcomes, the pandemic response in New York City, and the wave of misinformation Covid-19 has spawned. After splitting into teams, participants were set loose on 20 datasets, ranging from county-level Covid-19 cases compiled by The New York Times to a firehose of pandemic-related posts released by Twitter. 

The participants, and the dozens of mentors who guided them, hailed from 44 countries and every continent except for Antarctica. To encourage the sharing of ideas and validation of results, the event organizers — MIT Critical Data, MIT Hacking Medicine, and the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship — required that all code be made available. In the end, 47 teams presented final projects, and 10 were singled out for recognition by a panel of judges. Several teams are now writing up their results for peer-reviewed publication, and at least one team has posted a paper.

“It’s really hard to find research collaborators, especially during a crisis,” says Marie-Laure Charpignon, a PhD student with MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, who co-organized the event. “We’re hoping that the teams and mentors that found each other will continue to explore these questions.”

In a pre-print on medRxiv, O’Donoghue and her teammates identify the businesses most at risk for seeding new Covid-19 infections in New York, California, and New England. Analyzing location data from SafeGraph, a company that tracks commercial foot traffic, the team built a transmission-risk index for businesses that in the first five months of this year drew the most customers, for longer periods of time, and in more crowded conditions, due to their modest size. 

Comparing this risk index to new weekly infections, the team classified 16.3 percent of countywide businesses as “superspreaders,” most of which were restaurants and hotels. A 1 percent increase in the density of super-spreader businesses, they found, was linked to a 5 percent jump in Covid-19 cases. The team is now extending its analysis to all 50 states, drilling down to ZIP code-level data, and building a decision-support tool to help several hospitals in their sample monitor risk as communities reopen. The tool will also let policymakers evaluate a wide range of statewide reopening policies.

“If we see a second wave of infections, we can determine which policies actually worked,” says O’Donoghue.

The datathon model for collaborative research is the brainchild of Leo Anthony Celi, a researcher at MIT and staff physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The events are usually coffee-fueled weekend affairs. But this one took place over a work week, and amid a global lockdown, with teammates having to meet and collaborate over Slack and Zoom.

With no coffee breaks or meals, they had fewer chances to network, says Celi. But the virtual setting allowed more people to join, especially mentors, who could participate without taking time off to travel. It also may have made teams more efficient, he says. 

After analyzing communication logs from the event, he and his colleagues found evidence that the most-successful teams lacked a clear leader. Everyone seemed to chip in. “In face-to-face events, leaders and followers emerge as they project their expertise and personalities,” he says. “But on Slack, we saw less hierarchy. The most successful teams showed high levels of enthusiasm and conversational turn-taking.”

Another advantage of the virtual setting is that teams straddling several time zones could work, literally, around the clock. “You could post a message on Slack and someone would see it an hour or two later,” says Jane E. Valentine, a biomedical engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “There was a constant sense of engagement. I might be sleeping and doing nothing, but the wheels were still turning.”

Valentine collaborated with a doctor and three data scientists in Europe, the United States, and Canada to analyze anonymized medical data from 4,000 Covid-19 patients to build predictive models for how long a new patient might need to be hospitalized, and their likelihood of dying.

“It’s really useful for a clinician to know if a patient is likely to stabilize or go downhill,” she says. “You may want to monitor or treat them more aggressively.” Hospital administrators can also decide whether to open up additional wards, she adds.

Among their findings, the team found that a fever and shortness of breath were top symptoms for predicting both a long hospital stay and a high risk of death for patients, and that general respiratory symptoms were also a strong predictor of death. Valentine cautions that the results are preliminary, and based on incomplete data that the team is currently working to fill. 

One of the pandemic’s cruel realities is that it has hit the poorest and most vulnerable people in society hardest. Datathon participants also examined Covid-19’s social impact, from analyzing the impact of releasing prisoners to devising tools for people to verify the flood of claims about the disease now circulating online. 

Amber Nigam, a data scientist based in New Delhi, India, has watched conspiracy theories spread and multiply on social media as contagiously as Covid-19 itself. “There’s a lot of anxiety,” he says. “Even my parents have shown me news on WhatsApp and asked if it was true.” 

As the head of AI for PeopleStrong, a predictive sales startup in San Francisco, California, Nigam is comfortable with natural language processing tools and interested in their potential for fighting fake news. During the datathon, he and his team crawled the web for conspiracy theories circulating in the United States, China, and India, among other countries, and used the data to build an automated fact-checker. If the tool finds the claim to be untrue, it sends the reader to the news source where the claim was first debunked. 

“A lot of people in rural settings don’t have access to accurate sources of information,” he says. “It’s super critical for people to have the right facts at their disposal.”

Another team looked at Covid-19’s disparate impact on people of color. Lauren Chambers, a technology fellow at the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), suggested the project and mentored the team that took it on. State by state, the team found disproportionate death rates among Black and Hispanic people, who are more likely to work “essential” service-industry jobs where they face greater exposure to people infected with the disease.

The gap was greatest in South Carolina, where Black individuals account for about half of Covid-19 deaths, but only a third of residents. The team noted that the picture nationally is probably worse, given that 10 states still do not collect race-specific data. 

The team also found that poverty and lack of health care access were linked to higher death rates among Black communities, and language barriers were linked to higher death rates among Hispanic individuals. Their findings suggest that economic interventions for Black Americans, and hiring more hospital translators for Hispanic Americans, might be effective policies to reduce inequities in health outcomes.

The ACLU can’t afford to hire an army of data scientists to investigate every civil-rights violation the pandemic has brought to light, says Chambers. But collaborative events like this one give community advocates a chance to explore urgent questions they wouldn’t otherwise be able to, she says, and data scientists get to hear new perspectives, too.

“There’s a dangerous tendency among data scientists to think that numbers are the beginning and end of any good analysis,” she says. “But data are subjective, and there’s all kinds of other expertise that communities hold.”

The event was sponsored by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Innovation Group, Google Cloud, Massachusetts ACLU, and the National Science Foundation’s West Big Data Innovation Hub.

The MIT Press and UC Berkeley launch Rapid Reviews: COVID-19

The MIT Press has announced the launch of Rapid Reviews: COVID-19 (RR:C19), an open access, rapid-review overlay journal that will accelerate peer review of Covid-19-related research and deliver real-time, verified scientific information that policymakers and health leaders can use.

Scientists and researchers are working overtime to understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus and are producing an unprecedented amount of preprint scholarship that is publicly available online but has not been vetted yet by peer review for accuracy. Traditional peer review can take four or more weeks to complete, but RR:C19’s editorial team, led by Editor-in-Chief Stefano M. Bertozzi, professor of health policy and management and dean emeritus of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley, will produce expert reviews in a matter of days.

Using artificial intelligence tools, a global team will identify promising scholarship in preprint repositories, commission expert peer reviews, and publish the results on an open access platform in a completely transparent process. The journal will strive for disciplinary and geographic breadth, sourcing manuscripts from all regions and across a wide variety of fields, including medicine; public health; the physical, biological, and chemical sciences; the social sciences; and the humanities. RR:C19 will also provide a new publishing option for revised papers that are positively reviewed.

Amy Brand, director of the MIT Press sees the no-cost open access model as a way to increase the impact of global research and disseminate high-quality scholarship. “Offering a peer-reviewed model on top of preprints will bring a level of diligence that clinicians, researchers, and others worldwide rely on to make sound judgments about the current crisis and its amelioration,” says Brand. “The project also aims to provide a proof-of-concept for new models of peer-review and rapid publishing for broader applications.”

Made possible by a $350,000 grant from the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and hosted on PubPub, an open-source publishing platform from the Knowledge Futures Group for collaboratively editing and publishing journals, monographs, and other open access scholarly content, RR:C19 will limit the spread of misinformation about Covid-19, according to Bertozzi.

“There is an urgent need to validate — or debunk — the rapidly growing volume of Covid-19-related manuscripts on preprint servers,” explains Bertozzi. “I’m excited to be working with the MIT Press, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, and the Knowledge Futures Group to create a novel publishing model that has the potential to more efficiently translate important scientific results into action. We are also working with COVIDScholar, an initiative of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, to create unique AI/machine learning tools to support the review of hundreds of preprints per week.”

“This project signals a breakthrough in academic publishing, bringing together urgency and scientific rigor so the world’s researchers can rapidly disseminate new discoveries that we can trust,” says Vilas Dhar, trustee of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. “We are confident the RR:C19 journal will quickly become an invaluable resource for researchers, public health officials, and healthcare providers on the frontline of this pandemic. We’re also excited about the potential for a long-term transformation in how we evaluate and share research across all scientific disciplines.”

On the collaboration around this new journal, Travis Rich, executive director of the Knowledge Futures Group notes, “At a moment when credibility is increasingly crucial to the well-being of society, we’re thrilled to be partnering with this innovative journal to expand the idea of reviews as first-class research objects, both on PubPub and as a model for others.

RR:C19 will publish its first reviews in July 2020 and is actively recruiting potential reviewers and contributors. To learn more about this project and its esteemed editorial board, visit rapidreviewscovid19.mitpress.mit.edu.

Biology community holds daylong program to address diversity and inclusion

On June 10, as part of the #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia, and #Strike4BlackLives national initiative, members of the Department of Biology took the day to engage in open conversations about racial bias, diversity, and inclusion.

The #ShutDownSTEM.MITbio program, organized by trainees, postdocs, and staff, included 13 virtual sessions on topics ranging from allyship and white privilege to anti-Blackness in Boston and the history of racism in science. The goal was to provide a space for white and non-Black people of color (POC) to educate themselves and offer support to Black colleagues, as well as determine ways to make the biology community more equitable.

In a letter to the department publicizing the June 10 event, the organizers wrote: “We have a responsibility as scientists to educate ourselves and initiate and continue difficult but necessary conversations on race and how systemic racism impacts ourselves and our field, particularly through the lens of recent events and how we can better support, amplify, and listen to our Black community members within the department and within our larger communities.”

Although the event came together in just a few days, more than 45 community members volunteered to help facilitate — and over 200 participated in concurrent sessions at any given time throughout the day.

Graduate student Talya Levitz heard about the #ShutDownSTEM initiative through various student activism channels a week prior. She brought the idea to department affinity groups, including the Biology Diversity Community (BDC), and ultimately aggregated over nine co-organizers. Other departments, labs, and centers across MIT developed their own initiatives, and Levitz’s team worked closely with their counterparts in the Department of Chemistry to share resources.

When they built the day’s agenda, Levitz says they had two main goals. “First, we wanted people to think about how their own identities intersect with anti-Blackness and anti-racism efforts,” she says. “The other big goal was to meet people where they are, and recognize that everyone is at a different place on their personal growth trajectories.”

Meghann Kasal, graduate student and co-founder of the BDC, responded to Levitz’s call to action immediately. “The #ShutDownSTEM program seemed like a great way to continue conversations that the BDC was already having, and transform dialogue into action,” she says. “It was a chance to empower people to make changes on an individual level and have those personal commitments ripple out to the larger community.”

SaRa Kim, administrative assistant and research technician, joined Levitz, Kasal, and others to help encourage other staff members to get involved. “The onus to make changes shouldn’t fall solely on those experiencing injustices,” she says, “and many of the co-organizers already had an active network of peers ready to provide support.”

Before the event, the team sent out a list of relevant resources, and afterward they collated a docket of action items to ensure that the conversation would continue — especially regarding recruiting and retaining Black and non-Black POC graduate students, staff, and faculty. Plans are also coalescing to apply for a Quality of Life grant to sponsor similar programs in the future, and students have spearheaded a faculty-matched donation drive within the department.

Graduate student and co-organizer Gerardo Perez Goncalves aims to take the day’s discussions and turn them into tangible plans with concrete timelines. “We need to hold each other accountable, and make sure those goals don’t get lost in committees,” he says. “Even though I’m just one person, I can be involved in a number of different ways, such as helping to craft actionable plans to spread awareness of current initiatives to those near me. The whole department needs to be made aware of these initiatives and plans so that we can establish community accountability.”

Sora Kim, a fellow graduate student and co-organizer, adds that scientists are often expected to separate their personal lives from their work. “You’re not supposed to bring what you personally think into the workplace,” Kim says, “but we know from history and current events that these things bleed into one another, and not talking about them creates a culture of silence and isolation.”

In the past, students have voiced concerns via anonymous polls and surveys, but there have been few opportunities for the entire community to come together, acknowledge current issues, and brainstorm solutions collaboratively.

The #ShutDownSTEM.MITbio event marked the beginning of what the organizing committee hopes will become substantive action to combat racism and build a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable community within both the department and the Institute. Already, open letters and petitions are circulating asking for concrete actions from leadership. 

“#ShutDownSTEM was not the start of these conversations for many people, but a continuation of ongoing discussions,” Kasal says. “We’ve wanted to hold these kinds of events before, but didn’t have the bandwidth in the BDC. This has given me hope that people will come together and help, and that it’s possible to organize something like this with just a few days of planning.”

The social life of data

On a typical day in our data-saturated world, Facebook announces plans to encrypt its Messenger data, prompting uproar from child welfare activists who fear privacy will come at the cost of online safety. A new company called Tillable, an AirBnB for farmers, makes headlines for allowing the public to rent farmland while collecting and tracking massive swathes of data on land use and profitability. Tesla comes under fire for concealing autopilot data, while the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announces that 2019 was a record year in protecting consumer privacy.

Given the daily avalanche of news in the contemporary tug of war between privacy and safety, Data and Society (STS 11.155J/STS.005J) always begins with a discussion of current events.

One of 36 classes in the new Computing and Society concentration in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Data and Society focuses on two linked concepts: the process of data creation and analysis, and the ethical quandaries and policy vacuums surrounding how those data impact society.

A gestalt approach to data

“The purpose of this class is to engage MIT students in thinking about data — data creation, data analysis — in ways that are not only technical but are also societal,” says Eden Medina, associate professor of science, technology, and society, who co-taught the class this spring with Sarah Williams, an associate professor of technology and urban planning.

Medina is particularly well-versed in the social, historical, and ethical aspects of computing, and Williams brings expertise as a practicing data scientist. Their multi-layered course is designed to “train practitioners who think about the ethics of the work that they’re doing” and who know how to use data in responsible ways.

Medina and Williams crafted the inaugural semester of Data and Society around the life-cycle stages of a normal data science project, guiding students to consider project facts such as who is collecting the data, how is the data created, and how it is analyzed. Students then explore broader questions, including: How can power intersect with the way those data are created? What is the role of bias in data creation? What is informed consent and what role might it play into the way that datasets are generated and then eventually used and reused?
 
Impacts of data collection in daily life

As the course continues, students begin to discover the fine threads of cause and effect that can often slip under a purely technical radar. Bias in data collection, for instance, can have subtle and insidious effects on how the world is constructed around us; for instance, the way in which data are collected could further pre-existing bias rooted in social inequality. Practices of data collection, aggregation, and reuse can also present challenges for ethical practices such as informed consent. How can we make an informed decision without fully understanding how our data might be used in the future and the ramifications of that use?  

“I have worked a lot on the technical side with data both in my computer science classes, and with work experiences and my UROP [undergraduate research project],” says Darian Bhathena ’20, a recent graduate whose studies span computer science and engineering, biomedical engineering, and urban studies and planning. “As engineering students, we sometimes forget that, to be useful and applicable, all the technical material we’re learning has to fit within society as a whole.”

The intricate impacts of data collection in the students’ daily lives — from what they see in their Twitter feeds to how they interact with health-tracking apps — are front and center in the class, making the curriculum material and its implications personal.

A challenge at the core of a data-driven society

For one assignment, students created visualizations from data they collected, endeavoring to be as neutral as possible, then wrote about the decisions they made, including non-technical decisions, to build the dataset and use it for analysis.

One student downloaded all her text messages for a week, trying to track a correlation between weather and texting patterns. Another tried to determine which MIT dorm was the healthiest, entering diet data into a program they designed. Another student tried to track her own water usage against self-reported norms across the Cambridge, Massachusetts, area. All of the students ran into assumptions in their data models — for instance, about how much water is used to wash hands, or how diets change over time. One by one, the students faced a series of built-in human decisions that prevented their data from being truly neutral.

The exercise illustrated the challenge at the core of our data-driven society: data are easy to gather, but their implications are far less easy to discern and manage. “A lot of decisions around data in the world are ours to make,” says Williams. “Technology moves much more quickly than regulation can.”
 
Fluency in the ethics of technology

The new Computing and Society concentration, of which Data and Society is a core course, is part of a larger push across the Institute, echoed in the mission of the new MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, to enable a holistic view of how technology both shapes, and is shaped by, the nuances of the world, and to develop Institute-wide fluency in the ethics of technology.   

Zach Johnson, a rising junior majoring in computer science and engineering, is also pursuing the new Computing and Society concentration. He says his experience in simultaneous technical and humanistic instruction has been eye-opening. “I get to see all the application of what I am learning in the real world and get to learn the ethics behind what I am doing,” he explains. “While I am learning how to write the code in my Course 6 classes, this class is showing me how that code is used to do incredible good or incredible harm for the world.”

In the current public health crisis, Johnson is eager to apply his new insights to this unprecedented moment in the course’s final project. The assignment: study how another country is using data to address the coronavirus pandemic and identify which aspects of this approach, if any, the United States should adopt.

Johnson says, “While all the topics of this course are interesting, it is particularly fascinating to be able to apply what is happening in the world during a time of crisis to my study of data science.”

Does tech provide more objective decisions?

Medina, herself a 2005 doctoral graduate of the MIT STS program, joined the faculty last July. Her current research centers on technology and human rights, with a focus on Chile. Much of her previous and current scholarship relates to how people use data to bring certainty to highly uncertain situations, and how our increased trust in technology and its capabilities echo through social realities.

“I see [this research] as very relevant to emerging issues in artificial intelligence and machine learning — because we are now putting our faith in new technological systems that are built on large repositories of data and whose decision-making processes are often not transparent. We are trusting them to give us a more objective decision — often without having the means to consider how flawed that ‘objective’ decision might be. What harms can result from such practices?”

Williams’ Civic Data Design Lab is immersed in questions of how data can be used to expose and inform urban policies. In one example from her book, “Data Action,” she created a model to identify cities in China that were built but never inhabited. The model was based on the idea that thriving communities need amenities (grocery stores and schools) — analysis of Chinese social media data showed that in many Chinese cities these basic resources did not exist, and therefore they were “ghost cities.” Williams lab went further to visualize the data to “ground truth” the results with Chinese officials. The approach allowed more candid conversations with the government and a more accurate model for understanding the phenomenon of China’s vacant cities.

“We hear a lot about how data can be used for bad things, which is true, but it also can be used for good,” reflects Williams. “Like anything in the world, data is a tool, and that tool can be used to improve society, rather than cause harm.”

Based on the inaugural class, Williams thinks Data and Society is exactly the kind of rigorous, thoughtful environment that will empower MIT graduates, helping them develop the awareness, analytical/ethical framework, and skills needed to act consciously as data practitioners in the field. “Engaging students across disciplines — that’s how innovation happens,” she says.

Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Alison Lanier, Senior Communications Associate

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