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The Rise of Experimental Government: David Halpern at the What Works Global Summit

September 26, 2016 - 10:50am

What is the state of the "empiricism agenda" to understand "what works" in policy? And what is it that we don't know?

I'm here at the What Works Global Summit (WWGS) in London, where David Halpern and Peter John are discussing the role of randomized trials in society. The WWGS is a gathering of practitioners in international development, policing, education, public health, activism, and many other areas where people have applied quantitative methods to get causal estimates on the outcomes of their social interventions.

The main speaker, David Halpern, is the Chief Executive at the Behavioral Insights Team, led the team since its creation, and before that was the chief analyst of the UK Prime Minister's Strategy Unit. David is also national advisor of the What Works Network, I've blogged about the the Behavioral Insights Team here before, sharing a talk by Oliver Hauser on the role of randomized trials in policymaking. Charing the conversation is Peter John, professor of political science and public policy at UCL, and lead author of a book (and article) called Nudge Nudge, Think Think: Two Strategies for Changing Civic Behavior (I summarize it here).

David starts out by referring to Archie Cochrane's book Efficiency and Effectiveness (1972), where he set out the argument for the use of randomized trials in medicine. In a side note, Cochrane asked:

what other profession encourages publications about its error, and experimental investigations into the effect of their actions? Which magistrate, judge, or headmaster has encouraged RCTs into their 'therapeutic' and 'deterrent' actions?.... Let us remember the number of bridges that have fallen down.

At the time, Cochrane was arguing for the basic randomized controlled trial. RCTs offer simple math for calculating potential outcomes, even as more causal methods are being available. In recent years, David has explained RCTs by describing how the British started to win in cycling. The British cycling team have worked on marginal gains: picking apart their work, testing different ideas, and making incremental improvements. If the UK could do that for cycling, why couldn't they do it for other areas of public interest? David describes this as "radical incrementalism." At the same time, it's also important to be able to make "leaps" -- describing Graeme Obree, whose crazy ideas about bicycle design allowed him to break the velodrome world speed record.

Next, David tells us about the journey from the "nudge unit" to the UK's more recent efforts with What Works centres. Back in 2010, the UK government created a "nudge unit," which aside from the policies it tested, has had a larger legacy to introduce the idea of empiricism into policy circles. To illustrate their work, David tells the story of an experiment the group did to test different kinds of tax letters to citizens. The group tested added extra lines to the letters, saying things like "Nine out of ten people pay their tax on time." By building different different kinds of interventions, they got effects of over five percentage points. Next, they asked about the effects among the people who were least likely to have an effect. By testing different messages with these groups, they were able to increase tax payment by seven percentage points, asking the question "what works for who?"

Why does this matter? These experiments tested an intervention that cost very little to try -- just changing the working of tax letters. So these experiments powerfully-demonstrated what governments could achieve by putting minimal effort into randomized trials. This has opened up opportunities for different kinds of experiments, like an experiment that tried to support learners to stay in further education colleges. They tried offering affirming values, saying something about grit, or texting student's friends to ask their friends how their learning was going. The intervention had a nearly six percentage point effect on school attendance, and they're waiting to see what the effect may be on scores.

The Behavioral Insights imported and exposed ministers to the idea of evidence based policy. The What Works movement is setting out to support people to generate new findings, transmit their findings, and support communities to adopt those findings. Together, they have created six "What Works Centres" in departments from health to policing, to support the UK government to evaluate social policy. Even in the health world, may issues of service delivery or public health have not be evaluated as well as pharmaceuticals. Davides arguesthat education randomized trials happened once a year at most, but thanks to the founding of the Education Endowment Foundation, they have funded 127 trials across 7,200 schools, creating resources for school administrators to make decisions based on the findings. The Early Intervention Foundation supports research on young people beyond school. Other groups include the What Works Crime Reduction, the centre focusing on Local Economic Growth, the Centre for Ageing Better, and the What Works Wellbeing centre. These centres are part of a larger network and wider work. David outlines the following goals:

  • Stimulating ministerial interest. Rather than telling ministers they should hold off on an idea until there's an answer, we should tell ministers: you have more than one idea; why don't we implement the policy, try several things at once, and trim the one that is least effectively?
  • (Re-)training the policy profession so policymakers are familiar with building policies that can be iterated and tested.
  • The Trial Advisory Panel, which can offer feedback and advice on how to design trials
  • Publishing what we don't know, but ought to. David wants governments to publish lists of things that we don't know that we ought to know the answer to.
  • Moving from efficiency reviews to efficacy reviews in government.

In the next five years, David wants to live in a world where "radical incrementalism" is routine everywhere in government. He wants to see more work to identify what kinds of things work for what people. This will require governments to link people's data more closely. David wants to see empiricism applied to social work and the rest of the criminal justice system beyond police. Next, David wants to foster public demand and understanding. He wants people to interrogate the evidence behind different kinds of claims, and to expect that public services are taking an evidence-based approach. Finally, he wants to see the "What Works" enterprise grow internationally. David describes knowledge from experiments as a public good that we all contribute to every time we do an experiment.

David briefly notes that as we think about a society with more widespread experiments, it's important to take serious the public concerns about privacy and social control associated with experimentation.

David concludes by pointing to the "terra incognita" on a map in the early renaissance. He argues that by working together across countries and regions, we can support each other to fill in the gaps of experimental knowledge on the outcomes of policies.

Questions and Answers

Q: Where do experiments fit in the politics of mistrust, when many in the public may be less likely to care about evidence? David responds: Most ministers in government come in with strong beliefs, including policies. Some of them will not have a good evidence base. But there are so many choices in any given area. One approach is to ask what goals a person has where they haven't specified-- and then help them work on that. And then ask what other questions aren't headline news but which are amenable to evidence. The White House Social & Behavioral Sciences Team has published very dull things: things that everyone would agree to, and testing variations. If the UK nudge unit had started on radical reforms, they would have gotten knocked aside. There are million of other things to test that are less controversial. We can leave politicians their headline ideas. In some cases, policymakers have written "provisional" positions into legislation, budgeting resources to test them.

Observation: A participant from the Brookings Institution told a story from the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. They've been running for two years, and many of their things have worked. He then talked excitedly about some of their failures. David responds that experimental groups have had many early successes because many government processes can easily be improved--anyone can do better. Over time, it will be important to develop good ways to talk about null results once the averages start to balance out.

Question: someone asks how to convince government to pay attention to evidence? David responds that with the What Works Centres, they have focused on building community among practitioners, who are able to carry out experiments independently of the national government. That community work can often create an appetite within government, says David.

Q: How do you think about ethics with policy trials? Halpern responds that he believes it's important to have an overt panel of the public involved in decisions about what the public thinks are acceptable policy experiments. If we want a more experimental government, we may need to turn to juries as a model for maintaining ethics in the public interest.

david halpernpeter johnswhat works global summitwhat works centresrandomized trialsnudgepolicy evaluationfield experimentsvisualization
Categories: Blog

Live Blog: Lets Get Physical

September 23, 2016 - 9:04am

This is a liveblog of a talk at the 2016 Data Literacy Conference, hosted by Fing.  This was liveblogged by Rahul Bhargava and Catherine D'Ignazio.  These are our best attempt to record what the speak was talking about - any accuracy errors are our fault.

Samuel Huron begins by talking about how we assume that data will be in visual form, on a screen.  But there were many times where we generated lots of data, but we didn't use the same technologies and techniques. We used clay to represent numbers even before we had language.  8,000 BCE.  That didn't have a separation between the recording device and the representation. Then the Sumerians started making marks, units, on a tablet. Suddenly they were comparing between lines and columns and such.   Many more examples are on the DataPhys website.  Then we abstracted to symbols, which let us compare things and look for patterns.

Anscombe's Quartet lets us see how different datasets can have the same algorithmically resolved properties.  With our senses, we have some pre-cognitive operations that visualizations can take advantage of.

There is a separation between those that can work with the data, and those that cannot.  He wasn't all be able to work with data and act in society using it.  How can be welcome all to this?  He looking into Constructive Visualization (paper).  This study looked at a physical library of objects to build visuals that others could understand otherwise.  THey created, updated, annotated a visualization using these basic building blocks.  Some were duplications of existing shapes, but others were totally novel. Now there is an open source kit for doing this yourself.

Pauline Gourlet continues with a discussion of more than just the physical for representing data. Sometimes we talk about data we have, but other times we have to go and collect the data we need. What will the choice of the material we use induce in the story?  How do we structure the data we are collecting?

Pauline's first example looked into looking at emotions and moods.  A difficult thing to measure, capture, and report. They started with colors on fabric, because the way it spread on the fabric looked a bit diffused.  So you could describe the mixture of emotions.  Blue meant sadness, yellow was joy, etc.  They animated the charts, and noticed dynamics and patterns in the data they captured.  

  1. The time of collection changed their moods (like art therapy)

  2. The discussion it fueled changed how they talked about their emotions.

  3. People wanted to explain the data, and projected themselves into the representations.

They repeated the whole project with primary school kids, to understand how they would experience it.  They really wanted to do it.  These kids who were 6 understand it, negotiated the meaning, and recontextualized it in the action they had just done. They did it again with graduate students in a design university. The process was a bit more systematized, with a star plot diagram with axis for things like stress.  They 3d printed some of the resulting shapes.  They also cut out the data as wooden pieces to see the stack of emotions over time.  This let you separate and find families of similar days.

A separate example is Pauline's work looking into the usage of digital fabrication labs (FabLabs).  They created a collaborative sculpture, where the placement of objects on a stick would encode what the users were doing.  There was also a categorization of why people came to the FabLab (I experimented, I showed, etc).   These mini sculptures encoded the timespan, regularity, and purpose of their visits to the FabLab.  

Samuel speaks about a workshop they designed, to allow more open types of creation and physicalization.  A workshop that is freeform, but lightly constrained.  So there was a task that relied on different datasets. They wanted to explore how people would appropriate the physicalization.  Pauline speaks to how they explored the physicalization.  Sometime easy, involved, and simple to understand. They proposed basic tools and materials, selected materials. Wires, LEGO bricks, tokens, etc. 15 materials.  They had 3 types of cards to start the activity - context cards, cards with datasets and cards with tasks (convince, discover, collect).  Groups were invited to pick one card of each type, and get three materials.  Then they presented to everyone (without describing it). The groups created physical manifestations of the data, liek a string that one would tie to a peg and pull to record the data.  Another group created a participatory experience where you received cut outs of people representing asylum seekers, and placed them in your hands to force you to fit them in the EU somewhere.



Categories: Blog

Organizing on Social Media to Change Platform and Government Policies: Oxford Internet Politics and Policy Conference 2016

September 23, 2016 - 8:08am

What role does social media play in supporting collective action, and how do people organize to change social media systems themselves?

I'm here in Oxford for the 2016 Internet Politics and Policy conference, hosted by the Oxford Internet Institute. Yesterday, I shared a paper on The Civic Labor of Online Moderators. Today, I was able to attend a fascinating session on the ways that people organize online for change.

Participatory Policymaking on Collaborative Social Media Platforms

Up first is Alissa Centivanny, a professor at the Western University, Ontario. In her talk on participatory policymaking on collaborative social media platforms, Alissa asked for suggestions and feedback on this work-in-progress research.

Platforms are becoming inseparable from many aspects of our lives, developing enormous power in our lives. They're often opaque, difficult to understand. As a society, we tend to see platforms as Godzillas: powerful entities that pop up from beneath the sea and unexpectedly carry out unfettered demonstrations of power. But all of us play a role in the power dynamics at play; how can we recognize that role?

One tragedy of the human condition is that each of us lives and dies with little hint of even the most profound transformations of our society and our species that play themselves out in some small part through our own existence.

James Beniger, from The Control Revolution

Alissa's goal today is to show how design, policy, and social practice co-evolve together. She cites Hood and Margett's "Tools of Government," Participatory Policymaking, Mechanic's "Sources of Power of Lower Participants" (1970), and Hirschman's "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty" (1970). She points out that while people have done huge amounts of work in participatory policymaking practice, those efforts have not often achieved substantial policy outcomes. Yet people like Mechanic have shown many ways in the everyday world that people with limited power do manage to influence those more powerful than them.

Alissa sets out to ask questions about how online platform users are involved in shaping the policy of online platforms. Her first example is the reddit blackout, a moment when moderators of thousands of subreddit communities took collective action against the platform, forcing it to change its practices and communities (Alissa has published research on the blackout, and so have I).

Alissa's second example is the controversy over a the Wikimedia Foundation's "Knowledge Engine," a proposed extension of the foundation's work that was controversial with wikipedia contributors and led to the resignation of the foundation's executive director. Unlike moderators in the reddit blackout, Wikipedians couldn't shut off parts of the site. Instead, says Alissa, they carried out high volume, detailed deliberative processes.

Alissa is still early in the research process and is still looking for resources, links, and people to interview.

Density Dependence (but not Resource Partitioning) on a Digital Mobilization Platform (Change.org)

Next up is Nathan TeBluthius, who shares work with Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw (read the paper online here).

Online mobilization platforms have a problem of duplicate campaigns. Or is it a problem? Nathan shows us images from four campaigns to end dog meat festivals, only one of which was successful. Since there are only so many people, might these overlapping campaigns compete, detracting from the success of a campaign, or do they actually build and grow the movement overall? Your answer to this question determines on your view of the resources available to a movement.

To answer this question, Nathan scraped a dataset of petitions from Change.org. He then created clusters of petitions based on the similarity of the issues they take on. This allows Nathan to bring in theories theories of "density dependence" from ecology, which expect that clusters that are too small or too large will end up with less participation. In other words: highly unique campaigns will seem to niche to people (and not legitimate), and hugely popular campaigns will crowd each other out (through competition). His hypothesis is that the most successful campaigns will be part of mid-sized clusters. Nathan also mentions two other hypotheses.

In their statistical model, Nathan and his co-authors find support for this main hypothesis. Here's how they put it in the paper: "This curvilinear relationship between topic density and petition success suggests support for the idea that environmental pressures on petitions include both legitimacy and competition."

Tweeting for the Cause: Network Analysis of UK Petition Sharing

Peter Cihon, a gradstudent at Cambridge University, shares work he did with Taha Nasseri, Scott Hale, and Helen Margetts (paper here).

What is the relationship between social media and petition signatures? Peter looks at the UK's online petitions site during the period of the UK coalition government from April to June 2013. Past research has shown that the number of first-day signatures predict the success of a petition. In a time-shift analysis, Margetts and colleagues showed that the volume of tweets predicted the number of signatures. Yet in an analysis of German petitions, Lindner and Riehm showed that petitions increased inequality in political participation rather than broadening it (2011). Michael Strange's work has shown how activists form coalitions through petition creation.

Peter asks the questions: what does petition sharing actively look like, and who shares petitions? To ask this question, the team collected tweets from the Twitter search API from July 2013-March 2015 associated with 11,000 petitions. To study this, they researchers worked with two kinds of networks: petitions are connected to each other if the same user tweets about them. They also look at another network that connects users if they have shared the same petition. These are both implicit relationships based on activity.


Using this network, they used community detection algorithms to see if sharing yields topic clusters. They couldn't find evidence that users exclusively share a particular kind of cause. Next, they asked whether sharing tends to focus on popular or unpopular petitions. That was not the case; both successful and unsuccessful petitions are shared by the same users. Finally, they asked if centrally-shared petitions are associated with the number of petitions; there was no association between the centrality of sharing and the number of petitions.

What does this mean overall? Firstly, Twitter users share petitions of different topics and a wide range of outcomes, a finding that's similar to a study of power users on change.org by Huang et al on how activists are born and made. Second, central users in sharing networks are not formal interests, but acting as individuals. Finally, "latent" interest groups may be implied by similar behavior online. To end, Peter asks what might happen if people were made aware of each other?


Pascal Jurgens mentions: What is the scarce resource that's in play? A person might actually become excited to sign more petitions, but maybe their scarce resource is attention.

Helen Margetts has a conversation with Nathan. They note that Change.org does work to put people in touch with each other, using comments systems and recommendation systems to suggest other petitions that a person might choose to join. The site also sends people emails about similar petitions.

I asked Alissa about Hirschman's choices of exit, voice, and loyalty, which tend to be seen as individuals' choices, asking her how she thought about the collective action aspects of the reddit and wikimedia protests. Alissa brings a collective sensemaking method to try to understanding the collective understandings that emerge as people try to make sense of a larger distributed movement that is not coordinated or centralized. In contrast the petition sites try (unsuccessfully) to focus and limit the conversation to specific campaigns and counts. If one imposes structure that always stretches the boundaries and edges it introduces, the others begin more loose and may or may not approximate structure over time -- it's that collective sensemaking that Alissa studies.

Categories: Blog

Live Blog: Building a Data Literate Future Today

September 23, 2016 - 3:16am

This is a liveblog of a talk at the 2016 Data Literacy Conference, hoster by Fing.  This was liveblogged by Rahul Bhargava and Catherine D'Ignazio.  These are our best attempt to record what the speak was talking about - any accuracy errors are our fault.

Harshil Parikh is Co-Founder and CEO of Tuva.  Tuva strives to empower various types of organizations to build a foundation in data and statistical literacy.  The bad news is that defining data literacy is hard. It sits at the intersection of things like statistical literacy, visual storytelling, research methods and ethics/privacy concerns. It's hard to deliver on a product if you can't define it.

More bad news; everyone needs data literacy - Academia, Business and Government. But these different worlds have different ways of selecting, purchasing and using products and services. Even more bad news - what type of data literacy if useful to you depends on your sector.

But there is some good news!  The need is being felt.  Investment can be linked to outcomes and impact.  There is opportunity for targeting offerings. These programs aren't zero-sum gains; the need continues over time.

Tuva started with building products for schools. They are in use by ~8500 schools, over 250 higher-ed institutions. Their business model is "freemium", where you can use some of it for free, and pay for more fleshed out offerings.

Tuva is focused now on building offerings for businesses. Any company that wants to stay competitive is investing in technology to support data.  In addition, they are acquiring and retaining data talent.  More importantly, they are realizing that these two things are not enough. This doesn't create a culture based on data and evidence.  So they are investing in their existing workforce as well. This creates a shift in investment from just data producers to data consumers.  They want to create a link between data and analytics.

This has lead Tuva to target specific audiences; specifically those that aren't very technical. This includes managers, team-leads, early-career professionals, and summer interns. They are building diagnostic assessments around literacy to justify expenditures.

Tuva has built a data visualization training for tax audit and advisory companies. They created a program for statistical literacy for a financial management company.  Each of these requires them to be nimble in the approach and curriculum. They've rolled out multilingual trainings for the World Bank targeting internal and external partner audiences (ministries and CSOs).

Demand for data literacy is on the rise. These can be directly linked to organizational outcomes. Niche products can be produced for industry verticals. Data literacy is a fundamental skill in the 21st century. This is how to build a data literate future today.


Categories: Blog

Live Blog: School of Data - What is it?

September 23, 2016 - 3:14am

This is a liveblog of a talk at the 2016 Data Literacy Conference, hoster by Fing.  This was liveblogged by Rahul Bhargava and Catherine D'Ignazio.  These are our best attempt to record what the speak was talking about - any accuracy errors are our fault.

Dirk Slater and Cédric Lombion are introducing School of Data by illustrating the challenges they face. It was originally launched in 2012, hosted out of the Open Knowledge Foundation, with idea that decentralized content would spread the idea around the world.

They realized several things: 1) online only was not enough. You need offline training as well. 2) Partnerships are necessary as well as translation into other languages if you have international aspirations. You have to go into the field and work with people who know the local context.

School of Data has members/partners, fellows, staff and a steering committee. They have a set of problems they have been working on.

First problem: People don't know how to work with data. He shows an example of Ximena Villagran, a fellow from Guatemala, who developed flashcards to teach people how to work with Excel pivot tables.

Second problem: People don't know how to run data projects. You have to have a methodology and a data mindset. For example, they have been working with Oxfam who has been pressuring governments to open data sets around French Banks' subsidiaries in tax havens. Oxfam staff had spent two months hand-entering the data which, with some training, could have been completed in a day. School of Data worked with them to show how to streamline these processes.

School of Data has developed techniques like the data expedition workshop, and the data pipeline, to support folks learning how to work with data.

Problem 3: How do we scale this work? They only have a team of four staff members. They believe in face to face trainings, so they built and scaled a network. The people who are members are specialists in their audience and their context. They have people in the Philippines who are managing public resources but don't have access to computers and email. In Zambia people are working on health. It wouldn't be possible for one org to do this in one way, so working as a network is very important.

Problem 4: How do we share innovation?  Sharing innovation is hard, because this involves significant documentation.  Their summer camp helps start this, they have templates to support this, and the innovation fund that supports this via mini-grants.  Their goal is to document so others can use this more effectively.  The data viz card game is an example of this (based on the datavizcatalog site).  Developing this further required support and funding.

Cédric hands over to Dirk to discuss how to improve their data literacy efforts.

Problem 5: How can the School of Data network improve data literacy efforts? They found that the School of Data curriculum is used by many to do their trainings.  The "pipeline" is used by many outside of their network. The network has effectively become a community of practice.

Problem 6: How do we measure the impact of data literacy efforts? To do this they wanted to understand how the network practitioners understood data literacy. They got a huge range of responses from understanding a spreadsheet to using data how to solve problems. Dirk and Mariel standardized their definition to "The ability to apply and use information to make change." In order to measure impact they wanted to understand ways of doing social change and also understand who is doing the change (activists? CBOs? NGOs? governments?) For the network, this is really varied. We collectively need to be better at driving institutional change.

Problem 7: Can it be sustainable? The network is trying to understand how it can be self-sustaining for the long term. The NGOs in the network can monetize and productize their trainings for example with more of a "fee for service" model. They feel they need to move to make new partnerships with schools, civil society efforts, development initiatives, and the private sector. School of Data can help connect open data transparency efforts and citizens, for example.

Cedric wraps up by offering School of Data as a social and technical resource to the audience.  They are trying to improve themselves as a platform to support their network of field operations. This contextualized work is molded as needed to suite the neets of each place.

Charles asks what their next challenges are. Cedric shares that the biggest one is spinning out of OKFN, and becoming completely financially independent.


Categories: Blog

Live Blog: Reflections on Data Literacy, Development, and Democracy

September 23, 2016 - 3:11am

This is a liveblog of a talk at the 2016 Data Literacy Conference, hoster by Fing.  This was liveblogged by Rahul Bhargava and Catherine D'Ignazio.  These are our best attempt to record what the speak was talking about - any accuracy errors are our fault.

Data Pop Alliance is an alliance of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, MIT Media Lab, ODI, and FlowMinder.

The first thing Manu saw on his arrival to France was a newspaper cover page (from Le Point) with a story about "The Algorithms that Govern Us".  All of this is scary.  This issue of power structures and information is old - he created a political cartoon a few years ago about how "Data is the new oil". Manu wonders: could there be a data-as-resource curse in this unequal world?  The issue of data literacy is at the heart of this question. How do we turn data in an issue of social progress.

Manu shares a visualization of credit card activity, created by Sandy Pentland's group at the MIT Media Lab.  Based on this they built a set of groups tht have similar purchasing patterns and decisions. You can start to see where the fear of big brother comes from when you see things like this.  Around 2009 we started to see stories in the popular press about big data analysis, and the big data "revolution" (as the UN called for in 2015).  A year later they called for building capacity and literacy in people and their public servants.  Some have called data literacy the ability to work with huge amounts of data (Forbes).  Others have said it is about making marketing easier (Venture Beat).

But is a data literate society a society of data scientists? Does everyone need to become a data scientist?

They wrote a white paper, Beyond Data Literacy, that looked back at literacy over history for the connections between literacy, development and democracy (disclosure - Rahul is a co-author). People have a simple notion that the printing press and Enlightenment then led to more reading and writing which led to things getting better. But it's not so linear. It took 400 years between the invention of the printing press and the Industrial Revolution, for example. In the late 1800's you needed people with a very basic literacy (ability to sign your name) to help operate things - merchants, clerks, surveyors and so on. He shows a quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, that says that contrary to writing being a tool for empowerment, it actually primarily has served to reaffirm domination structures.

Is the same phenomenon happening with data literacy?  Are we just helping people learn just enough to interact with data, but not literate enough to do anything real and challenging. He references Cathy O'Neil's recent book Weapons of Math Destruction . The danger is that people won't criticize work they see.  The white paper argues for a thicker definition; a "literacy in the age of data". The point is to be able to "constructively engage with society in the age of data".

Based on this approach, the Data Pop alliance has developed a training program for a variety of countries.  These workshops focus on "context and concepts" first; why it matters and what it means to be data literate in the historical and cultural perspective. Big data isn't about just large data sets, but about a new social and cultural phenomenon.  With this context in mind, the trainings then move to "methods and tools". This is what many people mean when they talk about data literacy (such as understanding a graph, etc) but it's important to put it into a more critical context.  The third topic they work on is "decisions and stories"; using the stories to influence the ecosystems around you.  Lastly the focus on the ethics in the middle of all this, to guide all the activities.  Not a "data revolution", but a "revolution through data".

Manu argues that a literate citizenry will care about, and have control over their data.  Sandy Pentland has written about this at the World Economic Forum. He goes on to pose the question - "Can Open Algorithms foster development and democracy?" - and asserts that Open Algorithms are an exciting new development for democracy. He is writing about this is a variety of settings, wondering how this can be a force for positive disruptions.  Data Pop's OPAL is working on this idea. This is a platform that runs your code on private servers with private data, extracting high-level results.

Data Pop Alliance is working across the globe with government departments to build this literacy.  His top takeaways:

  1. Data is a valuable resource

  2. Data can entrench of disrupt existing power

  3. We This will be radical evolution through dat

  4. This requires promoting data literacy

  5. We need strong investments to help this along

Charles mentions their funding from Rockefeller, and asks how they acquired that. Manu answers that this was seed funding, they have raised beyond that from other funders since then. Their concept note, after many iterations, sparked their interest.  They might have been visionaries, or crazy, but they got behind it.

Charles asks about OPAL, and how it can be surprising that big companies like Orange are interested in this.  Manu mentions that Orange did the first large open data projects in Africa.  Many criticized this, because the main consumers and analyzers of this data were not from the Ivory Coast (and only 3 had visited ever). They are still working on how to address this, even within the companies. We hope to finalize and announce OPAL at the end of the year.

Categories: Blog

Citizen audit at the Federal University of Pará

September 22, 2016 - 1:40pm

At the start of the summer semester, accounting students in two courses at the Federal University of Pará in northern Brazil teamed up with an unusual set of partners to develop proposals for civic audits using Promise Tracker. As part of their final course project, students studying public budgeting and accounting worked with representatives of the federal Ministry of Transparency, Supervision and Control and the Social Observatory of Belém to design citizen monitoring campaigns to audit public spending in programs related to social services, health, school lunch and school transport.

Inspiration for the projects came from previous Promise Tracker campaigns implemented throughout the state of Pará with support from the Social Observatory, including the monitoring of Ver-o-Peso market last summer and the ongoing school lunch campaign in Santarém.

In preparing their civic audit proposals, accounting students researched legislation related to their selected topic, defined the objectives and target audience to contribute data, planned key milestones, and determined to whom they would present results. Groups developed monitoring campaigns to assess the condition of outdoor recreational spaces at local schools, the availability of prescription medications at state-run pharmaceutical distribution centers, and access to supplemental social services.

During the same period, students in the public budgeting course developed outreach and training materials to support new schools in adopting the "Égua da Merenda, João" campaign on school lunches. Materials porduced included short videos written and acted out by students, and animations explaining national and state legislation around school nutrition and how to use the Promise Tracker app for monitoring.

Despite the short duration of the project, the group was excited to have the opportunity to move from theory to practice, putting their knowledge to work on topics with real social impact, including the delivery of public services. As one student shared, “we see in the classroom that there is no lack of legislation around these issues. What’s missing are control mechanisms to make sure that the laws on the books are respected and money spent is actually getting to citizens. This project made me realize my potential as a facilitator to use what I know about the system to help people structure and direct their demands.” Students were enthusiastic about including the project in the curriculum for the next cohort of incoming students and hope that their proposals can be used as a foundation to help future classes expand and improve the work.

A special shout out to professor Lidiane Dias for taking the initiative to bring this tool into her classrooms and to Ivan Costa for the infinite creativity and dedication to seeking out innovative partnerships for piloting citizen monitoring campaigns. This early experience bringing together academia, public and government institutions and civil society groups has shown inspiring potential and we are looking forward to exploring how to expand the model into other departments and disciplines.

Categories: Blog

Being an Ally to Women in Tech: a personal audit

September 13, 2016 - 9:34am

The technology and innovation industry has a diversity problem. One major axis of this problem is gender. Research has shown gender-balanced workplaces create more overall job satisfaction, better customer satisfaction, healthier work/life balance, longer employee retention, and more; which all of course lead to great productivity and higher profits. Not to mention the history of computer science is driven by amazing women that we need to highlight, celebrate, and use to inspire new generations. The popular press has reported on this lack of women in tech. People around me here at the Media Lab have worked on this for a long time. If you haven't already, you just have to face it - gender diversity in tech is a serious problem.

We here are the Media Lab pride ourselves on innovating at the edge of the field, and we're now working harder to innovate our way out of this.  Our amazing Director of Diversity Monica Orta convened the “No Permission, No Apology" event on Sept 9th to "provide opportunities to develop the professional and personal skills that can help women navigate spaces not necessarily created with them in mind”.  Luckily for me, as a man, they also wanted to offer "a chance for men to better understand how to foster inclusiveness, bridge divides, and serve as effective allies.”  I was invited to attend and spent the day learning from, and with, an amazing group of women.

The whole thing left me with an obvious question…. am I really being a good ally to women in technology?  How can I even assess if I’m helping solve the problem?  An early breakout setting led by Lauren Kinsey gave me something to work with to try and answer this question. Her session on "How Men Can Effectively Help Bring Gender Balance to Tech” included some of her gender balance hacks for changing the toxic culture we’ve created for women in technology.  Was it an exhaustive list of things we should do? No, but it gave me a criteria to work with.

As a Research Scientist here at the Media Lab, a father, a manager, and a colleague to women, I took the list personally.  As a brown man I’m a minority in general, but in technology I’m certainly not.  When was the last time you heard someone arguing we need more Indian dudes in technology?

Yeah… how about never.

That’s why in my field I consider myself part of the majority. That’s why it’s important that I work on bringing more women into the field.  I’m sick of being ashamed of my field about this topic.  So, time for a self-audit.

So, how am I doing so far as an ally? For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on gender diversity.  I recognize and respect that there are other important axes of diversity (race, economic, etc) but the event that sparked this was focused on gender so my reflections are as well. Of course the women around me would be better to do this, but a little self-critical reflection could do me good, so here I go.  You might not care about my navel gazing at all (which is fine), but you should care about doing your own audit.  I do this publicly to put my feet to the fire, and to encourage others to take this issue seriously, and personally.  Below is my audit of how I'm doing as an ally.  How do you fare on your own?

Creating a Flexible Work Environment: I’m doing pretty well.

I’ve benefitted greatly from a flexible, part time work setting over the last 5 years at MIT.  I’ve worked 3 days a week, 4 days a week, and 5 days a week… causing HR many headaches along the way (thanks ML HR!).  This has afforded me a lifestyle that lets me be a more equal parent to my two young kids.  I actively speak with staff and colleagues about how MIT can be a place to carve a more healthy balance, especially if they are under my supervision.  I think I’m doing well on this one.

Gender Inclusive Language: Hard to assess.

I think I’m inclusive in the language I use at work.  I don’t think I generalize about women and men. I pass all our job postings through tools to screen for gendered language.  That said, this is a hard one to assess objectively.  The jury is out on how I’m doing on this.

Remove Identifying Information on Resumes: 0 points.

This is very specific. I have an open job posting now, but didn’t do this.  An easy way out is to blame MIT’s software tool for hiring, which provides a management portal to review and move resumes through the hiring process; but doesn’t have any built in way to remove identifying information from resumes.  The harder reality is that I didn’t even think to do this, and never have.  0 points here. I’ll have to see if I can hack the MIT automated system to try this next time I’m hiring.

Creating Safety: I can do better.

Here’s another one that I struggle with.  I certainly want to create an environment where everyone feels safe working.  I don’t think my humor is very gendered and unfriendly.  I definitely challenge students I teach when we look at gender data, but I think I do it in a constructive and provocative way, not an unsafe and hostile way.  That said, I know I've blown it before in situations where I should have stood up and forced others to acknowledge the work of women on a team; instead of letting others dismiss their contribution or just talk about how friendly or cute they were. So I’m really not fit to determine how I’m doing on this… the people around me are.  I should ask staff in annual reviews what I can do to make sure they feel safe, and ask that of students in mid-semester evaluations.  I benefit greatly from watching my boss, the amazing Ethan Zuckerman, on this and other issues; he embodies many of the “hacks” on this list.

Setting Goals: I’m doing ok.

I want staff I hire to be at least half women.  I don’t hire a lot, but I’m doing pretty well on the gender balance so far. In terms of teaching, in my spring Data Storytelling Course I have done a good job of reaching out to a diverse body of students, so I get a solid pool of talented female students from various background.  I also set goals for myself in terms of projects and readings I assign students; so that I’m including influential female voices that aren’t otherwise highlighted.  I draw a lot of inspiration from my collaborator Catherine D’Ignazio here.  She’s awesome and is always ready with pointers for me.

Be a Mentor and Sponsor:  I could do more.

I’m not doing very much in terms of mentoring or sponsoring women around me in technology.  Actually, I think I’m doing well on sponsoring, but not on mentoring.  I refer speaking or facilitation opportunities that come my way to better-qualified women around me, instead of accepting them all myself.  I ask any event I’m speaking at about their gender balance of speakers and attendees, and recommend strong female speakers if I find it lacking. For mentoring I have a lot of work to do.  I teach first year Media Lab Master’s students each year soon after they have arrived.  I could probably do a better job offering myself up as a mentor to any of them that feel a connection to my path, approach, or work.  There aren't many formal structures around me for mentoring, so I haven't pushed myself to think about my role more.

Develop Greater Emotional Intelligence: I can improve.

I’m new to this term so I’m not sure what it encompasses, but it sounds intimidatingly large.  I’ll assess myself on the 4 points Lauren describes:

  • I’m pretty self-aware… I know it, and share it. For example when I’m cranky all day because I woke up early with my toddler, everyone around me is alerted.

  • I'm not sure what self-regulating means.  I'm unregulated when I get excited about something, and that can be disruptive to larger processes because I'll interrupt people and things with my excitement.  Is that what it means?

  • I’m internally motivated to do the work I do, because I care about the position and the opportunity for impact.  It’s hard to measure how empathetic I am, but having children has certainly made me way better at this!  PBS’s Daniel Tiger show has a great approach on this, if you’re interested.

  • I have pretty good social skills, certainly better than most programmers I meet.  I attribute this to my father’s outgoing nature; watching him at a cocktail party is a sight to see!

Does all that add up to a high degree of emotional intelligence?  I don’t know about this enough to tell, so I guess I can just try to be more attentive to these dimensions and see what happens.

Having written that, it feels pretty good to reflect on this in a focused way.  If you made it down to here perhaps this is helpful or provocative to you. If you scrolled past all the above, the TL;DR is that I’m doing well on some things, but came up with some concrete actions I could try to be a better ally to women in technology.  I hope you have a similar list, because this is a problem the whole field needs to be working on.

My questions for you?

  1. What am I missing on the list of behaviours and actions I should be auditing?

  2. Female and male colleagues of mine: have I audited myself appropriately?

  3. When will you write up and post your own audit?

Expect to see another one of these from me next fall.  Hopefully, my marks will be higher, and the list of audit criteria will be longer and more fleshed out.

Thanks to Ethan Zuckerman, Erhardt Graeff, Emily Bhargava, and Catherine D'Ignazio for giving me valuable feedback on drafts of this audit.

Categories: Blog

The Activism of Anna Deavere Smith's Notes from the Field

September 12, 2016 - 7:06pm

By Ethan Zuckerman and Erhardt Graeff

One of the best tricks educators can use is the technique of pulling students out of the classroom to encounter the issues we're studying in the "real world." So it's a gift when an artist of the calibre of Anna Deavere Smith opens a new work in Cambridge just as the semester is starting. And given that our lab, the Center for Civic Media, studies how making and disseminating media can lead to civic and social change through movements like Black Lives Matter, a three-hour performance about the school-to-prison pipeline is an unprecedented pedagogical gift. A dozen of us made our way to the American Repertory Theatre at the end of August for a performance we'll likely discuss for the rest of the academic year.

Deavere Smith's work is often referred to as "documentary theatre," and Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education follows a model she's rightly been celebrated for. Portraying individuals she's interviewed while researching a controversial topic, she recreates their physical tics and speech patterns on stage, telling their stories—and the work's larger narrative—through their original words.

Part of what makes this work is Deavere Smith's ungodly skill at mimicry. As it happened, the first character she portrayed during Notes From The Field is a friend of Ethan's—Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund—and when he closed his eyes, the rhythm of her speech was so similar to Sherrilyn's voice, he thought it must be a recording. In the next scene, as Deavere Smith donned orange waders to become a 6'4" 300-pound Native American fisherman, we were all willing to suspend any disbelief.

More important, Deavere Smith has chosen a story that's best told from numerous points of view. The phrase "school to prison pipeline" was coined as early as 1998 to explain how zero-tolerance school discipline policies were leading students of color to be suspended at much higher rates than white students, and that school suspensions correlated to arrests later in life. But even the connection between police officers in schools and racial disparities in the US prison population only scratches the surface of these complex issues. Deavere Smith's characters talk about urban poverty, absent parents, police brutality, drug abuse, the effects of trauma on children, the legacy of segregation, and the significance of the Confederate Flag. These are intimate, authentic portraits. Playing an emotional support teacher from Philadelphia, Deavere Smith relates stories of kids with bizarre behavioral issues bearing a strong resemblance to those shared by Erhardt's mother over many decades teaching the same demographic. Sadly, many of her former students are now in prison.

Facing a challenge as complicated as "Why is American society failing so many Americans of color?" it's hard to know where to start. In a sense, Notes From The Field starts everywhere: the Yurok Indian Reservation, the schools of Stockton, CA, the streets of Baltimore, the Capitol Building in Columbia, South Carolina. Anyone who's worked on school to prison pipeline issues knows it's hard to know where to start. "First, reform American education. And the prison system. And an economy that provides few opportunities for low-skilled workers. And end racism." But Deavere Smith isn't content with just providing a nuanced and moving picture of an impossible set of problems—she wants to fix them. More to the point, she wants us to be engaged in fixing them. To scaffold this, the play invites us into an implicit arc of witnessing, civic reflection, and taking action.


One of Deavere Smith's characters is Kevin Moore, who recorded video of Freddie Gray's arrest and transfer into the police van. In the interview she recreates, Moore explains that he was detained by Baltimore police after releasing his video, but that he was grateful for help from Copwatch, an organization that trains citizens to observe and record law enforcement actions, especially for buying him multiple cameras. Deavere Smith clearly believes our power to witness and to share what we see can help change the equation around police abuse of power as cameras and the power of sousveillance run as a theme through the performance.

But the videos she cites show how complicated that equation is. In the video Moore shot, we hear him reassuring Gray that everything will be okay, because he's getting the arrest on tape. But Deavere Smith ends the scene by showing us the photos of the six officers who were acquitted of wrongdoing, or had charges dropped, in the killing of Freddie Gray. Video shot by Feidín Santana led to officer Michael Slager's indictment for murdering Walter Scott, but video of Eric Garner's death at the hands of Staten Island police led to no officers being indicted, but to the arrest of Ramsey Orta, who shot the video.

Video leaves us not with justice, but with an indelible image. The image likely to stay in our minds is that of a black high school student being thrown to the ground by Ben Fields, a white police officer (and school football coach) who drags her out of a classroom. Deveare Smith uses the footage as the backdrop of an interview in which the young woman who shot the video of her classmate explains how she was arrested and held in an adult jail for taking the footage. The ubiquity of citizen video creates a steady stream of unflinching videos that demand we don't turn away, and Deavere Smith's work holds our head steady and eyelids open.

The play itself functions as a radically deep form of witnessing. It concentrates the affective experience of witnessing for its audience by taking stories and videos and presenting them with careful curation and delivery. Deavere Smith's acting threads together the individual elements in the school to prison pipeline and the current events that exemplify their problems. Breaking through what otherwise might be perceived as a collage of statistics and headlines associated with Black Lives Matter, she re-humanizes the people at the heart of these stories and invites us to walk in their shoes. The hope is that this will touch the audience in a way that an isolated video, protest march, or social media campaign cannot.

Civic Reflection

After a riveting 80 minutes of vignettes in different voices, Act Two of the show asks the audience to break into 15 person groups and to reflect on the issues raised and what we, as individuals, could do to address them. While it may be radical to insert a group discussion into a performance, sitting in a room full of well-meaning, progressive Cantabrigians who care deeply about making change but have no idea what to do is an awfully familiar experience for many of us at the Center for Civic Media, and likely for most of the audience.

Rather than prescribing solutions, we are asked to reflect on something larger than ourselves—an effect that is often the mark of a good work of art. This may be the show's core purpose: civic reflection. We know this kind of reflexivity and analysis is a potent civic skill. There is also a movement-building "public narrative" invoked: a story of self, of us, and of now [pdf]. For those privileged enough to attend the play, we witness those directly affected by the issue and then Act Two's facilitators ask us step into the Deavere Smith's shoes as interviewer. We project our own perspectives and hear those of the others in our group. And we try to deepen our appreciation of the issue in a way that will cement its effect on us beyond the theater and give us a sense of urgency.

Taking Action

In a vignette late in Act One, a schoolteacher explains that she cannot solve the problems of the whole education system, so she works to save one child. Deveare Smith calls on us to repeat this phrase: "save one child."

That's a tough call to action. We are educators, but the students we work with aren't ones in need of saving—do we answer the call by teaching at a community college? An under-resourced high school? Given the early start to the pipeline, do we teach kindergarten or preschool? Ethan's sister is foster mother to a child born to a drug-addicted mother—he has a sense for the incredible sacrifice that can be required to save a child. Erhardt's sister teaches theatre to urban youth hoping to provide the same outlet for truth Deavere Smith's work does—but opportunities for such work are few and often poorly supported. How much must we do? How much can we do?

It will take revolutions in thought and policy to address the issues at the core of the school to prison pipeline. Vignettes like the schoolteacher scale the overwhelming task down to what others are doing to make a difference in their small corner of society. Bravely recording violent assaults by authority figures and not giving up on kids that need mentors the most are modeled behaviors that we might strive to emulate. There is not a clear "ask" embedded in the piece,* but it is a starting point that angers the audience and forces us to ask hard questions—a mighty accomplishment.

The play ends with Deavere Smith as Representative John Lewis. His story as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement is powerful and offers a vision of reconciliation with our racist past. He is also a symbol of our representative democracy. We elect people with the hope that they will fix these types of problems. The call to action implies we are all stakeholders—the radical and the procedural—that it will take all of society and we can't give up on any institution or any person—like the teachers in the piece refuse to do.


*An Educational Toolkit [pdf] and a guide to local resources are available on the ART's website to help folks "get involved."

school-to-prison pipelinemonitorial citizenshipblacklivesmattercivic artactivismCivic mediamobile devicesvideo
Categories: Blog

No Permission, No Apology: Designing For the Other Panel

September 9, 2016 - 12:23pm

This is a liveblog of a panel discussion about "Designing for the Other" with Catherine D'Ignazio, Yvonne Lin, Ridhi Tariyal, Kristy Tillman, and Zenzile Moore. The No Permission, No Apology conference will provide opportunities to develop the professional and personal skills that can help women navigate spaces not necessarily created with them in mind. This will also be a chance for men to better understand how to foster inclusiveness, bridge divides, and serve as effective allies. (Liveblog by Erhardt Graeff and Rahul Bhargava)


Zenzile introduces the amazing panel of women working in technology and design. She encourages us to engage with them, because they have experience in a wide range of fields—consulting, advocacy, design, and play.

Catherine D'Ignazio

Designing for Other

Catherine begins with a story related to the title of the panel - designing for "other." She has a friend working on the Smithsonian archive database.  Her friend searched for the term "black".  The results of the search were objects related to black culture.  When he searched for "white" none of the search results were related to white culture.  She asks us why?  Audience offers responses like "hegemony," which just means that white is imagined as the default. It doesn't need to be labeled, it's assumed, it's implicit. Black is the other; it deviates from that norm. The same goes for men vs. women, rich vs. low-income, straight versus homosexual/trans/etc. These are all "default" vs. "other" comparisons.

When designers don't specify an audience, they might think they are designing for everyone but in fact they are designing for the default. When you combine all the defaults, those who embody those default characterizations they are not the majority of the population. Most of us are other in multiple dimensions. It's not just okay to be specific about who you are designing but it makes for better design.

Make the Breastpump Not Suck Hackathon

Catherine continues with another story about the Media Lab's attempt to do this type of inclusive design. She had a baby during that timespan, and is happy to discuss how that went. Her daughter became a Media Lab baby. She brought her to meetings and to class. As she got older, she got harder to bring around, and louder. And she continues to be loud. So she hired a babysitter to take of her while she was at work. Then Catherine faced a problem—she wanted to continue breastfeeding, and still make money. Options in the US to support this aren't great. MIT has daycare centers, but for grad students this isn't really an option because it costs more than you earn.  Another solution is to use the breastpump.

She would sit in closets and on bathroom floors pumping. And it literally sucks. You put hard plastic attachments on your breasts and the motor makes a loud, embarrassing noise. People think about breast milk as gross. She ended up collaborating with Alexis Hope to try and do something about this. Joining with a number of other students and research affiliates they staged the first ever hackathon about breastpumping. 150 people from diverse background came together to try to make it not suck. It went viral, with popular press write-ups everywhere. It included a call to pitch your ideas about the breastpump—they received over 1000 suggestions about the system, not just the technology.

Some of the Breastpump Hackathon outcomes:

  • It pushed the conversation about mother-centered technology into the public.

  • Normalized topic of breastpumping and breastfeeding as an object of design and innovation.

  • Two of the teams merged and are winning prizes to develop their products.

  • They've written and published research papers about this.

  • They're planning the v2 hackathon for a year from now; including tracks for Policy hacking, research hacking, as well as hacking the technology

This panel is asking us to depart from the "design for default" thinking.  We must get specific on who we design for and what they want.

Yvonne Lin

Yvonne is an engineer and designer. She has worked as a design engineer, a design strategist, and at Smart Design. She co-founded Femme Den. She also founded a startup called WonderNik that is about creating toys that appeal to both boys and girls.

About 9 years ago, she was on a statistically improbable design team of all women. They noticed that they had different priorities and structures differently. They asked very different questions. And then when they thought about the audience of their design that the majority of the market were like them: women.

Nike hired this team to design watches for women. And there is nothing pinker or sparklier than an object designed for women by men. Surprise: people hated version one, and so they got hired. When designing for women, people tend to go for the "shrink it and pink it" strategy. But most products are used by men and women. However, the industry is so male-dominant that things are invisibly designed for men. Yvonne talks about cars as an example: airbags are terrible for people who sit closer to steering wheels…. like women.

You have to look at how women look at the world to design products. Yvonne argues that women look at all the dimensions of the product, from packaging, to marketing, to features, and more.  She sees women having more diverse portfolios that reflect this, and companies don't know how to handle this.  They can't figure out where to put someone with that diverse set of skills.

The first step of any product design process is about understanding the consumer. People often use focus groups with a big ass observation window. Men are comfortable in such a setting, but women tend to self-censor. We need but research methods that recognize this issue.

She refers to the design question of real life benefits vs. single-case performance. For instance, wearables are hot. But you will see that engineers focus on how to get these 200 data points right, when in reality no one wants that data.

At this point she acknowledged her age, and realized the wanted to have a kid and do work she was proud of. This was the genesis of 4B Collective. With this in mind Yvonne decided to work on the world of toys.  Tech and crafts shouldn't be separate.  With WonderNik she wants to bridge this gap to appeal to everyone.

Kristy Tillman

Kristy worked at MICA, teaching students in a variety of settings, and realized that design education is sorely lacking.  She helps them think about who they are, so they can understand their context vs. someone else. Her students create things to increase the social good, but they weren't going out and talking to their audience.

For instance, one guy wanted to address homelessness and so he would create a game. His idea was gamify homelessness. That idea has some merit but is also extremely problematic in a predominantly black, urban context like Baltimore where MICA is based.

She wants designers who can work with those other than themselves and practice participatory design. The majority of designers are white and often don't think about who they are and their context. I work on how they can identify with others.

The Society of Grownups is working to democratize financial literacy.  Their team is diverse, as are their clients. This has huge business implications, often we talk about social implication, but this is important too. Minorities have the most money when you look at it in aggregate. So when Google creates software and Blacks are not considered in the designs. Thus, Kristy looks at how we create diverse teams and address bias in design. It's super important that we ask these questions.

Ridhi Tariyal

Next Gen Jane is a women's health company. They have created a smart tampon. If you think destigmatizing breast pumping is hard, try menstruation.  Menstruation is having a moment in design, which is a good thing. There are no electronics or chemicals. It's a natural cotton tampon that can be evaluated after it is taken out of the body to detect abnormalities.

You might be too young, but when I was young pads were designed by men and didn't fit the contours of your body or fit your underwear and you had to cut them to fit. The NYT article revealed that most of these items were designed by men who would sit in rooms and hypothesize how they would work for women.

They pitched this to educated professionals and found a stunning lack of awareness of how women use products during menstruation. You can't have design in the hands of people that have no first hand experience. Most of the consumers are others. But most of the investors are rich, straight, white dudes. So that is who we had to pitch to. And this becomes a challenge, since pitching is about empathy. How do you convince them to identify with something they have no experience with? This is a key barrier to innovation.

Ridhi recently went through a similar process to Yvonne; wanting both a family and a career. She tried to talk to providers about if she could have a child and for how long. She had doctors tell them to try, which is not a reasonable response when you are looking for answers. So she looked into the science and found a test that was only available at the discretion of doctors—you can't get it yourself over the counter.  This was the genesis of their company, that women should be able to track their naturally waning fertility when they want to without any gatekeeper.  She was solving a problem that was personal and important to her.

Give yourself design constraints. The marker they wanted to track is in your blood. They didn't want to add impediments that would require that women go to the lab for blood work. So design goal: allow women to do this in the privacy of their homes, and make it convenient. The constraints led them to the epiphany that they could use menstrual blood, which is something women have to do every month anyway. Ridhi argues for embracing these constraints, because they can suggest your solution.

She was in the position as a researcher at Harvard where she was counseling young women to freeze their eggs. She talked to them about sexually transmitted infections, which led to an easier conversation about their health than talking about having babies (which they actively don't want at that age).

A tampon is a tool to check the state of the vaginal cavity, and so this was an opportunity to expand the opportunity for this technology and form factor to women not ready to talk about having a child but might be concerned about screening for STDs.

Questions and Answer

Design Environment

Zenzile wants to unpack the "design environment" that each of the speakers has touched on. How can we create a design environment that encourages designers to think actively about their audiences?

Catherine suggests we need better ways of listening.  What are the ways we use right not to listen?  Are these the right methods?  Is convening a focus group with remote surveillance the right approach?

Yvonne responds: there is a lot of simple things you can do. Don't sit across from interviewees. Sit kitty-corner. Or allow them to bring friends to feel more comfortable. One thing is the truth, but how do you get your customer to trust the truth and believe that it matters.  You need to bring the client to the research sessions so they see it happen.

Kristy thinks we need to broaden the terminology we have for designers.  We need to help bring people that are the audience/customer into the process. When she worked at IDEO, they did a lot of home visits. They would really bring the folks they were working for into the process in a deep and meaningful way.

She was a mentor for Boston Youth Design that placed youth in internships around the city. Exposing young people as well as their parents to this profession and help them understand how they become designers. A lot of design programs are housed in art schools and they that is a turnoff for families.

Ridhi notes that language is naturally limiting. When you think about a tampon, it's about absorbing menstrual fluid. But for menopausal women, they may not see it useful since they are past their periods. The tampon is also a cotton swab that might be useful for collect cervical fluid to detect cancer indicators.

Nature of Good Design

Question: How do you make the judgment about design when so much of what we are socialized to think of as good is based on white, male design?

Yvonne has thought about this for years. Designers have strong biases already about good design is. The average person is looking for something different.  Designers think this is the difference between good and bad taste.  They're wrong.  The layperson is seeing something else, excitement, energy, etc.  

What you have to understand as a designer is that these things are not mutually exclusive. The Mini Cooper car is a good example where men and women will each think that it was designed for them: an oversized engine stunt car for men, and cute vehicle for women.

Catherine suggests thinking about holding up other examples, ones that don't follow the dominant version of software design. She and a colleague are looking into this question with regard to data visualization. They  are asking what feminist data visualization look like? This is because there is a dominant aesthetic in data visualization, a lot of it informed by Edward Tufte who originally historicized the topic. Her colleague found this example of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody who would carry around a quilt-like data visualization to explain complicated issues in educational settings where she traveled. Why is she not mentioned in this histories? If we can tell these stories then we might have a better chance of recognizing alternative best practices.

Kristy talks about her love of Black Twitter. There are so many features she wishes that Twitter had that are culturally specific to her. If you want to judge what is really good design, you should ask your audience for their list of what they want. People have opinions about in what ways designs don't work for them. This is a better description good and bad.

Ridhi mentions the idea that a product is good if the people who you designed it for do in fact want it. They ran into this question with everything, including their website color pallette choice. The first person didn't like it as she was a traditional ballet dancer from NYC who dressed in all black. But this as an N of 1. When did the rest of the study, they found that women did like it—it's important to do the research and check the full sample.

Bias in Analysis

Question: How do you avoid bias in data analysis, which can include sweeping generalizations that are simplistic?

Yvonne notes that there is a different between design research and marketing research. And they were useful for different things. Most marketing research are surveys that define which answers you can choose among. This is analyzing what already exists.

"If you want real change, you have to do design research."

It's like they are trying to solve Windows 10's problems by noting women don't like it. When it's probably a tool problem.

When she starts the design process, she often has a drink and bitch session. And she will segment people by gender—allowing people to vent about the issues that are important to them.

(better no names since privacy issues)

Increasing Money for Innovation in Diverse Spaces

Question: She had a start up looking at analysis of hair samples and they encountered the problem mentioned earlier regarding deal flow. What recommendations do you have for increasing deal flow to projects from diverse creators?

Ridhi tried making them empathetic by appealing to their daughters. They tried pitched on Chlamydia and Gonorrhea.  This didn't go over well the folks they pitched.

The key is increasing the N of the people you pitch to. You are looking for the converted investors. They will see the market opportunity and not have the bias. They are out there. You need to pitch possibly to a hundred investors to find them.

With the Breastpump hackathon in mind Catherine mentions the need for a "systems entrepreneurship approach." They're trying to move the needle on the investor side of things. This is a known problem with a lot of innovations, but they aren't getting the investments they need because of the issues mentioned.  They are conveneing investors, media coverage, etc. These are systems-level approaches; how to we map the space and insert ourselves into it.

Yvonne says she doesn't do the feel-good story or the women's empowerment story. She uses the "do you like money?" story. And that seems to work. For instance, research shows that women make a huge percentage of decisions around car and home-related purchasing. She looks at products that are bought by both men and women and include design features appealing to both. Her products have gotten a lot of money because they are based on these principles.

What's the Human Story About Kids and all?

Question: What is the follow-up about having babies and age and innovation?  What are you doing about that?  How should we think about this?

Yvonne started WonderNik for herself and her young family. She was upset about the cultured generinding in the presents she was receiving. Having a collective has helped; she couldn't possible do it by herself.

Ridhi says she doesn't have a kid. She did enroll in an experimental clinical trial that showed that she could still have a kid. Three years later, after feeling good to go pedal to the metal on her startup, she is enrolled in the next trial to keep checking on this and looking to see if she might change her mind about the decision.

Catherine speaks as someone with a number of children, and says it is possible. She noticed that being a student in grad school with kids made her more efficient and a better project manager than other students around her.  You don't have to infinitely delay career decisions, just some house cleaning.

Designing for a diversity within a sub-population?

Question: Can you talk about the diversity about these generalized groups? How do you account for the diversity among women?

Yvonne responds that you have to conscientiously choose to design for people that are not yourself (the easiest person to design for). You also want to be very specific about who the prototypical users are. Make them real people. If you can design for six women who are fundamentally different than you, then have a great design and can probably work for the other 4 billion.

Catherine talks about finding the right data points to subdivide on. The data analysis of the ideas they got for the breastpump hackathon broke into clear sub groups; the working mom use-case is very different from the pumping for premature baby use case, which is very different from the exclusive pumping use case.

Abstracting your bias from a design process

Question: Kristy talked about deconstructing your bias. How do you do that? How do you minimize your bias while being honest about who you are with your client?

Kristy talks about the level of consciousness you have, and asking yourself what bias you have built in.  In a classroom space this is about doing exercises and sharing.  You gotta really try to understand the population you are designing for.

If you are white male working with a population of black females, what are the things that are going to trip you up. What are the obvious biases? Keep interrogating this and interrogating your results.

In her experience working with clients, she is rarely the person being designed for. It's most important to be conscious of the bias you are bringing. She offers an example of a case where being a person of color on a team does offer insights to a team: a medical patch that should be in multiple skin tones especially because the issue predominantly affects people of color.

What inspires you?

Ridhi says she runs Boston Tea Parties (actually with wine and food) since they started in Boston. They travel around and invite women to come and ask them about questions about their bodies that they want to ask. They share stories about engaging with health system, which are profoundly inspiring to her work.

Kristy says conversations like this are really important. This is a pretty diverse crowd and I'm particularly interested in people of color because I'm Black. She is hoping that people of color create more and more of the products for people of color. She gets excited to talk to the people who could be makers and designers for their community.

Yvonne loves the moment when you realize that the designer of a produce really gets you, and designed with you in mind.  In all the industries she has worked, she wants to give that moment to people that are used to being ignored.

Catherine suggests that it's really about the stories she hears. For instance, when they did the hackathon they received notes about various personal issues. This told them that they needed to keep going because women were women are internalizing what are essentially public problems.

Women were blaming themselves for a career failing or inability to pump. They decided to keep this going and understand how to take the voices and keep returning them. There has not been a lot of design research done that prioritizes women's voices and experiences. It's not just about how much milk gets in the child's mouth. It's about nurturing and the full experience of breastpumping.


Civic media
Categories: Blog

No Permission, No Apology Opening Keynote by Megan Smith

September 9, 2016 - 8:22am

This is a liveblog of a talk by Megan Smith, US CTO and MIT Corporation Member. The No Permission, No Apology conference will provide opportunities to develop the professional and personal skills that can help women navigate spaces not necessarily created with them in mind. This will also be a chance for men to better understand how to foster inclusiveness, bridge divides, and serve as effective allies. (Liveblog by Erhardt Graeff and Rahul Bhargava)


How do we make sure everyone on the planet is fully included in solving the hardest challenges in the world?

We never see black technical women in movies like we do in the upcoming Hidden Figures—the new film featuring black women engineers on the moon mission. It's untrue and it's debilitating.  We never see people like Margaret Hamilton, who coined the term software engineering and led the source code development for the lunar lander. We wouldn't have landed on the moon if she had not architected the software in a way that we address memory issues.

We had female astronauts who went through the training with the male astronauts, but were never allowed to fly. We never made spacesuits for them. But they passed all the tests and in some cases better than the men. "Stereotype Threat" is a danger that leads us to question whether women are able to do the task. People never think that about men. 


Style Compliance, Trust and Solving (Humanities Greatest) Challenges

What can we do to stop complying to styles? Compliance is incredibly debilitating. Can we support each other in style noncompliance?

"I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception," Chuck Vest, MIT President in 1998, wrote in a much-cited preface to the MIT report on gender equity, "but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance." MIT did extensive research on this and was able to start addressing it because they had measured it.

Do you think a woman would have designed the tenure system to evaluate you when you are in the middle of raising little kids? Who designed this?

When we rebuilt the Pacific Fleet, we built 35 daycare centers in a couple of months so that we could have women fully involved in that national project. We can do it.

Analysis of women dialogue in films shows how little they speak on the screen. Even films like Frozen had 54% male language, though it was heralded as a feminist landmark.  

There is also the Bechdel test, which looks to see if works of fiction feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man

Ida B. Wales is one of the most significant data scientists this country has ever scene. Her work led to massive change on something that was wrong. Deeply affected by the lynchings, she collected data and showed the pattern of discrimination in lynching. Another example: Josephine Cochrane was only ever celebrated on a Romanian stamp. She invented the dishwasher and her company went on to be part of Kitchenaid.

The Declaration of Sentiments, from 1848 at the Seneca Falls congress, was a document that set out a statement of American women's rights. These were about access to political process, law, and more. They had no rights, and this was the "best of America" because it was signed by men and women. We launched a treasure hunt for this, with the US archivist.

Alice Paul was the Thurgood Marshall of women's rights. She organized the Women's Suffrage Parade of 1913. On the back of the new US 10 dollar bill there are the steps of the Treasury, and the new designs will feature a march of suffragists. Most people don't realize that 2000 women protested the White House during the first event. 500 women went to jail for suffrage and wore this "Jail Door Pin". Alice Paul designed the pin (Megan presents a pin to Monica Orta for organizing this event).

We need to know these stories, because they change how we think.

Beryl Nelson's work is the root of a lot of the bias work we have now, and she wrote about The Data on Diversity. She argues this isn't "charity" work, it is an opportunity and necessary to have the best innovation. This is related to the Sustainable Development Goals, which focus on things from gender equality to global Climate Change. The UN put out a call for solutions to these problems on the web, which invited folks to suggest solutions to work on these problems from across the world. This included ideas like teaching Ghanaian prisoners being educated to fight for their own rights because they don't have lawyers. Other folks using drones to do massive reforestation. Others building fab labs in more remote places (like a floating one in the Amazon river) to encourage hands on learning approaches with new tools and technologies.



There are kids making games, through introductory programs like Black Girls Code. They work on things like domestic violence too… an app that listens for unexpected noise and asks you if things are ok. How do we stop being "style compliant" so things are encouraged to make more than just games. This is about empowering them.  How do we make class more fun like art class and music class?

Larger programs like the National Day of Civic Hacking bring together people to work on these types of solutions.  People in the places know how to solve these problems. What would Ida B. Wells do with what is going on in the country? We have folks in Boston working on this question with data and justice.

Justine Cassel's team Articulab at CMU is awesome. They are working on social AI, to help kids in school with their work.  Media keeps telling us AI is about certain things, which are all things we want, but we need to be less "style compliant".

Megan was at a wedding last week with Malala, who said to her why don't the tech people work with the nonprofit people—that doesn't make sense.

"Our biggest problem with tech and innovation is that we think certain people do it and certain people don't." This is a culture problem. We have to merge these groups together and be confident in their creativity and about what they want to solve.

There are meetups all over the world we can tap into. 12,000 women meet at the Grace Hopper conference; how can we pull them in? President Obama is working hard on Active STEM.

Hispanic women are the largest growing founder group in our country.  How do we make sure they get access to seed money and capital? I know female alum of the Media Lab who have gone for funding and VCs ask to sleep with them.

National #WeekAtTheLabs is another initiative to bring young people into the national laboratories. The Secretary of Energy talks about getting to visit Bell Labs, and how inspirational that is.  How do we provide that for kids now?

The federal government is also trying to make its websites more interactive, showing data and telling stories about issues like the extractive industries. This includes making data open and available to use. Open Government Partnership is working across the world to try to work on these problems.

The Chief Science Officers of Arizona - an elected body of kids.  Kids trying to advocate for teens to get interested in things like math and science.


Untold Stories

You start with history, like the preview for Hidden Figures we saw earlier. Surfacing the truth is the most important. "Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven't been a part of history," said Gloria Steinem. Megan is researching Alexander Hamilton's mother and understanding how she was not a whore but a huge influence on his resiliency.

MIT has had a great history of inclusion.  The first black graduate later said we could have no inclusion in STEM until women were equal.  Alexander Graham Bell came to open lectures here.

Women were the first digital programmers in America, working on ENIAC and other machines.  Grace Hopper invented coding languages.

In more modern history, the Apple Mac was developed by more like 40% women than the one that was portrayed in a recent film. Susan Kare was the leader of design, while Bill Atkinson was in charge of the back-end. What a huge influence on what we used!

Even Media Lab projects like those around Wearable Computing have obscured the role of women and people of color in key projects. Rosalind Picard was part of these efforts, which Megan never realized before (and Roz isn't mentioned on the Wikipedia page). We need to work together to tell these stories.



Arlene Ducao asks: Can you talk about your own journey?

My parents were involved.  They were civically engaged.  Growing up in Buffalo I had amazing teachers.  We had a mandatory science fair.  You have to try this stuff and do it, otherwise you believe the messaging around you and think it is for other people.  I was inspired by Carter's green energy and did science projects about that. When Reagan came in a lot of funding went away for clean energy, and many folks moved into other fields.  I came to the Media Lab and made a bunch of the folks in this room.  Went to Tokyo and learned a ton from being there

Question: We want to start in learning to solve problems early. These interventions focus on job market.  How can we leverage this for jobs that don't exist.?

There are two parts to their questions: often people focus on kids rather than grownups who could join in. Older folks need to keep learning too. A large number of the new jobs that exist, we couldn't predict their existence, e.g. the sharing economy. On the National Security teams, we see that the people are the greatest asset our country has. So we are asking, How do we diversify all of our teams nationally and globally? Part of is ensuring that we are considering women in top jobs. There are also tools and research that help us understand the scope of the problem and keeping track of that data. A lot of the problem is related to style compliance. It's about the expectations and priorities demonstrated by the leaders. At IBM, the chief when she was there asked people to work with different demographic stakeholder groups and then the reporters looked for how they can increase inclusion, and things changed there. And this has spread to other tech companies since given IBM's success.

Question: You described a number of projects.  Have you seen a lot of resistance to getting women of color into these?

Most people would like to see great things happen, but they don't prioritize it. This is always the side budget and extra job. There is a misunderstanding that is slowly starting to change at the c-suite level that this needs to change. Certainly we are seeing this in the national security teams—understanding what good things can happen when we are more inclusive on behalf of the country. It's really hard to go get the tools, get the training, and acknowledging when you are causing style compliance. We are also changing the language that we use. Megan shows a children's book, "Founding Mothers." Secretary Carter is changing language such that we stop using terms like "firemen."

Star Trek shows us even in its own slightly problematic ways that we all have a role on the deck, helping with this amazing, peaceful, exploratory mission. Similarly, now we all need to work together to fulfill the Declaration of Sentiments.

inclusion gender stem women
Categories: Blog

High Impact Questions And Opportunities for Online Harassment Research and Action

September 7, 2016 - 1:59pm

Online harassment has been an enduring and evolving social concern for over 40 years, yet many of the most urgent empirical questions for public well-being and freedom remain unexplored. Nor can our answers currently evolve at the pace of socio-technical change.

On August 17th and 18th, we worked with Jigsaw to convene 35 researchers, advocates, and platform representatives to identify and advance high impact research about online harassment. Together, we have just finished a public report on our conversation:

[pdf] High Impact Questions And Opportunities for Online Harassment Research and Action

How should you use this report? We created this document to share what we learned and to draw attention to research projects led by our workshop participants. If you see a question or a project that you're interested in, we encourage you to contact the people listed with the project. Here's an overview of the contents:

Key Questions For Progress on Online Harassment
The workshop opened with a morning discussion of key questions essential for achieving impact on online harassment. While our discussion focused on needs, we acknowledge that many hundreds of valuable resources have been published by advocates and researchers. Our statement of questions, which is not definitive, builds on their great work.

  • What are the personal and social costs of online harassment?
  • What methods can be used to study online harassment?
  • Why do people participate in online harassment?
  • How can we prevent and respond to online harassment?
  • How can we improve definitions of online harassment and responses to it?

Infrastructures To Support Research
Online harassment is widespread and occurs in a wide range of cultures. The scope and scale of harassment (and the continuing evolution of platforms and harassment strategies) outpace the ongoing research in this area. We discussed infrastructures that could help knowledge evolve at the scale of the problem.

  • An archive of online harassment reports
  • A taxonomy of harms from online harassment
  • Detecting personal attacks with machine learning
  • Infrastructures for experiments in moderation and platform design

High Impact Research Projects
One main goal of our workshop was to support participants to make progress on high impact research projects related to online harassment. Participants brought their questions and ideas, and we worked to offer support, help them refine the ideas, and discuss next steps. Of the 18 projects that attendees brought, here are four that we are able to share publicly.

  • Estimating the chilling effects from online harassment
  • Testing the outcomes of peer interventions against harassment
  • Investigating what motivates online harassing behaviors
  • Predicting who is most likely to non-consensually share intimate photos online

    A Note on Research Ethics
    Throughout the workshop, ethics came up in discussions of our specific research projects. Our report does not offer any recommendations or guidelines. At the same time, we all agreed that careful attention to ethics is especially important in research on online harassment. Some participants suggest the Association of Internet Researchers guideline: (2012) Ethical decision-making and Internet research 2.0: Recommendations from the AoIR ethics working committee.

  • Downloads:  OnlineHarassmentWorkshopReport-08.2016.pdfonline harassmentsocial networkstechnology solutions
    Categories: Blog

    A new pilot phase for Promise Tracker in Brazil

    August 29, 2016 - 10:02am

    We are excited to share that over the summer we teamed up with Humanitas360 and the University of São Paulo’s CoLab for Development and Participation (CoLab) to launch a second pilot phase of Promise Tracker in Brazil. Throughout the remainder of 2016 we'll be working with a range of civil society partners to develop case studies on the use of Promise Tracker in different cities and explore new methodologies for assessing impact.

    Over the past year and a half, we had the opportunity to work with Nossa São Paulo and organizations across the country that make up the Brazilian Network of Sustainable cities to develop and test first version of the Promise Tracker tools. In a series of workshops, we collaborated with local groups to gather feedback and pilot monitoring campaigns around the infrastructure and service issues they considered most pressing.

    As Promise Tracker is adopted and used beyond these initial workshops, we are interested in better understanding whether the tool is useful to local groups and the extent to which it helps them achieve their goals. We’ll be working closely with CoLab to document ongoing monitoring initiatives and develop a participatory framework for supporting organizing groups in assessing their own objectives, learnings and progress.

    CoLab comes to the project with a background in research and development of technology tools to promote open knowledge, access to information, transparency and participation. In recent years they have developed projects including Caring for My Neighborhood (Cuidando do Meu Bairro) -- a platform for mapping and monitoring of city budgets -- and the Open Official Gazette (Diário Livre), which provides digital access to public sector information in open and accessible formats. Building on these experiences, CoLab is excited to explore ways to increase knowledge transfer amongst participants and develop a better understanding of how civil society organizations and grassroots movements can make use of civic tech platforms.

    Through this process we’re excited to bring together researchers, social organizers, funders and developers and to learn from the experience and strategy of civil society groups and think critically about how we design and implement new technologies for social change. Check out the initial work monitoring school lunches in Pará and we’ll be posting ongoing updates on the Promise Tracker site.

    Categories: Blog

    Forbidden Research liveblog: Disobedience: breaking the rules for social good

    July 21, 2016 - 2:46pm

    Many ideas and norms once considered unthinkable, like test tube babies and gay marriage, have now become everyday norms. It’s impossible to imagine life without them. For society to evolve, however, we must always be challenging our norms as well as the rules and laws that reflect them. Our institutions must lead in a way that harnesses this questioning into a driver for positive change. This session looks at how institutions can become “disobedience robust” — cultivating the ability to question themselves and accept questioning from others.

    Moderated by Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab with panelists
    Liz George, MIT Alum Class of 2008
    bunnie huang, Author, Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering
    Karrie Karahalios, Assistant Professor, Siebel Center for Computer Science, University of Illinois

    All panelists are former MIT students (although Joi says he come in the backdoor:). Before this event, Joi interviewed lots of administrators at MIT including John DiFava. And everyone said that they had never met a student who was a bad person. And DiFava spent his career chasing bad guys with the MA State Police before coming to MIT.

    Karrie remembers coming to MIT for rush week her first year. She took an "orange tour" and loved it, and it seemed like it was sanctioned by the university. Her House Master encouraged the students to win the East Campus lockpicking contest. And students were constantly hacking things in the dorms like phones and washing machines.

    A discipline committee was set up around 2003. The police stopped arresting people at all, but started picking up more people and sending them to this discipline committee. So people who would have been let off altogether were getting in trouble.

    The trouble now is that students have this fear of getting caught.
    Should they not?
    Then it's hard to abide by that last point of the hacker ethic: avoid getting caught, but if you are, cooperate fully.
    I find in some places if everything is legal, it's not nearly as interesting. Is that a big part of it or not?
    Sure it is. [but that doesn't mean "risk of imprisonment"]
    "Just so you know, statue of limitations is 7 years."

    There's a thing, 'if you see something broken, report it to Physical Plant', we would note these things if we were up on the roof and tell them. That almost helped build as sene of community across the groups. I did get caught at the ML, I was picking a lock here, I wanted access to one of the tool rooms? They described me as "tall kid, dark hair, asian" in an email to ML. I could have avoided fessing up, but I did tell someone in my lab. They got reasonably mad at me, saying just ask for permission, it's not hard, and showing me how. That was a scolding, not disciplinary action. I'm a little cynical about MIT's stance - Liz said MIT likes to own successes and disavow failures [JI - that's broadly true you know, in the world] But a university is a good place to catch people when they stumble. Especially when they just did something unfortunate [not hurting others]

    The ethics associated with hacking. Breaking the rules mindfully. MIT hacker secret sheet #forbiddenML pic.twitter.com/V2ctRuvZiV

    — andres lombana b. (@vVvA) July 21, 2016

    Hacking the xbox led me to discover the problems with the DMCA which led me down this whole long path to where I am today [w today's announcement]. My advisor Tom Knight introduced me to the general counsel, I was all excited; they met me with a sealed envelope on the table; they said I just want you to know we don't want to touch this or have anything to do with it; you did this on your own time with your own funding, good luck.
    I wanted to know, why is the institute disavowing me? I didn't even disclose what was going on, I just wanted their help to do disclosure responsibly. They wouldn't even hep with that. Fortunately Hal A and Tom K helped me find an amicable solution (via the EFF).

    Joi: Ethan mentioned TidBit, where we had a student working on a project. It's funny b/c MIT's counsel represents MIT. There's some things they can and can't do. We ended up setting up a law clinic - I'll give credit to the GC's office and Provost for this fully-funded and pro-bono clinic at BU. So any problems a student has can go to a BU clinic; in your case they could have directed you to that. This is recent, within the last several months. One of the problems has been the liability concern that something happens and the inst. gets sued by the parents, and lawyers are lawyers. We've been trying to set up ways for people to talk to the admins. Legal support is key. Hoping that will help in the future.

    There are certain things the institute should sanction, but there are certain things we can't. On the research side, there are things that affect the whole institute. Some kids don't know what the repercussions are. I went to a lot of cases I heard about to hear their side of the story. If some of these things came out, it would hurt privacy of the student. It can be better. But the trust gets developed when you have communication. Need informal communication because formal puts you at risk in other ways. Secret backchannel. So the hackers will often tell the police so they're not caught off guard. No formal acknowledgement. People based and don't persist over time. 4 year turnover. Met about what could be done. The policy in the handbook was drafted, students said "given all the things that have happened, you can't ignore it." You can't say "look how amazing this place is" and then not support people when they get in trouble. People had to meet with a lot of people about what could be said legally. What was acceptable to write in there? The trust went up a lot after that.

    What are the principals we put into a disobedience prize? Principles, playfulness, creativity, social benefit. Large scale collaboration. Swipe all cards in all doors as a way to add noise into a database. CSAIL and Media Lab run our own networks. Here we retain as little information as possible. No cameras here because it creeps us out, can be taken over. We have a lot of theft here, we know we wouldn't catch the professionals anyway. Research in how we increase security without sacrificing privacy.
    What aren't you allowed to do? Purposefully destruct something for the sake of being destructive (if you've evaluated that it's necessary, go for it).

    Relationship between an institution and those performing civil disobedience is difficult. People who get attacked by people on the other side of the argument. Building an institution where disobedience doesn't have grave consequences. It doesn't have to be completely safe, but reasonably safe. Tenure, if you piss off the people in your department you don't get it. How do you do things which speak truth to power while still being on people's good side.
    Tenure was put in place to allow people to be disobedient during McCarthyism. But maybe you're past that phase in your life by then, you're like 45. High school Japanese kids working in a lab, being picked on by grad students. Academia shouldn't be about that, it should be the new people encouraged to question authority. "Does scientific research advance one funeral at a time?" - Max Planck Spoiler: yes [according to a recent MIT paper (PDF) which you should read].

    These people learn most of their things on the internet; but without access to journals, they have a hard time applying it. We can go to first principles and questioning these things. That's what I want to start with: questioning these things [publishing, bad laws]


    Q: do you think the administration today is too strict? A: when I was a student, yes. students aren't doing this for the thrill of the illegal; but curiosity, exploring the inaccessible, doing a great piece of engaging engineering.

    Maria Zuber: We now have a list of amazing, disobedient folk... a list we have to protect.
    How is our Head of Research about this? I'm so glad we're great at being self-reflexive. I think it went well. You're listening to all this and some of it is shocking or discomforting, but the MIT administration talks about this stuff all the time. There's a whole range of opinions. The administration gets a full spectrum of points of view. The ones we heard here [today] are not in the center of the bell curve on where the campus falls in a lot of matters. If there's a question of how far we can push something, we can always have a conversation about it at least. Try to find the right balance. Try to explain why when we can't do something.
    One thing we are talking about is: is it OK to take an action that affects a broad population? IRB violations could shut down research across the institution. When things come to me, I have to think about the balance of people wanting to do something that moves their work in a positive direction (for them) but may affect others.
    Can I ask a Q about that? ITAR rules for instance prvent you from bringing IR sensors into certain countries. Shoud an institution like MIT be pushing back against these rules with the govt? Saying these are rules that are iportant? MIT as an institution has a lot of clout.
    A: on that particular issue, I have in fact been pushing back, personally. I'm a space scientist, so I care a lot also about thse cameras. We do that. but in the meantime we [may?] have to also obey the rules so people can continue to do their work.

    Joi friend at Twitter and now White House. Would go to police events and just hand out his business card. So instead of busting things, we'd just have people calling him to fix it first. [This is so reminiscent of disaster response I can't even]. When it happens in public there are egos on the line, too.
    (Cory) The opposite of disobedience isn't obedience, it's compliance. it's if you don't immediately comply with an order, you risk summary execution.
    Need to challenge laws in order to progress the nation.

    (Sam) There are simple laws and painful laws. How do we make sure the institute isn't standing in for excessive response, even when it happens outside that bubble?
    (Joi) There are laws which are supported by commercial interests (DRM, CFAA, SoPA, PIPA). The Media Lab has made statements against those, and we have a lot of money from Hollywood (none of which went away). Courage to stand up to those that are backing you. We're in a privildeged position to do that. Then there are laws that limit academic and scientific progress. There's a way to try to talk to the authorities. There are broad thinkers there.
    (Liz) those of us with power need to take those risks, support our folk when they cause problems.

    (Kendra) Institutional trust and these back channels, I feel that insitutional trust is not something everyone has. What is MIT doing to help students know they have support? If you are a young black man, being arrested has different connotations.
    (Joi) I'm thinking about this a lot lately, and it's not just for us. I just try to talk with and connect with as many folk as possible
    (Karrie) That you have this clinic is a huge signal that you want to support your students. I'd love a phone number for those students. I'd love to be able to promote this sort of structure at my university. We don't have access to this sort of clinic.
    (Joi) if we can figure it out, I hope others will also follow.

    () This has been fantastic and it's appreciated. What about research that would piss off your liberal collegues? It's close to an ideological monoculture. Many of these entrenched things are not useful. Can we have another Forbidden Research conference which pokes holes in liberal assumptions?
    (Joi) DARPA study on race and bias etc. The Uni had to be sued to release the study.

    Steward Brand, claiming the final question
    What's most interest to me is the elegant hack, minmax, lazy hack. So fiendishly clever, subtle and undetectable. And yet has a great big effect. Do you have any examples of that?
    (liz): The insription in Lobby 7 says what the institute was founded for: 'for the furthering of science and technology and agriculture and commerce' 20yrs ago some hackers made an incredible reproduction, but replaced the last two words with 'entertainment and hacking'. Anyone passing by thought it was the original; and it was there for a really long time until a tour guide noticed it, and said "Here are the famous founding principals of MIT, and read it outloud."
    Joi: there's a piece of artwork, metal and black, in front of the Green building. it's a bunch of pieces of metal. some kids would leave pieces of metal, and people would think it was broken and weld it back on... it's a good story, don't know if it's true.

    [Willow - I feel like it's fine for institutions to move slowly. I feel like this whole thing is about an over extention and crimilization of otherwise inconsequential acts.]

    Categories: Blog

    Forbidden Research liveblog: "why we can't do that"

    July 21, 2016 - 2:28pm

    Liveblog by Alexis Hope, Sam Klein, Willow Brugh and myself

    Karrie has been a pioneering researcher on how technology shapes our lives. She is also an expert on algorithmic auditing, looking into ways that these technologies are shaping our social lives.

    As we think about the work Karrie has been doing to address the legal barriers to producing research — and the legal barriers to consuming research — we will also talk about how we think about our roles and responsibilites adjusting the systems.Three weeks ago, Karrie teamed with other researchers on a lawsuit to challenge the barriers to doing algorithmic auditing because the data is tied up by Terms of Service.

    This work started for Karrie around 2012, when she helped start the Center for People and Infrastructures. We looked at cases like public transit, where machine learning might be trained on a camera operator that always stop the film when a person is black.
    We worried for instance that people being black would be constantly observed. In reality, we found that black people weren't being observed at all. The camera tracked one researcher perfectly; it did a perfect job. But a black researcher wasn't tracked at all; leading to the quip that HP's cameras were racist.

    Karrie describes some similar issues:
    The StreetBump project for tracking potholes by leveraging crowdsourced data. In 2014 it was revealed that some poor parts of Boston weren't surfaced by this, and only worked in wealthy suburbs. The problem was later reported to be solved.

    Amazon Prime: Roxbury is the only central boston neighborhood that wasn't getting same-day delivery. When this was revealed (publicly), it was fixed the same day. But the information has to get out for this to happen.

    Predictive Policing: we need to know which regions are being observed and tracked. Is it only poor areas? Is it leading to bias?

    Pokemon Go: Why are there fewer stops in poor neighborhoods? There are many reasons for this... crowdsourcing plays a role.

    Self-driving cars: What decision does a car make when the owner dies, if the car has to choose what object or person to hit while braking?

    Fair housing: are minorities less likely to find housing via algorithmic matching systems?

    AirBnB: A black person renting on AirBnB was found to get less for their unit than someone who was white (via the automated algorithm).

    We've addressed some of these things with the Civil Rights Act (1964), Fair Housing Act (1968), Housing and Community Development Act (1987). It took 20 years to add disability status.
    At that time, HUD further supported special projects, including prototypes to respod to new or sophisticated forms of discrimination.

    Traditional audit - match pairs on family and economic features, varying race; successively visit realtors. They found that minorities (blacks, hispanics, asians) were told about fewer units than whites.

    Digital audits -
    We wanted to explore what happens with the new proliferation of algorithmic realtors — she and collaborators wrote a paper auditing algorithms. It's hard to get this data and code from companies. Although, researchers were willing to give their code. Ex: finding naked people (original code from a 1996 research paper). There are explicit lines added to find black people (more specifically, special-casing different ranges of skin hue)

    Ex: algorithmic awareness. It took 18 months to get a probability sample, which was too long. Collecting data manually is also not ideal. Some people won't provide it, and it's not reliable when provided. Latanya Sweeney searched for names online; for white people, you got automated ads saying "NAME found!". For black people, you got automated ads saying "NAME arrested?" linking to similar white-pages or online search tools.

    You can also scrape everything. This is a violation of the CFAA but many rsearchers are doing this all the time. You also see this at hackathons and published in major conferences around data mining like KDD, WWW, etc.

    CFAA and Terms of Service are a problem. We had the FeedVis project, which was successful, that we could have continued by scraping FB, but we shut it down intentionally because of their Terms of Service.

    Sockpuppets was another project in which you could create bot accounts with different demographic qualities and see how they were treated by different algorithms online like real estate or price discrimination.Wilson et al - price discrimination - buying things in mobile phone costs more than on desktop, the more times you go to a site the more expensive it is - used 300 real people and a lot of additional sock puppets to get enough data.

    Collective audit - Finally, you could do a collective audit where lots of people provide common information that offers the data to do the kind of auditing we are describing.

    We were excited when our work was recently cited by a White House report on Big Data and Algorithms. The report considered: transparent algorithms, spot testing, the right to appeal if the algorithm is not fair.

    Block: CFAA, the Computer fraud and abuse act of 1986.
    1986 was a different environment then than today. A lot of people didnt have broadband or access to email.
    With the ACLU and colleagues, we have sued the US Government, a few weeks ago. We are waiting to get a response from the governemtn to see what happense. The CFAA prohibits unauthorized access to proected computers - it also includes any website accessible on the internet. The thng that is most confusing is that you "exceed uathroized access" - the specific point targetted in the lawsuit.
    Violating this: 1 1 year ax prison sent and fine. 2nd volation is prison sentence of up to ten years and a fine - but your intentions dont play a role. Even if you dont intend to do harm.

    Many people are violating this every day without even realizing it.

    In some cases, companies ban manual collection of data. One might interpret this as sitting by a computer with a pen and paper and writing things down - this might be a violation. Other things you can't do include reverse engineering. It is frustrating because terms of service are not static. Just by going to the website you agree to the terms of service. Just by going to pokemon go site you are waiving your right to participate in class action suit.

    Why is this so important? Researchers, journalists, everybody is affected by this. As a professor, Karrie cares about protecting her students. it can even lead to inability to publish work! IRB may not approve of work, finding employment (ie. at facebook), might not be possible because of a study that you did.

    Reputation of students & faculty are at stake.

    Norms are crucial here because lots of computers ceintists scrape and use bots and do so for social good. last fall we had event here called Freedom to Innovate. And I was frustrated by the ACM around this issue. But now thanks to Amy Bruckman and others there is now an ACM SIGCHI Ethics Committee that will be looking into this and other issues. Recently, on Amy's blog she talked about how documenting your intent might actually be bad for your research until this problem of breaking ToS and CFAA is resolved.

    What the community does matters. What the community cares about matters. Hopefully we can reach some kind of policy change together that will benefit not just researcher but everyone.

    Nathan: I'm fascinated by the different approaches you have taken. You both face environments where researchers are constantly scraping site without following their terms. Karrie, you're taking part in these legal cases to change the rules; Alexandra, you are trying to build on the breadth of other efforts to share research, and build a system that is effective and widespread. How do you see the established institutions and your relationship to them?

    Karrie: One issue for researchers: should Institutional Review Boards consider legal as well as ethical issues? I ended up on an IRB board because this topic came up. It was nice to see topics get approved within a day, rather than 6 months or more (due to legal uncertainty) as it was before.

    Moving to dealing with bigger corps, I've had great interactions with FB's data scientists. But their plan to share data didn't come to pass. That involved the organization as a whole, and their lawyers, not just their data science, which I don't really understand.

    Q: Alexandra, when people talk about scihub they often want to rehash Open Access debates and what their instutitons should do for sharing openly. But your project started for outsiders, outside those instuitutions. Do you see your work helping change the publishing industry, or just sharing your [system/resource]?

    A: I think that Sci Hub if it continues to exist then the publishing industry will have to adjust because they will not be able to reap the big profits they currently enjoy from subscriptions.
    If you ask my personal opinion about open access, I am for it; trying to promote it.

    Q: I'm curious about the dynamic in both these situations, where we have lots of people already doing the thing (disobeying) and Alexandra and Karrie have become more visible because they are trying to address the problem in a large scale way?
    How has this been - Alexandra, to start out - did you expect this attention, has it changed how you work?
    A: Well, I have to say from the beginning of sci-hub's existene there was a lot of attention paid, but it was largely covered by local (Russian) media more than international media. [so: not much!]
    Q: And you have also faced legal actions from US publishers. How does that affect you and Sci-Hub?
    A: For obvious reasons, there are many challenges: domain registration (and updating), one domain was closed, and legal actions taken. For other resources it's not even necessary to take a legal action. I'm not going to the united states or europe, trying to be cautious.
    Q: Part of your strategy, Karrie, is to reach out to other researchers in this space and ask them to come forward? Can you talk about what that means for them?
    A: It's similar to Amy Bruckman's blog post. When I talk to the media, they ask me to find more people. There are many (not my job to out them!) doing similar work. Many have gotten Cease & Desist papers and stopped doing the work, but they don't want that to be public, for fear there might be something negative for their work that results.
    6 out of my 8 phd students are not US citizens. Many of my colleagues are international as well.
    For any of you whose visa gets revoked (or know people from your country whose visas are revoked) for unexplained reasons, it's very hard to admit to something like this.

    Q: I'm curious what changes you think can be made to the commercial interest of providers, so they aren't so strict about enforcing draconian Terms of Service [which most set up presumably to protect their business, not to prevent spot checking or researching algorithms for bias]. Can we add incentives for companies to have research-friendly ToS?
    A: Many have a cut-and-paste ToS, it doesn't seem very custom.
    I have not asked a company to change their ToS. I have talked to lawyers who have said that they can't be touched; they have to be there. My talks with data scientists end up talking to lawyers and they end there. [so maybe I should talk to lawyers next]

    Q: Thanks Alexandra for the great work you've done for the community. Do you get any support from academia for your website, particularly from top institutions like MIT who do have their own access? do you feel any are supporting your actions; anticipating the answer is no, do you think there's anything that they should do? that applies to other panelists as well. Can universities leverage their power to help in these cases and promote auses we care about?
    A: I'll try to take pauses while answering :) I think that MIT has poor access to publications at least that was a frequent user complaint. Second, as far as support is concerned, there is support from users who offer donations. But there is no official support because of obvious legal reasons.

    Categories: Blog

    Forbidden Research liveblog: Hacking Culture at MIT

    July 21, 2016 - 2:23pm

    liveblog by Willow Brugh, Natalie Gyenes, and me

    Speaker: Liz George, MIT Alum Class of 2008 and MIT Hacker

    Liz starts by defining hacking as any good scientific endeavor begins.

    Hacking, (noun)

    1. A project without a constructive end
    2. An unusual and original solution to a problem
    3. An activity that tests the limits of skill, imagination, and wits.

    If you can build a model of the system, you can push it to its limit or test a system in a way you'd never otherwise be able to do.

    Hacking, (verb)

    1. Investigating a subject for its own sake
    2. Engaging in non-destructive mischief
    3. Doing something out of the ordinary or clandestine
    4. Exploring the inaccessible

    You'd want these things to also be qualities of academic research. When these things are first thought of, do they have a constructive end? Transitors as an example. You'd also hope that researchers are testing the boundaries of their skill and wit.

    MIT Hackers also have a code of ethics, which are written in large print in an inaccessible part of campus. It's a rite of passage as a hacker to be shown this by a veteran hacker. Some of these are specific to MIT hacks and some are general. Some are very relevant to academic research too. Safety is the #1 priority. And it's important to share knowledge that you learn with others and ask experienced people if you don't know how to do something.

    Beyond the ethics is MIT policy, which is in tension with MIT tradition. Liabilities are at stake. The tradition at MIT follows the same kind of promotion of playful mischief in the definition cited above. But MIT Policy reads, "Labeling something as a hack does not change unlawful behavior into lawful behavior, nor is it an excuse or justification for violations of MIT policy. Notwithstanding that they may occur in connection with a hack, violations of MIT policies may still result in disciplinary action."

    On to the most visible part of hacking culture at MIT: the creation of hacks (or how it is known to the outside world: 'pranks'). Prominent examples include hacking the great dome, like putting up a scale model of a Wright Brothers flyer on the 100th anniversary ofthe flight, a 48 unit weight cracking the great dome during finals week, and the famous MIT campus police car.

    A hack should tap into MIT culture, inspire the community, and be a feat of engineering.

    Liz walks us through a hack she participated in during 2006: putting a Firetruck on the Great Dome. Components:

    1. MIT culture connection: drinking from a fire hose welcomes students in September
    2. Inspire community as a good memorial for firefighters on 9/11
    3. Feat of engineering: bigger than the police car

    It starts with the Safety Office at MIT, which is responsible for evaluating all MIT hacks and then removing them. Students who want to hack the great dome look first at the State Board Building Regulations and Standards. This includes it must be able to withstand 90 mph winds. This requires knowledge of Mech E 101 statics. So, step one is meetings, evaluating its safety.

    The firetruck hack had a budget of ~$757. Planning time was 3 months, and ~40 people were involved.

    Hack planners need to motivate undergrads to work on the project. You have to find ways to make it easy to work on it. The easiest way is to offer dinner, which they have to eat anyway.

    How did it work? The team followed the same process for the police car: building a wooden frame and putting the exterior of the car on it. They got the track body from a scrap yard owned by a friend of a friend and built and painted it all themselves.

    Before putting on the dome requires a practice assembly to ensure it can go up quickly, silently, and in the dark. This hack took four practices to get under 30 minutes, assembling the 57 big parts, the heaviest being 150 pounds and the largest was 12 feet long. In the interest of mystery and awe, Liz won't tell us how they got the thing up 150 feet high, but the CMC Rescue catalog was very important.

    The hack went off successfully on September 11, 2006. It was so successful that the Firetruck Hack was left up for two days, which is a record for Great Dome hacks. The Safety Office cited that it was so well executed and documented that they could justify leaving it up.

    Police and firemen came from around Boston to see the hack. And it was covered in the Boston Globe as a fitting tribute to those involved in 9/11. This was well-received by the administration because it worked. Administrators are happy to take credit for things that go well.

    The Good:
    MIT students gain engineering skills, ingenuity, persistence, motivating teams, project management, creative solutions, failure analysis. This is probably the biggest project an MIT student has ever worked on to-date.

    The Bad: 
    Sometimes people get caught. Administrators don't want to deal with it when things go wrong. Liz received an email from a hacker once after being caught: "I am, in a word, terrified. I was arrested for hacking this past weekend. The three of us are now looking at felonies for participating in an activity for which MIT has built a physical museum." The student had their charges eventually dropped but they suffered mental trauma, extreme anxiety.

    MIT tradition celebrates hacking, but the policy punishes students when it goes wrong. In the Hacking Ethics, it says if you are caught to go willingly and cooperate fully. This requires trust on the part of the students that the Institution will treat them fairly. You degrade the trust between students and the institution when tradition is abandoned in the safety of executing policy.

    forbidden hacking mit
    Categories: Blog

    Forbidden Research Liveblog: Rites and Rights

    July 21, 2016 - 2:05pm

    Rites and Rights

    Saeed A. Khan, Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern History, Politics, and Culture, Wayne State University
    Alaa Murabit, Founder of The Voice of Libyan Women, UN SDG Global Advocate & High-Level Commissioner

    With a US presidential candidate proposing a ban on Muslims entering the US, Islam has become a popular "foreign" target for demagogues and fearmongers. At the same time, the recent passing of prominent Muslim athlete Muhammad Ali has revealed ways in which Islam had become a popular, domestic target of the same groups—later turned into an engine promoting civil and political rights at home.

    These two phenomena have prompted moderate thinkers to reevaluate the past and possibilities for the compatibility of Islamic and Western values. Of the anti-Islam agitators, one area of concern involves the role of women in Islamic law. Less discussed is the intersection of Islam with civil and political rights. And even less heard within this debate are the voices of Islamic law scholars, historians, and practitioners who read the Qurʾān as offering strong protections for women’s rights and for civil and political rights. Groups such as The Voice of Libyan Women and efforts such as its Noor Campaign make compelling arguments for women’s rights from within Islam, not in opposition to Islam, challenge the narrative that Islam is anti-women and anti-west.

    Do we misunderstand Islam and its place in the West and in the world? If so, is it because of American misunderstanding of Islam, or tensions between modern and traditional cultural values in some Muslim-majority nations?

    liveblog by Sam Klein, Willow Brugh, and myself.

    Here, we're exploring research as forbidden because of cultural issues. Can Islam be compatible and coincide with human rights and women's rights? It is important to note that scientific and technical topics are not the only areas where research finds itself off-limits. How can we get past political agendas and media to separate rhetoric from reality? Furthermore, the agency of Muslim women is being ignored. How do we ensure that Muslim women are not just part of the conversation, but are leading it? Thus far in this conference, we've been having a conversation about technology and forbidden research. They are connected. In this context, a lot of the stagnation and challenges are rooted in the perception of religion or the political manipulation of religion. Regardless of how much we research, putting this into practice and policy becomes difficult, because we have to deal with one another as humans.

    1. Perception of Islam and Muslim women in the US and globally (global north)
    2. why the political and security climate are different than the reality on the ground
    3. policies to counteract violent extremism
    4. what are the key next steps in this dialogue - is it research? is it policy? what needs to be done to change the situation for the 1.7 b Muslims and for everyone else?

    It is important to consider the perceptions of Islam that exist in the United States. According to a 2015 Brookings study, things are slightly improving regarding the perception of Muslims, though not Islam per se: “Americans differentiate between the “Muslim people” and the “Muslim religion,” and they view Islam more unfavorably than they do Muslims”. Especially in recent months, there is an intensified civic and political engagement of Muslims both in the US and globally. Further, in the US, we are living through a paradigm shift when it comes to national demographics. This is especially true as we move towards 2043 when the US will become a majority minority country. Next we must ask: what is the relationship with Islamophobia and the changes happening to the US? In 2010, for the first time in American history, the number of white births is outpaced by non-white births. In 2013, the Pew Religion and Public Life Study determined that the demographics are no longer majority Protestant. The white Anglo-Saxons essentialism of American identity is decreasing - especially in numbers. It is important to try to situate Islamophobia within this context.

    Playing devil's advocate - regardless of Islamophoia, there seems to be a perception that Islam does not co-exist with women's rights - the two are mutually exclusive. This is apparent in just about any academic conversation. There is a moral obligation for the US to promote women's rights, which by default is not congruent with Islam. This ties into sexual violence in conflict as well, where women's bodies are seen as the borders of a nation. In talking about EU, women are seen as the honor of the community (ref. political outrage after attacks in Germany).

    There's an assumption that women are objectified and oppressed, that they don't have agency and capacity.

    If that, then:
    - Why are we asking Muslim women to counter religious extremism?
    - Why are we positioning them as a part of global security? Wars have been started on assumed morality to protect Muslim women. Why are they key in this fight?
    -- Because the world is beginning to engage in a sociological understanding of women's visibility in the public sphere. Also the centrality of Muslim women in the nuclear family. It is necessary, then, to usurp the narrative.

    In the case of EU, 10 years ago, when it came to the hijab ban, Pres. Sarcozy (France) spoke on behalf of the liberation of Muslim women. Sarcozy saw himself as a guardian or custodian, focusing on the sociology of Islam of a tribal society (patriarchal, tribal, and custodial). As our social contract changes, Sarcozy was a throwback to a prior time. He wanted to be a tribal chieftain even though they didn't ask him to do so. How do we respect their autonomy while still sitting down at a table with those countries which oppress their autonomy the most?

    We have to deconstruct the fallacy of morality as primary driver of foreign policy. How narratives form in liminal spaces.

    Focusing on women’s rights and advocating on behalf of Muslim women, here is an example from the EU - It's perfectly ok to feel you're championing Muslim women from the burkka unless you have a profit to make from it (like fashion is doing). Spending 20 Euro is unacceptable. Someone spending 200k Euros on a designer one is welcome. Politicization of religion and commodification of religion.

    Belgian haute couture goes burka @medialab #forbiddenML pic.twitter.com/Tfduqpd4HF— Walter De Brouwer (@walterdebrouwer) July 21, 2016

    Now, let us reference religious texts - can we use scripture to change the conversation? Religion has been used to legitimize some violence. Rather, the manipulation of religion is what is used to excuse violence. However, Islam was initially more of a liberating religion for women. What happened? Exportation of ideals, especially a specific part of Islam from Saudi Arabia. This was able to reach other regions as a result of globalization. Especially in North Africa, people were able to watch Saudi Arabia scholars speak about the right way women should dress, appear & act to keep the integrity of the family unit.

    In discussing a transitional justice meeting that I (Alaa Murabit) was a part of – we had quite a few young men from the local transitional justice teams (Libya). The UN mission asked us "where are the Libyan women in the room?" and we asked the same of the UN team. We cite women's rights as a reason to be involved (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran), but we don't hold countries accountable. For example, given this newly rejuvenated relationship with Iran, how will accountability change, especially with women’s rights?

    In Saudi Arabia - there is a distraction about an anthropological anomaly - Saudi women are not allowed to drive. But – it is importat to keep in mind that we're looking at a pop of 35 mil people. At the same time, not only do we correspond and interact with this country at the highest level, but we sell them 35 bil dollars worth of weapons, that largely end up in the hands of terrorists/extremists, against whom we fight against 20 years later.

    But there’s a silver lining: the future of Islamic faith is inarguably and fearlessly female.
    In the past 10-15 years, we have seen a revolution in.thought regarding the interpretation of Islam. A lot of developing and post-conflict countries say that this can no longer be a blueprint from our society and culture. It is necessary now to separate culture (which has the more archaic features) from the religion of Islam. For the past 1600 years, the interpretation has largely been by males - elite males - who have the ability to be authoritative and create power. You'd be amazed at how hard God is to debate with. For women in particular, it has been an uphill battle, because the second you enter the debate , your integrity and humanity and honor come into question, even from well-intentioned people who practice the faith.

    Regarding our work in Libya, the involvement of women is the biggest gamechanger. The Noor campaign has been cited by the UN Security Council for Women Peace & Security. How are we going to marry the political and the economic considerations with the moral and with the religions and social. AND the cultural - which will take much, much longer. Categorizations of women as model examples or deviants affects the entire sex, not just Muslim women. That's an issue for the whole world. And I think unless women take a stronger role in politics, governance, and security in particular, this isn't going to change.

    [Change has to come from each region, and they are different]: People within a country/region need to consider interpretations of faith, who they are benefiting, and how they could be altered to benefit the global community.

    It is important to understand that legal codes such as Sharia Law come with their own economic and cultural backgrounds. A lot of what we find now is walking back to find a system-restore point when things were pristine; but going back 1300 years with a society that has already moved beyond and is moving faster, makes that a herculean challenge.

    There are certain schools within Islam with a central figure. For example, there is a 'Catholic' side to Islam: the Aga Khan (for the Ismaili community), Some of the most ardent advocates seeking a single voice for the Muslim world are themselves protestant Christians; I've never understood that. That doesn't take into account the cultural nuances. Looking at jurisprudence among Sunnis: at least 2 of the 4 schools that developed were for geographic considerations. [one is decentralized, deferring to local leaders]

    But there is implicit religious authority granted to leaders. See for instance Erdogan in Turkey today.

    Q: Challenges and dangers of 'securitizing' women? How do we approach engaging women in discussions about security?
    A: Women as borders into a country has been a long-standing element of conquest. They are the bringers of nationality, religion, & so they hold significant power in their ability to propagate a group. This was considered even a long-term peace option: taking & raping women, and having a new generation through them. Women are now engaged more actively: The problem with current efforts to counter violent extremism, is that degradation of women's rights is an early indicator of extreme violence. Women are the first people who know about it; they note that they can't leave home, can't drive, are instructed of what to wear - 2-3 yrs before major violence breaks out. So they are talked to now. The problem is in the security of those women; they are often talked o by people showing up in a bullet-proof car; revealing their position as activist and increasing their likelihood of attack or death.

    We also need to look at how this plays out in the West. Britain's 'ban the burka' campaign has been associated with whether those women are dangerous as suicide bombers; no longer as carriers of dangerous cultural memes.

    Q: Some people (like Rushdie) are still under fatwa that keep them from appearing publicly. How does one approach Islamic jurists about this? [[what about: related Q re: encouraged violence over Mohammed cartoons?]]
    Related: ShariaSource, looking at the wide variety of interpretation, and seeing this as a strength of Islamic jurisprudence.
    A: There is a lot of discussion about this already among the expert scholars. What is new is the armchair scholars...So for instance a lot of those casual scholars feel they are bound by every fatwa; whereas that's not the case [and expert scholars would not think it].

    Q: I was struck by your analysis that since the 70s the Saudi vision of Islam has been increasingly widespread, through a PR and education campaign. Are there alternatives to this, or things that groups with other interpretations could pursue?
    A: It's harder now; much more diverse media and more voices. Speed & efficacy may be harder; credibility for non-Saudi communities is harder [they contain the holiest places in the world] So many scholars have been looking at these interpretations more closely [7000 scholars released a statement last month, opposing extremism and supporting peace and security]. That's the first time that Saudi has had to be accountable to their role and how their interpretation may support violent acts. So it's progress that they are thinking about their role; and civil society is more engaged now than it has been in the past.Saudi has for a long time been a Jenga game. As new pieces are removed, this changes. We used to say "Saudi Arabia is in Arabia, is Islam". As you alter those pieces, the whole concept changes.

    Categories: Blog

    Forbidden Research liveblog: Sexual deviance: can technology protect our children?

    July 21, 2016 - 1:35pm

    liveblog by Alexis, Sam Klein, Natalie, and myself

    Ethan Zuckerman, Director, MIT Center for Civic Media moderates.

    Conducting research on adults who have sex with children is virtually impossible due to ethical and legal restrictions. The advancement of technologies like robots and virtual reality has opened the door to exploring questions that were previously not possible. But while a U.S. court case has held that virtual child pornography is legal, the law in this area is controversial and emotionally charged. Legal uncertainties and vast stigma make actual research difficult. At the same time, a better understanding of this deviant behavior has the potential to significantly change lives.

    Lead to paraphilia. We're not showing explicit imagery. It may be triggering. Going to try to deal with this very difficult topic. Lots of real world ramification. 1300 people are serving time for sex crimes just in MA. X are in indefinite civil confinement - finished sentence, but not released into the general public because of fear of recidivism. Research on the statistics. 10% to 50% which suggests that there isn't a ton of research. We know very little indeed. Most people who are afflicted with pedophilia are actively trying to fight these urges. When talking with therapists, they're trying very hard not to act on these urges they're suffering from. There are some existing efforts to develop support programs. Whether there are ways of treating with VR, intimate robotics, etc.. It's a challenging topic with a lovely set of folk willing to take it on.

    Kate Darling, MIT Media Lab, IP Theory, Policy, and Robot Ethics, Fellow at Harvard Berkman Center is looking at the NOW of robot-human interaction. Leads us off. Human robot interaction, how we behave around robots. People treat them as though they're alive. We know they're just machines, but subconsciously when we interact, we treat them as if they're alive. Not just about people getting used to a new technology but instead something which is biological. Our brains might project intent and life on moving things which seem autonomous. How strongly we respond to the cues these machines give us. Gives us a chance to study human psychology. People who have low empathic concern for others treat robots differently than those who have high empathetic concern —this is part of a research study Kate has been conducting with Palash Nandy, a researcher at the Media Lab in the Personal Robotics group. Those who treat robots like a living thing makes them a potentially great tool for

    When child-size robots come to market, will they be used to address desires and protect children, or to normalize it and put more children at risk? There's no way for us to know. These urges are not a moral failing, they are a psychological issue. Nearly impossible to self-report as you'll get booked. If we really care about children, we might need to be preemptive about this.

    Courts don't know what to do with these robots, since no child has been harmed in making them.
    While high quality sex robots are not coming as quickly as some might think (or like), but they are coming at a pace that's faster than society is willing to talk about.

    Child porn doesn't exist for at least two reasons: because we think it's not ok, but also because a child was harmed in its creation. 3D modeling etc would shift that. Do any international courts handle this differently? Need intent as well as harm to have broken a criminal law in the US. In the US in '96 we had an act forbidding pornographic CGI depicting children. In '02 the supreme court decided there was a free speech issue that overruled, and struck down parts of that act. Since then, a new act "Protect" has been passed, which prohibits "obscene" cartoons. They've shifted the child piece towards obscenity, which is not well defined and depends on community standards. Ex: some media showing young girls performing fellatio was targeted b/c it was aimed at an audience of young girls to teach them improper behavior, not because it included images of young girls.

    Back to the question of legal status, but what is exploitative and what is put into legal frameworks because it is uncomfortable?

    Ron Arkin, Roboethicist and Professor, School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Tech. Robots and robot ethics. Sex, laws, and violence. Robot deception, killer robots, but today we're talking about sex.

    There's plenty of money to be made in lethal autonomous weapon systems. The USG doesn't do? that, but some people do. And I do work in robot deception (how and when robots lie?) but that's not what we're discussing today. Outbranch from Genevive Bell. Intimate Robotics. Most concerned with lethal autonomous systems, but also concerned about something else that is happening now. I work with Sony, and the Aibo. we know how to make people fall in love with these things. What if we start crossing from teh social space into the sexual space? the questions we ask are around if human-robot intimacy is acceptable? Do you become a deviant if you have sex with a robot? [What about one indistinguishable from a human?]

    Can [sex with a robot] it serve sort of like methadone for [sexual] deviants? These are research questions which need to be explored. Any time past offenders are released back into society, there will be more victims. [as there are already today] We need to be prepared for that.

    Thank you for this forum for sharing this discussion with the audience and the public.
    Uncanny valley has to do with behavior, temperature, texture, etc. Roxxxy, VR robot. How will the prostetution industry do in light of these dolls etc? Some see it as a way to free prostitutes to do other things (this is a rather paternalistic view). [Examples from non-sex robots, and sex robots, the former already well-funded by governments.]

    Article from the Atlantic recently: "Can Child Dolls Keep Pedophiles from Offending?"
    VICE: "Canada's Child Sex Doll Trial Raises Uncomfortable Questions About Pedophilia and the Law" A man ordered one in Canada and gets arrested. Methadone is perscription, maybe we need to do the same here.

    Protest: there's a group called Campaign Against Sex Robots, viewed by the founder as "part of a cultural pattern to legitimate pedophilia more widely". [This reminds me so much of some of the arguments against prostitutions, not seeing how sex is a basic human need ].

    Study from Stanford University — touching a robot's 'intimate parts' makes people uncomfortable. Published in an obscure journal, couldn't find funding source listed. Study on body comfort zones: differences between Japanese and American adults re: where they normally touched close friends or sexual partners, and where they touched their parents, when they met. Dramatic differences in all cases; which one would take into consideration with any robot designs.

    Wanting to establish a research agenda. Will sex robots increase or decrease urges? We have an ethical obligation to do this research.

    Christina Couch, Journalist
    Written on the question of computer imagery. How our feelings, thoughts, desires shape our our technology is designed.

    Working on an article - therapeutic uses of VR : Treating PTSD, depression, phobias, addictions. Patrice Reneaud studying pedophiles right at the point of arousal. Having someone at that point requires a stimuli, which for pedophiles have super valid concerns attached to them.

    Dr. Patrice Renaud - "assessing deviant preferences in sexual offenders" using virtual immersion.

    Mostly audio, having a hard time getting data. His team published a paper that even when they KNOW a subject is a known pedophile, they couldn't evoke a response just using audio files. When VR started working, they started building scenarios with [fewer] concerns. The differences are in motor and eye movement. The data we have on recidivism is nebulous because it's really hard to study this group. Interested that VR is what opened up these possible studies.

    Also a shift in how we view pedophiles. Virtuous Pedophiles is a support group of people trying to prevent acting on their impulses. Another group like them is called the Dukelfeld Project. Confidential treatment focused on preventing them from acting out. Accessibility to a population which has been traditionally hard to research PLUS new research tools usually means a huge amount of research coming out, but not so much for this case. Dukelfeld was able to get on their feet because there aren't reporting issues, it might be covered by insurance.

    In the US, Lupron (what people use to chemically castrate themselves) can be gotten under perscription as well. We'd first need a better idea of this as a psychological problem rather than a moral problem. How is the legal system changing? We used to think homosexuality was a moral failing, and then a disease, and is now accepted. How does that transition happen? Popular culture led. TV shows etc. The law came afterwards. Untouchable was a documentary on this. If you throw the word "pedophilia" into any legal debate, all the politicians jump in to vote for it. There's no nuance. The topic (understandably) raises so many emotions for folk that it's difficult to have a rational conversation about it. The YouTube videos for NYT articles are saying they need to be slaughtered for saying it might be an illness rather than a moral feeling. European culture just thinks about porn files as any other file. It allows them to approach all of this in different ways.


    So: you're a robot ethicist. What's stopping you from studying this? A: Funding. It can come most easily from foundations, but only a limited amount does. Most governments don't support it [though as noted elsewhere: in Germany treatment for pedophilia is covered by insurance].

    Can people get help with their urges? What are their motivations for doing this work? Is there a trend in what's going on?
    I don't know that the landscape of research today is big enough to generalize. I know of only 2 researcher using VR for this. Maybe there's more than that, but it is small.

    Q: What are the key research questions in this space (intimate robotics)? As an experimentalist, are there things you're thinking about studying that will help answer these Q's?
    A: (Kate):- how do our interactions with robots affect our interactions with humans? I think about harm: if our interactions with robots lead to harmful interactions with other humans, than that is a bad thing. But we don't know if our interactions with robots will lead to any of these negative outcomes, so we have to do the research.
    We currently know how to observe and measure behavior with robots, but we don't know if this changes your behavior with people. That's hard to study in any arena, and especially with intimate robots, I'm worried we won't do it at all. If a big name in social robotics can't get support for such work, how can anyone do that?

    Q: In defense of continental Europe and its culture - I have experience with Quaker work in this field; they are some of the frist to visit prisoners, and they work with sex offenders. All these technologies seem to further sequester and isolate offenders from society. That seems to be something they're trying hard to get over; they want to integrate with society. Do you think it is possible in the US to propose a system where groups voluntarily engage w/ pedophiles, on the basis that they are humans, and shouldn't be treated even worse than violent criminals?
    A: (Christina) A story just came out about a [NJ?] task force that is dedicated to that. I don't have any way to answer, but people are starting to consider it.
    A: (Ron) I don't think this is a panacea for reintegration; but it should be considered as a possible positive force.
    A: (Kate) People being visited are the small percentage who have been convicted of a crime. Most people affected have a hard time coming forward at all. I love that groups are forming to help (convicts), but we need legal changes and maybe tech changes as well if those can help people.

    Q: (Willow) You're talking about a lack of data and other things. This is the most academic panel we've had so far. I wonder if by opening up science to more citizen science approaches like other panels have, we might catch more data and discover more things. Are there possibilities to try citizen science approaches to sex studies?
    A: (Ron) Yes, and I support anyone who wants to contribute to this, but: this does need strictly controlled science evaluation, with IRB and other controls, to get reliable data. We couldn't even get accurate recidivism rates, and how hard could that be? Numbers were all over the place, because of the dearth of data. And we need to understand the tech coming down the pike. That might be easier to distribute, rather than the study of sexual deviance.
    A: (Christina) VR is also bing used to study and treat victims of sexual trauma. This (type of tech) isn't a one-way street. When we talk about amplifying research methods, it's not just for offenders.

    Q: You all seem to say that lack of funding and stigma are barriers. What would this look like if those didn't exist? Get to Ethan's initial questions: how does culture change, this medium change, over the long term? How does this change the future of dealing with taboo paraphilias?
    A: (Ron) Human research interaction work has at present gone almost too far in requiring huge amounts of data. I think we can develop research with small focused sets of data. Then a series of progressive experiments could gather a larger body of data over time.

    Q: There are studies that suggest porn has changed standards of sex. If these child robots are rolled out, who gets to decide if you can have such robots as therapy, or as entertainment?
    A: (Kate) A lot of research here has been very [basic]. Many studies have questioned if violent/sexual games change behavior. Methods used in those cases can be applied to robotics. The increased realism may have more of an effect, but similar approaches may apply.
    A: (Ron) To my mind, courts or physicians would say it is appropriate. But there would have to be quasi-controlled environments for this to work.

    Q: (Victoria) I'm interested in areas where sex is considered? inappropriate such as w/disability. Looking at sexual deviance - how much correlation or research has been done to see whether pedophilia is different from other deviances? (anything considered unnatural by any society: bdsm, homosexuality, &c) If we're talking about changing human behavior, can we cross-examine sth like violence, and the relevant effects of VR? [To inform these questions in a less taboo realm.]
    A: (Christina) I don't know if any correlation like this has been done. In 20y of VR research, we find that yes it can influence RL behavior. PTSD can be reduced more quickly... unconscious racial bias can be reduced (in at least one study), though that's incredibly difficult to break even temporarily. It's not crazy to think this could influence behavior in pedophiles.
    A: (Ron) Changing human behavior happens routinely, with or without robots - a change wrt. views on marriage, bestiality

    Willow question: why can't people consent to sexual research?
    Question: how do advanced robots consent to sexual research?
    Willow question: why are we talking about fully autonomous systems? Does the debate in self-driving cars and mixed-control systems apply here?

    Categories: Blog

    Forbidden Research liveblog: Messing with Nature: Genetics and Climate

    July 21, 2016 - 12:31pm

    Live blog by Sam Klein, Natalie, and myself.


    How do you innovate in a field of massive potential and risk? When it comes to genetically engineering living things, most of the technology being developed happens behind closed doors. How do we change the perception of science and genetic engineering with an emphasis on openness for the sake of safety, ethics, and cautionary vigilance but continue to move forward? Who should be responsible for making “god-like” decisions that will ultimately affect our entire future as a society? Megan Palmer, Senior Research Scholar, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University was our moderator.

    Developing the field of synthetic biology. Policy and practices around the safety, security, ethics, governance around engineering biology. Does getting better at doing this actually increase our health, prosperity, etc? Microscopic organisms are already trying to kill us all the time. Are unintentional ramifications or malicious use open us up to unacceptable risks? Can we make this information open to the wide public? We're both destroying and saving the world all at the same time.

    There's a First Robotics competition. We have genetically engineered machine competition. What will undergrads make? Don't compete them against each other, but instead "what is the most useful thing we can do with this tech?" Give incentives and rewards to be thinking about these questions the whole way. Learn the US had a destructive biological warfare program. Since the 70s we don't do that, that they have to uphold that. Limit between what is constructive and destructive. Dual use research concerns, like work on pathogens. When we develop the data about balancing things, the jury is still out. Who decides in these cases of uncertainty?

    Community consent, the dangers and benefits of bioengineering

    Kevin Esvelt, Director of the Sculpting Evolution Research Group, MIT Media Lab
    When we engineer life, what does that say to other people? What are the repercussions to the living systems we depend upon? We tamper with them at our peril. When we alter one organism, we tamper with something nature has optimized to thrive in the wild. So we end those threads when we mess with individual organisms (or we upset the rest of the ecosystem). Gene Drive Inheritance makes dominant genes (so spread through the wild). Block out all mosquitoes that carry malaria. Make crops that are not tasty to invasive species ending blights. What if someone makes a mistake? Public backlash and harm to the planet, to the population, to the field, to research. Working to make all work in the open. If we have the possibility of messing everything up, everyone should be able to see what we're doing. We're not always careful, there are laboratory accidents. Right now it's hard to find other pieces of the puzzle, hard to know if your efforts are wasted if someone else is already doing it. By working in the open we are more effective AND more ethical.

    Preventing mice at Martha's Vineyard from getting infected with Lyme disease, which means no ticks would have it, which means kids don't have it. Working with the potential community before we even start the research. We want independent monitoring set up by you to be sure everything goes well. End points for the project unless you say it's ok to proceed. [and of the 100 people who came to this meeting, every one supported moving forward]. So there is a way of moving forward in cases like this, but trust is not a given. It must be earned each and every time.

    Bringing back from extinction, or revitalizing endangered species?

    Ryan Phelan, Executive Director and Co-founder, Revive & Restore, The Long Now Foundation

    No one believed we could completely wipe out a species. But now it's ingrained that extinction is forever. Is there recoverable DNA? Would that change the game? Woolly Mammoth in a healthy ecosystem someday. It's a long project. But it's super taboo for academics and funders. But they're happy about the other side (helping endangered species come back). Secure gov sponsorships, fish and wildlife, etc.

    It will take away from teh concept that "Extinction is Forever" as a rallying cry which has helped us be motivated as citizens. But if we're pioneering this, like from the Passenger Pigeon we could recreate that ecosystem. Taking money away from conservation (if it's a 0-sum game). We want to bring more money in. We may release a problem for future generations. We've made it look easy so people will take money off of protection. Frozen Zoo! Was considered rouge for taking in and saving endangered species DNA. But we're now taking cells out to increase genetic variation. Now the Frozen Zoo is prescient.

    The context of genetic engineering

    George Church, Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School
    It may be forbidden to do some research on others, but it seems moral to experiment on yourself, your own body. I know a number of people, now, doing gene therapy on themselves, way in advance of animal trials.

    There are a number of trials currently underway. This ability to self modify is quite prominent. It's not all about genes. Many things which are heritable. We have four generations of phones in my family. We talk about genes as irreversible. the other things we inherit are hard to reverse like our culture and our technology. What we're worried about is that something we do could be very attractive in the short term which has repercussion in the longer term. We worry about changing our environments in unintended ways. We have twice what we thought was the carrying capacity of the globe, and half of what we will end up with.
    This has been a core part of our work in our lab: Making open

    1. How people are involved in medical research so they have access to their own data.
    2. Rise of synthetic biology - we're on an exponential curve. I Argued for [open] surveillance of the uses of synthetic biology, since things are changing so rapidly, so we're aware of what is happening

    We don't just need a reaction to things we think are yucky (germline is more acceptable than abortion to some folk). We need to think a bit out of the box rather than immediate rejection. Altering our minds, electrodes implanted in our brains for epilepsy and depression. Will become more and more biological. This can happen much faster than the germline. This is going to be a much faster revolution.

    Genetic question and Answer

    how do you reconcile? advisors?
    * openness to being advised. listening carefully as well as teaching. hear what folk are up to, worried about. Make a special effort to make our information public (ignoring possible competitors)
    * what if Martha's Vineyard hadn't been 100%? Would have been up to the community to decide percentage for consensus? He wanted at least one skeptic, as those are the folk who actively check you for the things that will destroy the project or allow it to cause lots of issues.
    * have you decided to move forward outside of consensus? Revive and Restore adapted to public response asking for shorter term gains. We don't need consensus to do science, but we do need public input.
    Not all of our community takes these precautions. How do you resolve your differences with them?
    * We decided to tell everyone BEFORE we did the thing, which is just not done in science. You usually prove it before you tell people. The history of science is that of closed doors. We can get away with being open, but what about our students? Us pushing them to being open means our students might get scooped, and that ruins their career.
    We publish about the study and then ask for public comments. Sometimes we don't get any, and somtimes they're not good.
    * You can't just publish a lab notebook and expect others to know what to do with that. We write stories around it.
    * Fruitflies - a group was going to do self-inserting CRISPR, going to publish it as a method for others to use. not thinking about ramifications across everything else. We can't think about all the ramifications on our own.
    We claim to be democratizing things, but are we actually distributing everything?
    * sequencing that is hand-held. Wearable sequencing. Surveillance of micro-organisms. DIY Bio should be the ultimate in citizen science. Outreach through films and congress and etc.
    Informed consent can't be given for algorithmic decision making. What are the folk in Martha's Vineyard consenting to? [side note from Willow to check out the Framework for Consent Policies]
    * Ask people to take an exam about if they understand what they're consenting to.
    * People are consenting to trying it out right now, not anything else.
    As we talk about ideal genetics, who gets to decide about the ideal human? What we currently call disability, what gets expressed and not expressed? What happens to the forms that are or aren't expressed?
    * More discussion around how ti INCREASE (not decrease) diversity. There's no ideal put forth. The lesson we learn time and again is that diversity is an extremely good thing. Culture, color, neural, bio. We're selecting for female when we select. We're selecting away from painful diseases.
    Is any attention being given to LACK of habitat for these revitalized organisms?
    * Yes. We've helped shape de-extinction guidelines. one main one is where they would flourish. Others include that the purpose is encouraging the flourishing the species in its natural habitat, not as a zoo specimen. And that the original cause of the extinction (hunting, pollution, etc) has been removed. increasingly we have new challenges like diseases, invasive species taking down bottleneck.
    A CRISPR product has been introduced (a mushroom). There was no policy or regulation around it.
    * Let's not demonize a specific tech, but know what we do and don't want from it.

    Genetic closing

    What's the one rule you love to break, or what is one forbidden thing you're thinking about?
    * We break the rule of being silent scientists. Some colleagues say it's not their responsibility to point things out (esp related to their funding). I don't feel edgy stating that we're not like that.
    * Do we have a chance to think beyond what we're doing right now?
    * people in our field think that we "shouldn't tell the muggles." I think we should. Evolution is amoral, nature is amoral. Evolution hasn't optimized for flourishing and wellbeing, should we be doing that? Is that moral?


    Moderated by Stewart Brand, Editor, Whole Earth Catalog and Founder, Long Now Foundation; with panelists David Keith (Professor of Applied Physics, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School) and Gernot Wagner (Research Associate at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Co-author, Climate Shock).
    Geoengineering, or using technological interventions to address climate change, is much on the minds of scientists, policy makers and citizen groups. As our ability to “mess” with nature evolves from science fiction to reality, we are faced with serious questions about whether the possibility of success is worth the massive potential risks. Technologies for reflecting solar radiation back into space are being researched, but what will happen if we deploy them? Who should decide? Who will?

    If anything could go wrong with something new, don't do it. Moral hazard is "lack of incentive to guard against risk when one is protected against its consequences." Treating the symptoms of climate change, giving people the ability to ignore the causes. "A junkie figuring out new ways to steal from their children." The Whole Earth Discipline.
    Solar geoengineering rests on the simple idea that it's possible to make the whole earth a little more reflective. Reduces the risks of carbon. It's relatively easy and it's relatively cheap. It could also diminish the problems we care about most. We could bring temperatures back to pre industrial. That's not doubted. But does it deal with extreme events like big storms, heatwaves, rising sea levels? We have no real research programs as we don't want to think about it. But now it's been modeled etc. On a region by region basis if used appropriately reduce all these risks, increase productivity of crops worldwide. How do we control and learn more?

    Why don't we just stop emitting carbon dioxide? no cars, planes, powerlines. Would it get warmer or colder? Warmer, because we have a delayed feedback loop. Might be up to a century. Solar geoengineering is different. We still have to get emissions to zero. It partially, imperfectly deals with the CO2 we've emitted in history. Lots of questions about tying ourselves to the mast, about messing with history, etc. We're already messing with nature, it's going to keep being messed with. We might be doing less than if we don't do solar geoengineering.

    If a person comes in who needs Lipator, they also need to diet and exercise. As an economist, you would reduce your 30 minutes of exercise by 30 seconds. But people actually do 90 and keep doing 90. Those who do none might say "holy shit I need a pill to keep me alive? Maybe I should also take the stairs more often." Because people aren't rational. So if we're talking about acting on solar geoengineering as a response to climate change, are people more or likely to vote for things that reduce emissions?

    We have next to no support in doing this. This research has been suggested since 1982. Field experiments might make sense as a study 2 years ago. People don't argue back, but somehow we just can't. There are now formal Chinese programs, EU programs. US programs are done by diverting funds or philanthropic. And this is a sort of political cowardice. Almost all climate models. Some small experiments to understand the key processes to understand the risks and efficacy. All modeling or social sciences (there might be more here and governance than science). We talk more about whether or not its ok to talk about than talking about it.

    Want to deliver how to do this in a technical sense, what failure modes would look like, how to monitor for failure, governance structures. Those are our goals within the decade. Sulfuric acid because we know volcanoes do it. Limestone might slightly restore the ozone layer. We know what nature does, how long it lasts, what sort of cooling it does. Sulfate damages the ozone layer. All of this is talk until we get to experiment. Looking at key chemistry interactions which we don't know yet. Release small amounts of various materials we think would work, see how it affects things around it. We're not saying it should be done, we're saying we need to develop the knowledge of how to do it so we can make informed discussions.

    We can do better than sulfates for solar geoeng: Calcium carbonate; diamond dust [factory production (vapor deposition) is cheap]. System engineering when we don't fully understand it, is that responsible? We're committed to it. We're already doing it. How do we couple human governance with planetary management? How intelligently are we doing to do this? We're already altering the environment and our planet.

    The people most affected by climate change are those in tropical countries who feel the heat the most. The moral pressure to protect those most affected is huge.

    Challenge with cutting CO2 emissions: You don't feel the effects of your own actions - CO2 emissions. The reason we aren't cutting emissions, unlike progress with pollution cutting, is because the generation of people who will be cutting CO2 emissions aren't the ones who will benefit from decrease. Simple thing is just to keep putting CO2 in the air. Mitigation takes a long time to get it to happen, slow response time. You're talking about a quick intervention. Solar geoengineering happens within a political cycle.

    Urge us not to assume that the natural answer is that the possbility of solar geoengineering. We need to do the best we can to tip the balance of the planet into our survivability. We're up to 8 or 10 professors, getting funders to pay attention to us. Prominent environmental donors are coming up, hoping to tap in there. Harvard and China.

    For solar geoeng, it's so cheap that any country could just do it.... [or some individuals]
    Some companies, new startups, are working on capturing CO2 in the air. That's less controversial: make low-carbon fuels for power. There is a competitor in Switzerland called Climeworks AG.

    CO2 removal is complicated. Solar power is getting cheaper. Can use that to produce hydrogen, combine with sequestered Carbon, make fuel. Carbon in and out of the biosphere, it's like having a pile of flamable stuff in Central Valley California. The cycle is hours (foreset fire) to decades (ecosystem life cycle). To put carbon in the ocean doesn't work.

    Recent research showing some hurricanes are being suppressed due to aerosol. Ice sheets are deeper, different.
    Clearing up pollution in China -- is that going to warm things up? Should we stop cleaning up the air? No! Europe in the 70s started cleaning up because acid rain etc. For Europe, decreasing tropospheric aerosol pollution has likely incrased temps in the Artic by half a degree celcius. Should we stop killing people? But then stratospheric injection. 50*26 for sulpher we put in the lower atmosphere, [THERE ARE NUMBERS I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON -- willow]

    We're talking about doing some things on islands to control for impact. What about consent when it's the whole globe?
    Sulfur doesn't have sex. if you do a tiny experiment in the stratosphere, and you quit doing it, you're back where you started. There's some small risk bio would run amok. Except for a moral hazard.
    But how we make a global decision like this is unprecedented. How do you handle global consensus? There is no global government. For oceans, there's teh World Ocean Commission. 15 or so wise men or women, they don't have any power, it's a talking shop but it's a place to give guidance. Step one is to take the decision away from teh scientists. They can provde the technology but it's literally everyone else who needs to be there for when to turn the knob. We're not tryking to deploy this, we're trying to research it. Are the benefits and costs balanced? Vaccinations were 1000 to 1.

    Will we end up with citizen science/disobedience of people doing small versions of this?

    Forbiddenclimategeneticsenvironmentlocal communitiestechnology solutions
    Categories: Blog

    Forbidden Research liveblog: Against the law: countering lawful abuses of digital surveillance

    July 21, 2016 - 11:53am

    With bunnie huang, Author, Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering and Edward Snowden. Liveblog by Sam Klein, Erhardt Graeff, and myself.

    Introduction and overview from Snowden

    This is my first time giving an academic talk, and I think it's the first time a US exile is presenting research at a US academic institution. One of the great things about Cory's talk is that we don't talk enough about how laws are a weak guarentee of outcome. theft, murder, etc still happen.

    I'm Edward Snowden, I'm director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Some years ago I told the truth about a matter of public importance. Some years ago a warrant was issued for my arrest. I'm no longer allowed to travel freely. I'd like to thank MIT for organizing ths conference and the opportunity to speak to everyone in the room today. For journalists in the audience, that's not a small thing; they deserve credit for living up to that commitment to knowledge. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, but that is quite a risk. This may be the first time an American exile has been able to present research at an American university. That's [already] enough reason to have this talk at a forbidden research conference.

    The guiding theme of many of the talks today is that law is no substitute for conscience. Our investigation covers lawful abuse. What is that? It seems it might be a contradiction in terms. When I talked to someone on Twitter, immediately they said 'lawful abuse - it's not a contradiction!' But if you think about it for a moment it might seem more clear. The legality of a think is after all quite distinct from the morality of it. I claim no special expertise for any of this, but having worked for both the NSA he CIA I know about about lawful abuses. After all, mass surveillance was thought to be constitutional... yet it was later found by the courts to be different, after more than a decade. A lawful abuse, I would define as "an immoral or unethical activity protected under a shell of law".

    What about things that are more recent? Mass surveillance is closest to my own experience, but let's set that aside. What about torture? the Bush administration decided that this could be indefinitely [legalized]. What about internment? Extra judicial killing, far from any war zone, often by drones? The [targets] may be criminals, or armed combatants -- in many cases, but not all. The fact that these things are changing, often in secret, without anyone's consent, should be concerning.

    Such abuses aren't limited strictly to national security. We don't want to this to be about politics between doves and hawks.
    These have all been perpetuated under frameworks that said they were lawful as long as you abide by regulations.

    Lawful abuse surveillance might be more difficult to spot:

    • A restriction on who and how you can love someone,
    • An intentional tax loophole, or
    • Discrimination.

    Lawful abuse: so we've defined the term. [Willow is thinking about an anarchist zine about D&D called "Lawful Ain't Good" and how there are only 8 (not 9) alignments.!]

    Combined with legal frameworks, our daily activities produce an endless wealth of records which can and are being used to harm individuals, including those who have themselves done no wrong. If you have a phone in your pocket that's turned on, a long-lived record of your movements has been created. As a result of how the network functions, your devices are constantly shouting into the air, via radio signals, a unique identity that validates you to the phone company. This is not only saved by the phone company, but can be observed as it travels, by independent, even more dangerous third parties.

    Due to proliferation of an ancient 3d-party-doctrine style interpretation of law, even the most predatory and unethical data collection regimes are [usually] entirely legal. So if you have a device, you have a dossier. They may not be reading or using it, but it's out there.

    Why should we care? Even if there are these comprehensive records of your private activities: where you are, who you went with, how long you were there, who you meet with, what you purchased - any electronic activity records...?
    I can think of 1,070 reasons why it matters. According to figures of the committee to protect journalists, more than 1070 journalists or media workers have been killed or gone missing since January 2005. This might not be as intuitive as you expect... we've had a number of wars going on, those could be combat deaths. But: murder is a more common cause of death, and politics was a more common newsbeat [to be targeted] than war correspondence.

    Why is this? Because one good journalist in the right place and time can change history. They can move the needle in the context of an election. They can influence the outcome of a war. This makes journalists a target, and increasingly the tools of their trade are being used against them: technology is beginning to betray us not just as individuals but as classes of workers, including those putting a lot on the line in the public interest – especially those who rely on communication as part of their daily work.

    And journalists are being targeted specifically based on those communications. A single mistake can have a lot of impact; it can result in detention. For example, David Miranda (related to reporting on Snowden) had his materials seized by the British government, after they intercepted his communications about plans to travel.

    It can also result in far worse than that. In Syria, Assad began surveillance the city of Homs, to the extent that all foreign journalists were forced to flee. The government stopped accrediting journalists, and they were being beaten, harassed, disappeared. Only a few remained, including a few who specifically headed there to document abuses being visited upon the population.

    Typically in such circumstances , a journalist wouldn't file reports until after they had left the conflict area, to avoid reprisals. But what happens when you can't wait? When there are things a government is sort of arguing aren't happening, but are happening? At the time they denied they were targeting civilians; they were claimed to be enemy combatants. These lawful abuses of activities happen in many places. You say surely this isn't lawful! By international law you are right; by any interpretation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it's not lawful. But domestic laws are a hell of a thing... China, Russia, North Korea, Syria have courts. They have lawyers and general counsels, who create policy and frameworks to justify whatever it is the institutions of power want to do.

    In Homs, the Syrian government was lying in a way that affected international relations: they justified the offensive, but there was a reporter there [Marie Colvin] infiltrating the city. She crawled in through a tunnel in the dark, climbing stone walls, not speaking to avoid being fired upon. She said this [the government's claim] was not the case. She filed live report despite the fact they worried about reprisal. She spoke four times to government agencies on a single day. [quote from Colvin's report - "there are only civilian houses here"], the building she was in was later precisely targeted, and she was killed.

    This might sound like just another war story. But the next day, the makeshift media center she was working out of, was repeatedly and precisely shelled. She died, as did a French journalist. The photographer she worked with was wounded. It wasn't until a while after that we found, based on intelligence collection, that the Syrian Army had given the order to target journalists. How did they discover her? Know where to aim? According to reporting this week: her family has filed a suit against the Syrian government, claiming the audio frequencies of her communications were intercepted by the army (using direction-finding capabilities). Then they walked artillery fire towards the makeshift media center. They had a spotter somewhere in the city helping. By the time the second shell hit, they know they were in trouble... She was caught by a shell and killed.

    There's a question here among policy officials: was this legal, how do we remediate these threats when they happen, when do policies fail? This is an argument that the Syrian government says the event was misunderstood—these were terrorist attacks, or they were lawful.

    But does it matter, if it was lawful or not [by national law]? [Perhaps we should ask:] Was it moral? Can we put safeguards in place for future journalists? What about journalists who have to meet with a source in a denied area? They don't want their phone to be shouting indications of their movements.

    This is the area of our research.

    We also wanted to investigate: Can we use devices, that are so frequently used against us, as a canary to detect these new efforts to monitor us? (ex: malware attacks, to compromise the phone)

    For example, there was an Argentine prosecutor [Alberto Nisman] who was killed. They discovered malware on his phone. It did not match the OS, so it was not responsible in that case, but it was clearly an attempt has been made to compromise devices and use them against him. This same attack was used on other lawyers and journalists in Latin America.

    If we can start using our devices as a canary to know when phones have been compromised, and can get that to a targeted class of individuals—journalists or human rights workers—so they know they are acting in unexpected ways. We can affect the risk calculation of the offending actors. The NSA is very nervous about getting caught red-handed. They don't want to be known to target these groups, journalists and lawyers. They have only done this rarely; it's not their meat and potatoes [but it has happened].

    But if we can find out when it happens, we can start to change the risk calculation. If we can create a clear record of activites. In the cases so far, impunity was the most frequent outcome. Perhaps, we can start affecting the cost of carrying out lawful abuse of digital surveillance.

    Let's go to the technical side and talk about what we've done. [to bunnie]

    Great #forbiddenML talk: @Snowden & @bunniestudios on hacking phones to detect hacked phones https://t.co/KnuQncm66z pic.twitter.com/h21qx55p9S

    — Erhardt Graeff (@erhardt) July 21, 2016

    bunnie tells us about the technical parts

    There are a lot of smart people working to turn phones into cyber fortresses. But smartphones are a large, complicated attack surface. Can you trust the gatekeeper and UI? If you read things about airplane mode after ios8, it doesn't turn off GPS. It's constantly on without any indicator on the phone. So you can turn on bluetooth or wifi mode... but The little icon makes you still think you're not sending or receiving signals. Can we have a CCTV on our own phone? Technical goal is to be sure the cellular model, WiFi, GPS, etc. Trying to secure this against a state-level adversary is difficult. Turn over the phone and look on the back, and you have a surface that's simpler, with only two notable features: antennae. A choke point for things going in or out. If you want to ensure your phone isn't sending signals, you can turn on airplane mode.

    Technique: "Direct introspection"

    1. OS and inspectable, you don't have to trust us.
    2. partitioned execution environment for introspection. (in case phone was compromised, don't ask it to self-eval)
    3. proper operation field-verifiable,
    4. hard to trigger false positives (like walking by a strong wifi emitter),
    5. hard to trigger false negatives Vendor can put holes in a wall that you once thought was intact.
    6. be undetectable: avoid leaving a signature that's easy to profile (that you're introspecting)
    7. intuitive interface :) Shouldn't have to be a cryto person to use it.
    8. final solution should be usable every day; not hard to do while traveling in and out of protected areas.

    With that in mind, I went to shenzhen and started buying a bunch of bits and bobs. Are there any viable signals to introspect? We found signals strongly correlated w/ activation of the radio. even firmware updates would have a hard time bypassing that. Candidate wires/signals: configuring antenna switches, configuring power amps, baseband to comms, wlan to comms, reseting pci bus, bluetooth to comms, gps quality sync.

    Next steps:

    • Develop hardware. Build circuit to monitor signals. "Battery case" add-on to existing iPhone 6
    • Extend technique. Other makes and models of phones. Filesystem and OS integrity using disk introspection.

    See more: htps://goog.lg/y0Fslu and pubpub.org/pub/direct-radio-introspection

    This was my first acad collab; having bunnie as your first collaborator is amazing. He is one of those individuals whose competence gives people impostor syndrome. So, I'll do my best. thank you very much.

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