Arizona wildfire series wins Knight Science Journalism’s Victor K. McElheny Award

The Knight Science Journalism Program’s second annual Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional science journalism will honor an investigative series that explores the ongoing risk of deadly wildfires in the American West.

Spearheaded by The Arizona Republic, “Ahead of the Fire” shines a light on the hundreds of communities across the West that remain vulnerable — and unprepared — for wildfires like the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people in Paradise, California, and surrounding areas. Arizona Republic reporters Pamela Ren Larson and Dennis Wagner (now at USA Today) tell a heart-wrenching story of how mismanaged emergency alert systems, evacuation constraints, and other factors created the conditions for a catastrophe in Paradise. Working with a team of developers and data journalists the USA Today Network, they identified more than
500 towns across the West that have even higher wildfire hazard potentials. The reporting was complemented with striking images from photojournalist Thomas Hawthorne and edited by Michael Squires, editor of the AZ Data Central team.

Wagner, Hawthorne, and Squires were part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2018.

Judges lauded “Ahead of the Fire” for its rigorous reporting, compelling storytelling, and inventive data journalism. “They pushed the envelope,” the judges said. “It took what was not only an Arizona issue and a California issue and explained why it was relevant to everyone in the country.”

The public response to the reporting was immediate and sweeping. Fire agencies sought to explore the data, while regulators and other government entities sought to use it to inform their own decision-making. “We are proud to honor this exceptional series from The Arizona Republic,” says Knight Science Journalism Program Director Deborah Blum. “The stories not only illuminate an important issue, but do so in a way that serves multiple smaller communities in the west. It’s a reminder that local and regional science journalists are still doing outstanding and important work, deserving not only of this award but of support and praise from all of us.”

In addition to “Ahead of the Fire,” judges honored three other outstanding entries as finalists: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Turned Away,” about the controversial practice of ambulance diversion and how it continues to put lives at risk in the Midwest and beyond; “Arizona’s Next Water Crisis,” published by The Arizona Republic, which explores how a lack of regulation of water wells is threatening the livelihood of the state’s rural families and ecosystems; and The Boston Globe’s “At the Edge of a Warming World,” a multimedia feature on how climate change is reshaping life on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod.

Named after the Knight Science Journalism Program’s founding director, the Victor K. McElheny Award was established to honor outstanding coverage of science, public health, technology, and environmental issues at the local and regional level. The winning team will receive a $5,000 prize.

The McElheny Award is made possible by support from Victor K. McElheny, Ruth McElheny, and the Rita Allen Foundation. Screeners reviewed the first round of submissions, and the final panel of judges included James Boren of the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust; Ibby Caputo, freelance; Alicia Chang of the Associated Press; Bill Manny of the Idaho Public Television; and Sabriya Rice of the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, founded more than 30 years ago, seeks to nurture and enhance the ability of journalists from around the world to accurately document and illuminate the often complex intersection of science, technology, and human culture. It does so through an acclaimed fellowship program — which hosts 10 or more journalists every academic year — and also through science-focused seminars, skills-focused master classes, workshops, and publications. Since it began, the program has hosted more than 300 fellows, who continue to cover science across a range of platforms in the United States, including
The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Time, Scientific American, Science, the Associated Press, and broadcast outlets ranging from ABC News to CNN, as well as in numerous other countries.

A message from MIT astronauts: Accept the mission and find your motivators

Keeping our distance from each other for an extended period of time is the most effective way to reduce Covid-19’s reach. But the prospect of prolonged social isolation is uncharted territory for many.

To get some perspective on how we all might navigate lives of temporary separation, MIT News checked in with three MIT alumni who have spent months at a time living quite literally away from the rest of the world, on humanity’s only outpost in space. Cady Coleman ’83, Mike Fincke ’89, and Greg Chamitoff ’92 have all served long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as NASA astronauts. While orbiting some 250 miles above Earth, they lived and worked in quarters about the size of a large house, with only the occasional opportunity to step outside of that house, on spacewalks to repair or maintain the station.

Even as they were physically isolated from the rest of the planet for months at a time, the astronauts found ways to bridge the distance with family and friends, over the phone, and through video chats. Just as importantly, they also made sure to find time for themselves, and embrace their isolation. Coleman, Fincke, and Chamitoff shared some of the lessons they learned from living in space, and how we can all commit to a mission to live, at least for now, at a distance.

Q: What was it like for you to be isolated from the rest of the world for long durations, even with the ability to email and video-chat with people on the ground?

CHAMITOFF: Living on the International Space Station is very much like being stuck in your house with a few people for a very long period of time. The ISS has about as much living space as a six-bedroom house. And hopefully you like your roommates and have established mechanisms for getting along even when there are disagreements. In space you feel separated from the rest of society — you are the only ones off the entire planet!

I expected to feel lonely during my six months in space, but it was quite the opposite. Having a daily sense of purpose, countless tasks and experiments to perform, and communication with people all over the world provided so much engagement with the world that loneliness was not a factor. There are some lessons here, perhaps, for everyone who now has to stay at home during this crisis.  

COLEMAN: I think what makes everything work is the mission. As an astronaut, I was on the forward edge of exploration, representing the many people who make the ISS mission and experiments happen. Right now our mission is to keep each other safe here on Earth. I think keeping that mission in mind makes it easier to wash your hands that one more time when you really don’t feel like it, and to tell friends who are more casual about social distancing things like, “No, I really don’t think it’s safe to do that together for now.”

FINCKE: We’re such social creatures that it is going to be a challenge for a lot of people to be a little homebound and not go out. For astronauts it’s something we’re used to — it comes with the territory.

Q: What do you remember of some of your more challenging times of isolation in space? How did you work through it, mentally or physically?

FINCKE: My first long-duration mission was during a time when the space shuttle was grounded because of an accident, and there were only two of us aboard the ISS for six months, with no visitors. When you’re in a confined space with someone else, you really have to make an extra effort to get along. We probably are all hard to live with. Some things I’ve learned in space I’ve taken back to the ground, for instance to tell my wife I appreciate her that much more, and things like that. You really learn to value relationships.

COLEMAN: We had one crew member whose mom passed away fairly unexpectedly while we were in space. We established we’d have our own memorial service at the same time as the funeral back home. And I looked at the world map and realized we were going to be passing over his hometown at the time of the funeral. So the six of us were there in the cupola together, and we had a few moments of silence, and I really felt we were together with all the family on the ground. When the mission you’ve chosen forces you to be isolated, you find a way to be the best you can.

CHAMITOFF: Hurricane Ike struck Houston during my long-duration mission. Johnson Space Center shut down and people were evacuating the city. Operations on the ISS came to a near standstill. For almost a week onboard, we were much more isolated than usual, and were determined to get useful things done. We had a task list of unscheduled activities, and if we could do them without ground support, we did. Admittedly, we watched more movies, did more exercise, slept more, and spent longer periods together talking at meals. We were worried about our loved ones on the ground, but the slower pace was good for our morale and camaraderie onboard.  

Q: Are there any tips that you can share to help people get through and perhaps even embrace this social-distancing period?

FINCKE: Maintaining a schedule, things to look forward to, and things to do and check off your list, can be a tool to help us all. Onboard the space station, as the mission progressed, we had things to look forward to, like the next cargo ship that came to give us new food, or a spacewalk, which is a really big deal. Same thing here: Just because I don’t have to go into work doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get up and be showered and dressed just like I would. Going to the grocery store tomorrow, even if it’s a little thing, is something to look forward to.

Also, find out what your motivators are. For me, I read science fiction, and at one point, NASA was able to give me an e-reader and I read about 50-60 books when I was up there. That was my thing. It can be a little lonely. So you need to know what your own motivators are.

CHAMITOFF: Engage with people using FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, or whatever tools you like. Make virtual plans with people. Spend time outside. I believe that when this is all over, we will have stronger and closer relationships because of it. Talk to your family and friends — perhaps more than you usually do. In space, I spoke to a friend or family member every night. It was a highlight of my day.  

COLEMAN: One of the things you have to do is figure out how to have some ways you have your space, whether mental or physical. If there’s someone in the house coming up to you every time they see a new notice about the coronavirus, you may have trouble having a straight thought about what we’re trying to do. So maybe say, let’s read those things twice a day. There are a lot of things we can’t control now. What are the things we can? We can control the things we learn. I’m thinking I may take some Skype lessons for playing the flute, and learning Chinese has always been on my list, as well as practicing my Russian. There are projects I have on my list, from finishing my website to cleaning out my attic, and right now it feels like I may, in a joyful and not so joyful way, get them all done.

Q: What about the experience of being isolated for so long was surprising or unexpected for you?

COLEMAN: I think about the things I wish I did when I was up on the space station. One is get enough sleep. Probably my whole life I’ve never gotten enough sleep, especially at MIT, right? So taking care of yourself is a really good thing ­— prioritize that. And also, some kind of journaling or recording: Jot a few notes, capture this time for yourself, whether you plan to share it with anyone or not. Take pictures that help people realize what it was like for you. Because your experiences may be valuable to others in the future.

FINCKE: Having been more isolated, it’s times like these, where an outside forcing function is bringing us together, that I value this time with my family even more. Take this time to focus on the human relationships — reach out, send an email, call someone, because there’s a little more opportunity now.

CHAMITOFF: Life will be a bit different, but you will adapt to it quickly. We are an incredibly adaptable species. We live in all sorts of extreme environments, including zero-gravity. One thing we do need, however, is each other. We can’t do this alone. Consider reaching out to others if you know they are alone. As long as we have family and friends to share this experience with, we will be okay.  

MIT joins White House supercomputing effort to speed up search for Covid-19 solutions

The White House has announced the launch of the Covid-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, a collaboration among various industry, government, and academic institutions which will aim to make their supercomputing resources available to the wider research community, in an effort to speed up the search for solutions to the evolving Covid-19 pandemic.

MIT has joined the consortium, which is led by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and NASA.

MIT News spoke with Christopher Hill, principal research scientist in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, who is serving on the new consortium’s steering committee, about how MIT’s computing power will aid in the fight against Covid-19.

Q: How did MIT become a part of this consortium? 

A: IBM, which has longstanding computing relationships with both the government and MIT, approached the Institute late last week about joining. The Department of Energy owns IBM’s Summit supercomputer, located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was already working on finding pharmaceutical compounds that might be effective against this coronavirus. In addition to its close working relationship with MIT, IBM also had donated the Satori supercomputer as part of the launch of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. We obviously want to do everything we can to help combat this pandemic, so we jumped at the chance to be part of a larger effort.

Q: What is MIT bringing to the consortium?

A: We’re primarily bringing two systems to the effort: Satori and Supercloud, which is an unclassified system run by Lincoln Laboratory. Both systems have very large numbers of the computing units — known as GPUs — that enable the machines to process information far more quickly, and they also have extra large memory. That makes the systems slightly different from other machines in the consortium in ways that may be helpful for some types of problems.

For example, MIT’s two systems seem to be especially helpful at examining images from cryo-electron microscopy, which entails use of an electron microscope on materials at ultralow temperatures. Ultralow temperatures slow the motion of atoms, making the images clearer. In addition to the hardware, MIT faculty and staff have already expressed interest in assisting outside researchers who are using MIT equipment.

Q: How will MIT operate as part of the consortium?   

A:  The consortium will receive proposals through a single portal being run in conjunction with the NSF. A steering committee will decide which proposals are accepted and where to route them.  The steering committee will be relying on guidance from a larger technical review committee, which will include the steering committee members and additional experts. Both committees are made of researchers from the participating institutions. I will serve on both committees for MIT, and we’ll be appointing a second person to serve on the technical review committee. 

Four individuals at MIT — Ben Forget, Nick Roy, Jeremy Kepner (Lincoln Lab), and myself ­— will oversee the work at the Institute. The goal of the consortium is to focus on projects where computing is likely to produce relevant advances in one week to three months —though some projects, like those related to vaccines — may take longer.

3Q: Collaborating with users to develop accessible designs

Academic researchers and others have long struggled with making data visualizations accessible to people who are blind. One technological approach has been 3D printing tactile representations of data, in the form of raised bar graphs and line charts. But, often, the intended users have little say in the actual design process, and the end result isn’t as effective as planned.

A team of MIT researchers hopes to fix that. They used a collaborative project with staff and students at the Perkins School for the Blind as a case study of the accessible design process, and generated a list of “sociotechnical” considerations to guide researchers in similar work. A paper detailing the work appears in the journal IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics. Co-authors Alan Lundgard, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); Crystal Lee, a graduate student in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society; and EECS and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory professor Arvind Satyanarayan spoke with MIT News about the case study and their findings.

Q: How did you land on this idea to record “sociotechnical considerations,” and what are some notable examples?

Lundgard: Crystal and I met during an intersession workshop in participatory design, where researchers collaboratively designed products with and for particular communities. We worked with the Perkins School to co-design a 3D-printed visualization of a time-series chart for people who are blind. Coming from MIT, there was this idea that we’d come up with a high-tech, flashy solution — but, it turns out, that wasn’t really the best approach. In that regard, I think a first-order sociotechnical consideration is, what degree of technological intervention is necessary, if any? Could the intervention take a more social approach without the need for a fancy technological design? Would a low-tech solution meet the needs of the community better than a high-tech solution?

Another big consideration is planning and communicating the extent of the collaboration, which is especially important when collaborating with marginalized communities. That means researchers clearly communicating their intentions and goals. As researchers, are we aiming to produce academic research, or a design solution that is immediately adoptable within the community? What is the duration of the project and what are the available resources? Failing to communicate clearly can leave community collaborators out of the loop in ways that are actively harmful.

Lee: We realized there were tons of intermediate steps before you start to even design a product. What does collaboration actually mean and what does participatory design look like? We got frustrated at certain junctures thinking about what product to make. While we talked to teachers, occupational therapists, and the Perkins School staff, we’d come up with a prototype and realize it was an idea that didn’t actually meet the needs of the community. Thinking through these tensions helped us come up with a list of sociotechnical considerations for other researchers and collaborators who may feel these same frustrations when working on co-design projects.

One notable consideration from our case study: As researchers, don’t assume that your resources are the same as the community’s resources. For example, don’t make something for a small school if it requires a $300,000 3D printer that only MIT can afford. In our 3D-printed visualization, we at first tried to use a cheap and accessible 3D printer that’s often available in libraries. But, this affordability imposed other constraints. For example, using the inexpensive printer, it was hard to actually make something legible in braille, because the resolution is too low to be useful. It can’t capture the detail you need to accurately represent the data. So, using the affordable printer, our graph failed to meet certain accessibility guidelines. On the other hand, MIT’s high-resolution, industrial-grade printer isn’t affordable or available to the Perkins School — or most schools, for that matter — which is hugely constraining if the design is supposed to satisfy the students’ daily needs.

Satyanarayan: It’s also very important to compensate participants fairly, especially with marginalized communities. In participatory design, we don’t treat folks we work with as target users. Rather, they are collaborators throughout the process, and with specific skills. For instance, people who are blind have far more experience reading braille. We consider that a highly specialized skill that should be compensated accordingly. A key tenet of participatory design is recognizing that people in the community have lived experience that is valuable and necessary for a design to be successful.

Q: In your paper, you say you hope to avoid pitfalls of “parachute research.” What is that and why is it important to address?  

Lundgard: “Parachute research” is where researchers — particularly from wealthy universities — drop into a community; take advantage of local infrastructure, expertise, and resources; write an academic paper; and then take off. That is, after publishing a research paper, they completely disengage from the community. That’s harmful to community members who engage in the collaboration in good faith and help to facilitate the research, sometimes without reciprocal benefits.

Lee: In accessible design, you often make a prototype based on some abstract knowledge of what a given community may want. Then, the people in that community evaluate the efficacy of the prototype, instead of being directly involved in the design process. But that can diverge from creating solutions that are beneficial for the communities the designers are purporting to help. In our paper, we didn’t just build something, test it, and report on it — we thought it would be more important to contribute guidelines for approaching similar participatory design problems.

Q: What does the future look like for you and for your work? 

Lee: I’m starting a collaboration with Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. They have a large group of senior citizens who are experiencing blindness later in life, and have to learn to interact with technology in different ways. Understanding how people interact with technology ethnographically will be necessary for understanding accessibility — in technology, in the built environment, and in digital infrastructure. That’s a big part of my research moving forward. 

Lundgard: Really, our paper is not just about data visualization, but also about how to approach accessible design more generally. In that sense, our paper tees up how to do future work, with a concise set of guidelines that researchers — ourselves and others — can apply to different problems. For example, I’ve recently encountered researchers at a loss for how to describe their visualizations in ways that make them more accessible. When visualizations appear in, say, textbooks, scientific publications, or educational materials, they might appear as braille translations of the image, but more often they appear as textual descriptions. But what is the best way to describe a visualization? Does it make more sense to refer to its visual or statistical properties? Maybe we can collaboratively come up with different encodings that are more intelligible to someone who’s not used to interpreting information visually.

Satyanarayan: Along those lines, one thread is captioning online visualizations. There’s a lot of work to do in figuring out what’s important to caption to present some high-level insight of what the visualization is saying, as well as find a way to automatically generate those captions. That’s a deep technological solution. But we still have to make sure our sociotechnical considerations are adhered to.

Looking long-term, we’re interested in alternative ways of encoding data that are usable and accessible to people who are blind. Before braille, text was embossed on paper, but that’s not really how people who are blind process language. Louis Braille, who was blind himself, came up with something vastly different that became the standard way for blind people to read text. We first need to take a step back and understand the audience for and with whom we are designing, and work directly with them.

To do that, we have to address several things. How do people who are blind think about data? I was introduced to data through line graphs and bar charts. What is the equivalent for people who don’t process information visually? Once we answer those questions, we can start thinking about what the best way to encode data, because we’re not sure 3D-printing a line chart is the best solution.

3 Questions: Marion Boulicault and Milo Phillips-Brown on ethics in a technical curriculum

Marion Boulicault and Milo Phillips-Brown are part of a team working on transforming technology ethics education at MIT.

Boulicault, a PhD candidate in MIT Philosophy, is a neuroethics fellow with the National Science Foundation’s Center for Neurotechnology, for which she has organized ethics roundtables and taught ethics workshops in partnership with Momentum and MOSTEC, MIT programs for undergraduate and high school students. She also co-leads a National Institutes of Health-funded project examining the ethical implications of the use of neurotechnology for treating psychiatric disorders, and is a teaching fellow at Harvard University’s Embedded EthiCS program. Her dissertation on infertility measurement investigates technology ethics through the lens of feminist philosophy. For the past two years, she’s been a member of Harvard’s GenderSci Lab, an interdisciplinary research group engaged in generating feminist concepts, methods, and theories for scientific research on sex and gender.

Phillips-Brown is a postdoc in the ethics of technology in MIT Philosophy (one half of the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy), a research fellow in digital ethics and governance at the Jain Family Institute, and a member of the Advisory Board on the Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing. He has collaborated with professors from computer science, brain and cognitive science, and across the School of Engineering to integrate ethics into engineering classes. He also teaches 24.131 (Ethics of Technology) in MIT Philosophy.
Q: It seems that barely a day goes by without some controversy about technology in the news — for example, Facebook’s controversial policies toward political advertising on its platform. Do you think technology ethics education can help us understand and address these controversies? And if so, how?

A: Technology ethics education can definitely help us to understand and address these controversies. But, we believe that to do so most effectively, a new approach is needed.

If you open an engineering textbook and flip to the ethics section — if there is one — you’ll likely see historical case studies of technologies gone awry (the space shuttle Challenger disaster, say) and bite-sized versions of moral theories (excerpts from philosophers John Stuart Mill on utilitarianism, or Immanuel Kant on why one should follow rules, for example). This has been the traditional approach to technology ethics education.

The problem with the traditional approach is that it’s too far removed from what engineers and technologists do when they actually make things. You can, of course, learn from case studies of people’s mistakes, but students and instructors with whom we’ve worked say they feel alienated from traditional case studies and don’t always understand what these studies have to do with their own work. And the abstract realm of moral theory is, well, abstract!

It’s not always clear how to operationalize these theories in practice. And we’re philosophers: we don’t mean this as a knock on moral theory. It’s just that Mill and Kant and most people who are in the business of doing moral theory weren’t necessarily thinking about the intersection of moral theory with technological change.

The alternative approach we’ve been piloting across MIT is teaching ethics as a set of skills (or what Aristotle would call techné). If we’re going to make a difference in whether our students make things ethically and responsibly, they have to know how to do that. They need ethical skills that they can apply to their own work.

This spans from skills for how to think about the seemingly mundane decisions they make on a daily basis in the lab, or in a meeting at their startup, to decisions about whether to accept industry funding or how to speak about their work in public, to fundamental decisions about whether a technology should be made in the first place. All of these decisions have ethical dimensions, and we want to teach students the skills to navigate them now and throughout their future careers.

Q: What does skills-based ethics pedagogy look like at MIT?
A: In 2018, we, together with Abby Jaques and Jim Magarian, began piloting a skills-based approach as part of the New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET). NEET is an interdisciplinary School of Engineering initiative that’s oriented towards competency- and skill-based learning. Over the course of a year, NEET students build a technology — like an autonomous drone, or a biological “microchip” that simulates the human gut — and during an in-class workshop, we provide a structured, step-by-step guide for students on how to recognize and think through some of the complex ethical and political dimensions of their technology.

We’ve also been working with professors in EECS [the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science] to add ethics questions to engineering problem sets, with the expectation the students will be grappling with ethical decision-making as they train to become engineers.

We don’t have all the answers. This is still very much an exploratory phase to figure out what works and what doesn’t with this new approach. One thing we’ve found so far is that students are more inclined to engage with ethical thinking when their professors signal that they care about ethical engineering. For example, professors can speak to why they care about ethics at the beginning of our in-class workshops. Putting ethics questions alongside technical material in problem sets is also effective because it signals that ethical issues are on par with, and inextricable from, technical ones.

Q: How would you like to see technology ethics integrated across MIT?

A: Ultimately, we would like to see MIT take a fully immersive approach to ethics education. By that, we mean ethical reasoning skills should be taught, valorized, and rewarded at every stage and in every dimension of undergraduate and graduate education. The result, we hope, is that students — and the Institute at large — would come to see technology, ethics, and politics as inescapably intertwined. That’s in contrast to a model where the engineer makes something, then thinks “let’s check for ethical issues.” Ethics and politics are implicated every step of the way when technology is created.

The MIT Schwarzman College of Computing is a great opportunity to exemplify this model. In a recent article in MIT News, the college’s dean, Dan Huttenlocher, wrote that “no other academic institution is taking on the scale and scope of change that we are pursuing at MIT.” The college has named David Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, and Julie Shah, an assistant professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, as associate deans for the program in Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing, so there is an opportunity for the “scale and scope” and also the direction of this monumental change to encompass social justice.

Teaching ethics as a skill is a key part of this, as is having complementary classes in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences that encourage students to see the ethics, politics, and social nature of technology through the lenses of various disciplines. For example, Milo has co-taught an MIT philosophy class, Ethics of Technology, that addresses moral and political theory in relation to questions about technology that are making headlines right now. In this class, students read an article about China’s surveillance state alongside Foucault on the Panopticon, or a white paper on best practices for accessible data visualization with a recent academic paper in the theory of disability.

We are also currently partnering with Kate Trimble, the associate dean for public service, to integrate ethical reasoning into summer experiential education programs, such as UROP [Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program] and MISTI [MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives Program]. In doing so, we are working towards building an interdisciplinary, multimodal, and fully immersive approach to ethics education at MIT, one which provides students with opportunities for learning and practicing ethical reasoning skills across all of their experiences at the Institute.

Interview prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial Team: Maria Iacobo and Emily Hiestand

Events postponed or canceled as MIT responds to COVID-19

MIT schools, departments, labs, centers, and offices have acted swiftly to postpone or cancel large events through May 15 in the wake of the Institute’s announcement last week of new policies regarding gatherings likely to attract 150 or more people.

To safeguard against COVID-19, and the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus, many other MIT events have been modified both on campus and elsewhere, with increased opportunities offered for livestreaming.

The guidelines put forth last week have also now been expanded to include some large classes: The Institute will move classes with more than 150 students online, starting this week.

Impacts on classes and student travel

Following consultation with senior academic leadership and experts within MIT Medical, the Institute has suspended in-person meetings of classes with more than 150 students, effective tomorrow, Tuesday, March 10. The approximately 20 classes impacted by the decision will continue to be offered in virtual form.

“We are being guided by our medical professionals who are in close contact with state and national public health officials,” Ian Waitz, vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, wrote today in a letter to deans and department heads. “They have advised us that while the risk to the community is low and there are no cases on campus as of now, we need to move quickly to help prevent the potential transmission of the disease and to be ready if and when it impacts our campus.”

“Our approach is to be aggressive, but to move forward in stages,” Waitz added, “while keeping in mind that some individual faculty and departments may be moving faster than others, that the level of comfort with remote teaching varies, and that some classes may translate better than others to alternative formats.”

As of now, midterm examinations will proceed as scheduled, but the plan for large courses is to run midterms in several rooms simultaneously so the number of students in each room remains well below 150. The Registrar’s Office is working on room scheduling strategies to best accommodate that approach. 

The Institute has also decided to cancel any MIT-sponsored student travel that is related to a class, and all MIT-sponsored student domestic travel of more than 100 miles will have to go through the Institute’s high-risk travel waiver process.

Impacts on undergraduate and graduate admissions

As shared in President L. Rafael Reif’s letter of last Thursday, MIT’s new policy on events will apply to Campus Preview Weekend, ordinarily an on-campus gathering for students admitted to the incoming first-year undergraduate class. In the coming weeks, the Admissions Office will be connecting with admitted students, current students, and campus partners to discuss what to do instead of a conventional CPW. For more information, please see:

The Admissions Office will not host any programming for K-12 students, including admitted students and their families, between now and May 15, regardless of the size of the event. All scheduled admissions sessions and tours have been canceled between now and May 15, and MIT Admissions is canceling all scheduled admissions officer travel to domestic and international events in that time window. 

Additionally, all graduate admissions visit days have been canceled, effective immediately. “Based upon reducing risk, we ask all departments to cancel all remaining graduate open houses and visit days, and to move to virtual formats,” Waitz says. “Many departments have already done this.”

Despite the cancellation of these formal events, the MIT campus currently remains open for visits by prospective students. However, in keeping with suggested best practices for public health, visitors from countries that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds have “widespread sustained (ongoing) transmission” of COVID-19 cannot visit campus until they have successfully completed 14 days of self-quarantine.

Impacts on major campus events

The MIT Excellence Awards and Collier Medal celebration, scheduled for this Thursday, March 12, has been postponed; a rescheduled date will be announced as soon as it is confirmed. The Excellence Awards and Collier Medal recognize the work of service, support, administrative, and sponsored research staff. The Excellence Awards acknowledge the extraordinary efforts made by members of the MIT community toward fulfilling the goals, values, and mission of the Institute. The Collier Medal is awarded to an individual or group exhibiting qualities such as a commitment to community service, kindness, selflessness, and generosity; it honors the memory of MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, who lost his life while protecting the MIT campus. A full list of this year’s honorees is available.

Career Advising and Professional Development is working on plans to change the format of the Spring Career Fair, previously scheduled for April 2, to a virtual career fair for a date to be announced in April. All other large-scale employer engagement events — such as career fairs, mixers, symposiums, and networking events — will also be canceled; adopt a virtual model; be postponed beyond May 15; or adopt other models that meet the new policies involving large events. 

MIT is postponing the remaining two Climate Action Symposia, “MIT Climate Initiatives and the Role of Research Universities” and “Summing Up: Why Is the World Waiting?” — previously scheduled for April 2 and April 22, respectively. These symposia will be rescheduled; new dates will be announced on

Solve at MIT on May 12-14 will be virtual. In addition to a livestream on this page, Solve will continue to bring together its cross-sector community via interactive online workshops and more. Participants can also contribute a solution or a donation to the Health Security and Pandemics Challenge.

Impacts on athletics and intercollegiate athletics events

The Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER) is taking steps to safeguard student-athletes, staff, and community members who utilize DAPER facilities for club sports, intramurals, and recreation. Unless otherwise announced, MIT’s intercollegiate athletics events will continue as scheduled. However, visiting teams are asked to bring only student-athletes and essential team personnel to events at MIT. 

Additionally, DAPER has requested that only MIT students, faculty, and staff members attend upcoming home athletic events through May 15. All other spectators, including parents, are asked to watch events using DAPER’s video streaming service.

Other impacted events and activities

Discussions are ongoing about many additional events scheduled between now and May 15. The list below will be updated as more information becomes available. Among the affected events and activities announced so far:

  • Use of the pillars in Lobby 7 for community discussion is suspended for the rest of the spring semester, to minimize close contact and sharing of writing implements.
  • SpaceTech 2020, scheduled for Wednesday, March 11, has been postponed until a later date. The all-day event, part of MIT Space Week, will highlight the future of space exploration by featuring lightning talks from current students; talks and panels from alumni; and an interactive guided tour along the Space Trail to visit Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) labs and ongoing research projects. Visit for the latest information.
  • MIT Getfit has canceled both of its midpoint events originally scheduled for Wednesday, March 11. Organizers are working to contact participants with more information.
  • The March 13 lecture titled “Fateful Triangle: How China Shaped US-India Relations During the Cold War,” by Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution, has been postponed. More information is available at
  • To the Moon to Stay Hackathon, scheduled for Saturday, March 14, has been postponed until a later date. MIT AeroAstro and the MIT Media Lab’s Space Exploration Initiative are partnering to design and build an experiment to go to the moon on board Blue Origin’s inaugural lunar mission. The goal of the hackathon is to bring the MIT community together to think about lunar missions and habitation through a variety of challenges. To receive updates, join their email list or visit
  • The Koch Institute is limiting attendance at the SCIENCE with/in/sight: 2020 Visions event on March 17. This event is now for invited guests only.
  • All MIT Communications Forum events have been postponed until the fall. This includes Science Under Attack, originally scheduled for March 19, and David Thorburn’s presentation as part of the William Corbett Poetry Series, originally scheduled for April 8.
  • The MIT de Florez Award Competition, scheduled for April 15, will be conducted virtually. Additional information will be sent to the Mechanical Engineering community via email. 
  • The Mechanical Engineering Graduate Student Gala, scheduled for April 19, has been canceled and will be rescheduled for the fall.
  • The Mechanical Engineering Student Awards Banquet, scheduled for May 15, has been canceled. Awards will be announced virtually.
  • The Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) has canceled its SEED Academy program through May 15. This includes the SEED Academy Spring Final Symposium on May 9. OEOP will continue to communicate with SEED Academy students and parents via email and through The Sprout newsletter to offer information on course, project, and engagement options.
  • The 2020 Brazil Conference at MIT and Harvard has been canceled. More information can be found at
  • The March 12 Starr Forum, titled “Russia’s Putin: From Silent Coup to Legal Dictatorship,” has been changed to a live webcast.
  • The March 13 Myron Weiner Seminar on International Migration, titled “Future Aspirations Among Refugee Youth in Turkey Between Integration & Mobility,” has been canceled.
  • The MIT Sloan School of Management is canceling all international study tours and treks. Student conferences are either being cancelled or modified: The March 7 Robo-AI Exchange Conference, the March 13 New Space Age Conference, and the April 2 Golub Center for Finance and Policy discussion on equity market structure with the SEC are canceled. The March 13 ETA Summit and the April 17 Ops Sim Competition are proceeding, with virtualization. The March 16 Entrepreneurship and Innovation Alumni gathering in San Franciso is also canceled.
  • The 2020 MIT Scholarship and UROP Brunch that was scheduled for April 4 has been canceled.
  • The MIT Campaign for a Better World event in Toronto, originally set for April 29, will be postponed.
  • The Program in Science, Technology, and Society’s Morison Lecture and Prize in Science, Technology, and Society, originally scheduled for April 14, 2020, 4 p.m.; E51-Wong Auditorium, has been rescheduled for Oct. 1, 2020.

This article will be updated as more information on impacted events becomes available.

The elephant in the server room

Suppose you would like to know mortality rates for women during childbirth, by country, around the world. Where would you look? One option is the WomanStats Project, the website of an academic research effort investigating the links between the security and activities of nation-states, and the security of the women who live in them.

The project, founded in 2001, meets a need by patching together data from around the world. Many countries are indifferent to collecting statistics about women’s lives. But even where countries try harder to gather data, there are clear challenges to arriving at useful numbers — whether it comes to women’s physical security, property rights, and government participation, among many other issues.  

For instance: In some countries, violations of women’s rights may be reported more regularly than in other places. That means a more responsive legal system may create the appearance of greater problems, when it provides relatively more support for women. The WomanStats Project notes many such complications.

Thus the WomanStats Project offers some answers — for example, Australia, Canada, and much of Western Europe have low childbirth mortality rates — while also showing what the challenges are to taking numbers at face value. This, according to MIT professor Catherine D’Ignazio, makes the site unusual, and valuable.

“The data never speak for themselves,” says D’Ignazio, referring to the general problem of finding reliable numbers about women’s lives. “There are always humans and institutions speaking for the data, and different people have their own agendas. The data are never innocent.”

Now D’Ignazio, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, has taken a deeper look at this issue in a new book, co-authored with Lauren Klein, an associate professor of English and quantitative theory and methods at Emory University. In the book, “Data Feminism,” published this month by the MIT Press, the authors use the lens of intersectional feminism to scrutinize how data science reflects the social structures it emerges from.

“Intersectional feminism examines unequal power,” write D’Ignazio and Klein, in the book’s introduction. “And in our contemporary world, data is power too. Because the power of data is wielded unjustly, it must be challenged and changed.”

The 4 percent problem

To see a clear case of power relations generating biased data, D’Ignazio and Klein note, consider research led by MIT’s own Joy Buolamwini, who as a graduate student in a class studying facial-recognition programs, observed that the software in question could not “see” her face. Buolamwini found that for the facial-recognition system in question, the software was based on a set of faces which were 78 percent male and 84 percent white; only 4 percent were female and dark-skinned, like herself. 

Subsequent media coverage of Buolamwini’s work, D’Ignazio and Klein write, contained “a hint of shock.” But the results were probably less surprising to those who are not white males, they think.  

“If the past is racist, oppressive, sexist, and biased, and that’s your training data, that is what you are tuning for,” D’Ignazio says.

Or consider another example, from tech giant Amazon, which tested an automated system that used AI to sort through promising CVs sent in by job applicants. One problem: Because a high percentage of company employees were men, the algorithm favored men’s names, other things being equal. 

“They thought this would help [the] process, but of course what it does is train the AI [system] to be biased toward women, because they themselves have not hired that many women,” D’Ignazio observes.

To Amazon’s credit, it did recognize the problem. Moreover, D’Ignazio notes, this kind of issue is a problem that can be addressed. “Some of the technologies can be reformed with a more participatory process, or better training data. … If we agree that’s a good goal, one path forward is to adjust your training set and include more people of color, more women.”

“Who’s on the team? Who had the idea? Who’s benefiting?”

Still, the question of who participates in data science is, as the authors write, “the elephant in the server room.” As of 2011, only 26 percent of all undergraduates receiving computer science degrees in the U.S. were women. That is not only a low figure, but actually a decline from past levels: In 1985, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women, the highest mark on record.

As a result of the lack of diversity in the field, D’Ignazio and Klein believe, many data projects are radically limited in their ability to see all facets of the complex social situations they purport to measure. 

“We want to try to tune people in to these kinds of power relationships and why they matter deeply,” D’Ignazio says. “Who’s on the team? Who had the idea? Who’s benefiting from the project? Who’s potentially harmed by the project?”

In all, D’Ignazio and Klein outline seven principles of data feminism, from examining and challenging power, to rethinking binary systems and hierarchies, and embracing pluralism. (Those statistics about gender and computer science graduates are limited, they note, by only using the “male” and “female” categories, thus excluding people who identify in different terms.)

People interested in data feminism, the authors state, should also “value multiple forms of knowledge,” including firsthand knowledge that may lead us to question seemingly official data. Also, they should always consider the context in which data are generated, and “make labor visible” when it comes to data science. This last principle, the researchers note, speaks to the problem that even when women and other excluded people contribute to data projects, they often receive less credit for their work.

For all the book’s critique of existing systems, programs, and practices, D’Ignazio and Klein are also careful to include examples of positive, successful efforts, such as the WomanStats project, which has grown and thrived over two decades.

“For people who are data people but are new to feminism, we want to provide them with a very accessible introduction, and give them concepts and tools they can use in their practice,” D’Ignazio says. “We’re not imagining that people already have feminism in their toolkit. On the other hand, we are trying to speak to folks who are very tuned in to feminism or social justice principles, and highlight for them the ways data science is both problematic, but can be marshalled in the service of justice.”

“Doing machine learning the right way”

The work of MIT computer scientist Aleksander Madry is fueled by one core mission: “doing machine learning the right way.”

Madry’s research centers largely on making machine learning — a type of artificial intelligence — more accurate, efficient, and robust against errors. In his classroom and beyond, he also worries about questions of ethical computing, as we approach an age where artificial intelligence will have great impact on many sectors of society.

“I want society to truly embrace machine learning,” says Madry, a recently tenured professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “To do that, we need to figure out how to train models that people can use safely, reliably, and in a way that they understand.”

Interestingly, his work with machine learning dates back only a couple of years, to shortly after he joined MIT in 2015. In that time, his research group has published several critical papers demonstrating that certain models can be easily tricked to produce inaccurate results — and showing how to make them more robust.

In the end, he aims to make each model’s decisions more interpretable by humans, so researchers can peer inside to see where things went awry. At the same time, he wants to enable nonexperts to deploy the improved models in the real world for, say, helping diagnose disease or control driverless cars.

“It’s not just about trying to crack open the machine-learning black box. I want to open it up, see how it works, and pack it back up, so people can use it without needing to understand what’s going on inside,” he says.

For the love of algorithms

Madry was born in Wroclaw, Poland, where he attended the University of Wroclaw as an undergraduate in the mid-2000s. While he harbored interest in computer science and physics, “I actually never thought I’d become a scientist,” he says.

An avid video gamer, Madry initially enrolled in the computer science program with intentions of programming his own games. But in joining friends in a few classes in theoretical computer science and, in particular, theory of algorithms, he fell in love with the material. Algorithm theory aims to find efficient optimization procedures for solving computational problems, which requires tackling difficult mathematical questions. “I realized I enjoy thinking deeply about something and trying to figure it out,” says Madry, who wound up double-majoring in physics and computer science.

When it came to delving deeper into algorithms in graduate school, he went to his first choice: MIT. Here, he worked under both Michel X. Goemans, who was a major figure in applied math and algorithm optimization, and Jonathan A. Kelner, who had just arrived to MIT as a junior faculty working in that field. For his PhD dissertation, Madry developed algorithms that solved a number of longstanding problems in graph algorithms, earning the 2011 George M. Sprowls Doctoral Dissertation Award for the best MIT doctoral thesis in computer science.

After his PhD, Madry spent a year as a postdoc at Microsoft Research New England, before teaching for three years at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne — which Madry calls “the Swiss version of MIT.” But his alma mater kept calling him back: “MIT has the thrilling energy I was missing. It’s in my DNA.”

Getting adversarial

Shortly after joining MIT, Madry found himself swept up in a novel science: machine learning. In particular, he focused on understanding the re-emerging paradigm of deep learning. That’s an artificial-intelligence application that uses multiple computing layers to extract high-level features from raw input — such as using pixel-level data to classify images. MIT’s campus was, at the time, buzzing with new innovations in the domain.

But that begged the question: Was machine learning all hype or solid science? “It seemed to work, but no one actually understood how and why,” Madry says.

Answering that question set his group on a long journey, running experiment after experiment on deep-learning models to understand the underlying principles. A major milestone in this journey was an influential paper they published in 2018, developing a methodology for making machine-learning models more resistant to “adversarial examples.” Adversarial examples are slight perturbations to input data that are imperceptible to humans — such as changing the color of one pixel in an image — but cause a model to make inaccurate predictions. They illuminate a major shortcoming of existing machine-learning tools.

Continuing this line of work, Madry’s group showed that the existence of these mysterious adversarial examples may contribute to how machine-learning models make decisions. In particular, models designed to differentiate images of, say, cats and dogs, make decisions based on features that do not align with how humans make classifications. Simply changing these features can make the model consistently misclassify cats as dogs, without changing anything in the image that’s really meaningful to humans.

Results indicated some models — which may be used to, say, identify abnormalities in medical images or help autonomous cars identify objects in the road — aren’t exactly up to snuff. “People often think these models are superhuman, but they didn’t actually solve the classification problem we intend them to solve,” Madry says. “And their complete vulnerability to adversarial examples was a manifestation of that fact. That was an eye-opening finding.”

That’s why Madry seeks to make machine-learning models more interpretable to humans. New models he’s developed show how much certain pixels in images the system is trained on can influence the system’s predictions. Researchers can then tweak the models to focus on pixels clusters more closely correlated with identifiable features — such as detecting an animal’s snout, ears, and tail. In the end, that will help make the models more humanlike — or “superhumanlike” — in their decisions. To further this work, Madry and his colleagues recently founded the MIT Center for Deployable Machine Learning, a collaborative research effort working toward building machine-learning tools ready for real-world deployment. 

“We want machine learning not just as a toy, but as something you can use in, say, an autonomous car, or health care. Right now, we don’t understand enough to have sufficient confidence in it for those critical applications,” Madry says.

Shaping education and policy

Madry views artificial intelligence and decision making (“AI+D” is one of the three new academic units in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) as “the interface of computing that’s going to have the biggest impact on society.”

In that regard, he makes sure to expose his students to the human aspect of computing. In part, that means considering consequences of what they’re building. Often, he says, students will be overly ambitious in creating new technologies, but they haven’t thought through potential ramifications on individuals and society. “Building something cool isn’t a good enough reason to build something,” Madry says. “It’s about thinking about not if we can build something, but if we should build something.”

Madry has also been engaging in conversations about laws and policies to help regulate machine learning. A point of these discussions, he says, is to better understand the costs and benefits of unleashing machine-learning technologies on society.

“Sometimes we overestimate the power of machine learning, thinking it will be our salvation. Sometimes we underestimate the cost it may have on society,” Madry says. “To do machine learning right, there’s still a lot still left to figure out.”

3 Question: Joe Steinmeyer on guiding students into the world of STEM

Joe Steinmeyer is a principal lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT. His work includes the study of the intersection of biology and neuroscience with EECS, focusing on automation and control; and more recently, research in instrumentation and on novel ways to improve student learning. Steinmeyer SM ’10, PhD ’14 joined the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) instructional staff in 2009 and since then has taught more than 400 students in the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC), Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy, and E2 programs. He is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and holds a bachelor’s degree in EECS from the University of Michigan in addition to his MIT degrees in EECS.

Q: What inspired you to become an OEOP instructor, and what keeps you coming back?

A: Coming out of undergrad, I was choosing between teaching as a career and engineering. I applied to PhD programs, but I also applied to Teach for America and almost went down that road. I got in MIT for grad school and decided to do research, but I wanted to keep teaching. The year after I got to MIT, around 2009, they were looking for an electronics instructor for MITES, and I was really excited because I have always liked the OEOP’s mission. Boston abounds with teaching opportunities, but few have a mission like the OEOP.

I also liked that I could teach concepts I liked, so that’s how I got involved.

Since I became a lecturer at MIT I’ve done more education-focused research, including some papers on the MITES curriculum, and devices we are using to teach EECS. For the past couple of years, I’ve also been trying to develop ways to analyze what students are doing in hardware when we are working from different locations, like with MOSTEC. You can analyze students’ programming capabilities through the internet, but how do you actually help them or give them a similar level of guidance in debugging a circuit, which is decoupled from a computer, when you’re not looking over their shoulder like you could in MITES and SEED? That has been an ongoing research project for me.

I stay engaged because I like the mission of preparing students to be in a good position for college. OEOP programs are unique in that way, and there is also a lot of freedom with what we can teach students. It’s fun to teach them electronics because there is no one way to do programming, it’s an evolving field.

I believe students benefit from a programming-focused curriculum, because that is one of the great have/have-not situations in education today. The schools with more resources will have programming curricula, where schools with less resources would not.

Q: How do you help students gain confidence to pursue a career in STEM?

A: First by having sort of a judgement-free zone. Every student comes in with different background experiences, and I’ve learned to adjust curricula for the individual person. When I first started as an instructor, I had this vision that everyone would have to do the same kind of project. But a student that comes in with no experience may not end up moving as far along as someone who came in with lots of previous experience, so having a rough idea of what you want everyone to do, and tailoring that for people, works best.

I am also a big fan of letting students develop projects that they come up with, so they have a vested interest in their work. I see computation as an essential skill in every modern STEM field. Programming is used in every engineering field now, which also allows students to apply EECS concepts to something they already are interested in or care about. A couple of years ago we had a student who was really into dance, so we did a dance-focused project. Other students are interested in medical-leaning applications. We also do a lot of traditional EECS-themed projects like games, because those can be done in a short period of time.

STEM education for those who want to self-learn can be extremely daunting and scary. If you go on any of the common forums where people can learn how to program, people can be very harsh and mean, and a student who goes on for the first time can feel discouraged and think programming isn’t for them. So I let students learn about the environment, but also try to ‘bumper bowl’ or guide the experience a little bit.

Q: What is the most challenging part of the OEOP instructor experience? And the most rewarding?

A: The vast differences in educational backgrounds of the students is a challenge, but it’s not one that I don’t like; I find that actually rewarding. It requires you to find what’s the right mix of challenging students but not breaking them down.

The most rewarding part is seeing students a few years down the line, where they end up or what they are doing, it’s really fulfilling. I have been an instructor for MITES for 10 years so I have a couple early MITES kids who are in PhD programs now. It has been really nice to see students’ journeys.

I had a student who came from East LA [Los Angeles, California], who was extremely smart, but had a lot of confidence issues. She worked really hard in the MITES electronics class, and at the time, they had to do individual presentations of their work, and she was really nervous about explaining her project but she did really well. She went through the college application process and got into Harvard and Brown. After visiting Brown she decided that was her college, and throughout her undergrad years she was a teaching assistant for MITES. She invited me to go to her graduation at Brown and it was a really fulfilling moment for me. It was neat to see her evolve into this really confident young woman. She then got into Harvard for her PhD and is doing very interesting hearing/ear research. Stories like this motivate me.

Programming moves so fast and transforms so fast that there are no more books to learn from, it’s sort of like going out on to the web and scraping information from people. I find it rewarding to see how students go from not knowing that they can teach themselves from the internet, to learning how to look up information that’s out there, loosely organized, and use it to solve a problem with their final projects. It’s also nice to see how much students mature once they are in college. At the end they are a well-seasoned person who can have their pick of what they want to do with life, that’s my goal. I don’t want to see anyone get forced into a certain career path, it doesn’t have to be EECS, if they can get to a spot and they can make a choice, and they’re not forced into it, it’s success.

Design, power, and justice

When Sasha Costanza-Chock goes through airport security, it is an unusually uncomfortable experience.

Costanza-Chock, an MIT associate professor, is transgender and nonbinary. They use the pronouns they/them, and their body does not match binary norms. But airport security millimeter wave scanners are set up with binary, male/female configurations. To operate the machine, agents press a button based on their assumptions about the person entering the scanner: blue for “boy,” or pink for “girl.”  The machine nearly always flags Costanza-Chock for a hands-on check by security officials.

“I know I’m almost certainly about to experience an embarrassing, uncomfortable, and perhaps humiliating search … after my body is flagged as anomalous by the millimeter wave scanner,” they write, recounting one such episode, in a new book about technology, design, and social justice.

This is an experience familiar to many who fall outside the system’s norms, Costanza-Chock explains: Trans and gender nonconforming people’s bodies, black women’s hair, head wraps, and assistive devices are regularly flagged as “risky.”

The airport security scanner is just one type of problem that emerges when technology does not match social reality. There are biases built into everyday objects, including software interfaces, medical devices, social media, and the built environment, and these biases reflect existing power structures in society.

The new book — “Design Justice: Community Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need,” published by the MIT Press — looks broadly at such shortcomings and offers a framework for fixing them while lifting up methods of technology design that can be used to help build a more inclusive future.

“Design justice is both a community of practice, and a framework for analysis,” says Costanza-Chock, who is the Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program. “In the book I’m trying to both narrate the emergence of this community, based on my own participation in it, and rethink some of the core concepts from design theory through this lens.”

Who designs?

The book has its roots in the activities of the Design Justice Network (DJN), founded in 2016 with the aim of “rethinking design processes so they center people who are often marginalized by design,” in the organization’s own description. (Costanza-Chock sits on the DJN’s steering committee.) The book draws on the concepts of intersectional feminism and the idea that technologies, and society more broadly, are structured by what the black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins calls a “matrix of domination” in the form of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism.

The book also looks at the issue of who designs technology, a subject Costanza-Chock has examined extensively — for instance in the 2018 report “#MoreThanCode,” which pointed out the need for more systematic inclusion and equity efforts in the emerging field of public interest technology.

“There is a growing conversation about the lack of intersectional racial and gender diversity in the tech sector,” notes Costanza-Chock. “Many Silicon Valley firms are now producing diversity statistics every year. …  But just because it’s being recognized doesn’t mean it’s going to be solved any time soon.”

The problem of designing fairly for society is not as simple as diversifying that workforce, however.

“Design justice goes farther,” Costanza-Chock says. “Even if we had extremely diverse teams of people working inside Silicon Valley, they would by and large still be mostly organizing their time and energy around producing products that would be attractive to a very thin slice of the global population — people who have disposable income, always-on internet connectivity, and broadband.”

Still, the two problems are related, and “Design Justice” references a wide range of innovation areas where a lack of design inclusivity generates problematic products. Many product users have long had to devise ad-hoc improvements to technology themselves. For instance, nurses have often been prolific innovators, tinkering with medical devices — a phenomenon partly unearthed, the book notes, by Jose Gomez-Marquez, co-director of MIT’s Little Devices Lab.

“Every day, all around us, people are innovating in small and large ways, based on everyday needs,” Costanza-Chock reflects. Although that’s not what we hear from tech firms, which often circulate narratives “about a lone genius inventor, who had a ‘eureka’ moment and created a product and brought it into the world.”

For instance, in one widely circulated story, Twitter’s origins flow from a flash of insight by co-founder Jack Dorsey. Another version assigns its beginnings to hackers and activists of the Indymedia network and to then-MIT researcher Tad Hirsch, who in 2004 created a tool for protestors called TXTMob, which served as the demo design for the first Twitter prototype.

“I’m not making a claim in the book for the one true origin story,” explains Costanza-Chock. “I’m emphasizing that technological innovation and design processes are quite messy, and that people are often marginalized from the stories we hear about the creation of new tools. Social movements are often hotbeds of innovation, but their contributions aren’t always recognized.”

Better hackathons and more collaboration

Costanza-Chock does believe that design processes can be made more inclusive. In the book, they draw on years of experience teaching the MIT Collaborative Design Studio to synthesize lessons for inclusive innovation. For example: Try staging a hackathon that is more inclusive than the usual format of marathon sessions catered only to twenty-something coders.

“I really enjoy hackathons, and I have participated in many of them myself,” Costanza-Chock says. “That said, hackathons … tend to be dominated by certain kinds of people. They tend to be gendered, more accessible to younger people who don’t have kids, can take an entire day or weekend for free labor, and who can survive on pizza and soda.”

Whether designing a hackathon or building a long-term design team, “There are many ways to be better and more inclusive,” Costanza-Chock adds. “You need people with domain experience in the areas you’re working on, personal experience, or deep knowledge from study. If you’re working on Boston’s urban transit systems, you need to have people from different places in those systems on your designs teams, from the MBTA [Boston’s transit authority] to people that ride transit on a daily basis.”

Scholars who examine the social dimension of innovation have praised “Design Justice.” Princeton University sociologist Ruha Benjamin has said the book “offers essential tools for rethinking and reimagining the social infrastructure of tech design.”

Costanza-Chock, for one, hopes the book will interest people not only for the criticism it offers, but as a way of moving forward and deploying better practices.

“My book is not primarily or only critique,” Costanza-Chock says. “One of the things about the Design Justice Network is that we try to spend more time building than tearing down. I think design justice is about articulating a critique, while constantly trying to point toward ways of doing things better.”

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