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    Data flow’s decisive role on the global stage

    In 2016, Meicen Sun came to a profound realization: “The control of digital information will lie at the heart of all the big questions and big contentions in politics.” A graduate student in her final year of study who is specializing in international security and the political economy of technology, Sun vividly recalls the emergence of the internet “as a democratizing force, an opener, an equalizer,” helping give rise to the Arab Spring. But she was also profoundly struck when nations in the Middle East and elsewhere curbed internet access to throttle citizens’ efforts to speak and mobilize freely.

    During her undergraduate and graduate studies, which came to focus on China and its expanding global role, Sun became convinced that digital constraints initially intended to prevent the free flow of ideas were also having enormous and growing economic impacts.

    “With an exceptionally high mobile internet adoption rate and the explosion of indigenous digital apps, China’s digital economy was surging, helping to drive the nation’s broader economic growth and international competitiveness,” Sun says. “Yet at the same time, the country maintained the most tightly controlled internet ecosystem in the world.”

    Sun set out to explore this apparent paradox in her dissertation. Her research to date has yielded both novel findings and troubling questions.  

    “Through its control of the internet, China has in effect provided protectionist benefits to its own data-intensive domestic sectors,” she says. “If there is a benefit to imposing internet control, given the absence of effective international regulations, does this give authoritarian states an advantage in trade and national competitiveness?” Following this thread, Sun asks, “What might this mean for the future of democracy as the world grows increasingly dependent on digital technology?”

    Protect or innovate

    Early in her graduate program, classes in capitalism and technology and public policy, says Sun, “cemented for me the idea of data as a factor of production, and the importance of cross-border information flow in making a country innovative.” This central premise serves as a springboard for Sun’s doctoral studies.

    In a series of interconnected research papers using China as her primary case, she is examining the double-edged nature of internet limits. “They accord protectionist benefits to domestic data-internet-intensive sectors, on the one hand, but on the other, act as a potential longer-term deterrent to the country’s capacity to innovate.”

    To pursue her doctoral project, advised by professor of political science Kenneth Oye, Sun is extracting data from a multitude of sources, including a website that has been routinely testing web domain accessibility from within China since 2011. This allows her to pin down when and to what degree internet control occurs. She can then compare this information to publicly available records on the expansion or contraction of data-intensive industrial sectors, enabling her to correlate internet control to a sector’s performance.

    Sun has also compiled datasets for firm-level revenue, scientific citations, and patents that permit her to measure aspects of China’s innovation culture. In analyzing her data she leverages both quantitative and qualitative methods, including one co-developed by her dissertation co-advisor, associate professor of political science In Song Kim. Her initial analysis suggests internet control prevents scholars from accessing knowledge available on foreign websites, and that if sustained, such control could take a toll on the Chinese economy over time.

    Of particular concern is the possibility that the economic success that flows from strict internet controls, as exemplified by the Chinese model, may encourage the rise of similar practices among emerging states or those in political flux.

    “The grim implication of my research is that without international regulation on information flow restrictions, democracies will be at a disadvantage against autocracies,” she says. “No matter how short-term or narrow these curbs are, they confer concrete benefits on certain economic sectors.”

    Data, politics, and economy

    Sun got a quick start as a student of China and its role in the world. She was born in Xiamen, a coastal Chinese city across from Taiwan, to academic parents who cultivated her interest in international politics. “My dad would constantly talk to me about global affairs, and he was passionate about foreign policy,” says Sun.

    Eager for education and a broader view of the world, Sun took a scholarship at 15 to attend school in Singapore. “While this experience exposed me to a variety of new ideas and social customs, I felt the itch to travel even farther away, and to meet people with different backgrounds and viewpoints from mine,” than she says.

    Sun attended Princeton University where, after two years sticking to her “comfort zone” — writing and directing plays and composing music for them — she underwent a process of intellectual transition. Political science classes opened a window onto a larger landscape to which she had long been connected: China’s behavior as a rising power and the shifting global landscape.

    She completed her undergraduate degree in politics, and followed up with a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, where she focused on China-U.S. relations and China’s participation in international institutions. She was on the path to completing a PhD at Penn when, Sun says, “I became confident in my perception that digital technology, and especially information sharing, were becoming critically important factors in international politics, and I felt a strong desire to devote my graduate studies, and even my career, to studying these topics,”

    Certain that the questions she hoped to pursue could best be addressed through an interdisciplinary approach with those working on similar issues, Sun began her doctoral program anew at MIT.

    “Doer mindset”

    Sun is hopeful that her doctoral research will prove useful to governments, policymakers, and business leaders. “There are a lot of developing states actively shopping between data governance and development models for their own countries,” she says. “My findings around the pros and cons of information flow restrictions should be of interest to leaders in these places, and to trade negotiators and others dealing with the global governance of data and what a fair playing field for digital trade would be.”

    Sun has engaged directly with policy and industry experts through her fellowships with the World Economic Forum and the Pacific Forum. And she has embraced questions that touch on policy outside of her immediate research: Sun is collaborating with her dissertation co-advisor, MIT Sloan Professor Yasheng Huang, on a study of the political economy of artificial intelligence in China for the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future.

    This year, as she writes her dissertation papers, Sun will be based at Georgetown University, where she has a Mortara Center Global Political Economy Project Predoctoral Fellowship. In Washington, she will continue her journey to becoming a “policy-minded scholar, a thinker with a doer mindset, whose findings have bearing on things that happen in the world.” More

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    Helping companies optimize their websites and mobile apps

    Creating a good customer experience increasingly means creating a good digital experience. But metrics like pageviews and clicks offer limited insight into how much customers actually like a digital product.

    That’s the problem the digital optimization company Amplitude is solving. Amplitude gives companies a clearer picture into how users interact with their digital products to help them understand exactly which features to promote or improve.

    “It’s all about using product data to drive your business,” says Amplitude CEO Spenser Skates ’10, who co-founded the company with Curtis Liu ’10 and Stanford University graduate Jeffrey Wang. “Mobile apps and websites are really complex. The average app or website will have thousands of things you can do with it. The question is how you know which of those things are driving a great user experience and which parts are really frustrating for users.”

    Amplitude’s database can gather millions of details about how users behave inside an app or website and allow customers to explore that information without needing data science degrees.

    “It provides an interface for very easy, accessible ways of looking at your data, understanding your data, and asking questions of that data,” Skates says.

    Amplitude, which recently announced it will be going public, is already helping 23 of the 100 largest companies in the U.S. Customers include media companies like NBC, tech companies like Twitter, and retail companies like Walmart.

    “Our platform helps businesses understand how people are using their apps and websites so they can create better versions of their products,” Skates says. “It’s all about creating a really compelling product.”

    Learning entrepreneurship

    The founders say their years at MIT were among the best of their lives. Skates and Liu were undergraduates from 2006 to 2010. Skates majored in biological engineering while Liu majored in mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science. The two first met as opponents in MIT’s Battlecode competition, in which students use artificial intelligence algorithms to control teams of robots that compete in a strategy game against other teams. The following year they teamed up.

    “There are a lot of parallels between what you’re trying to do in Battlecode and what you end up having to do in the early stages of a startup,” Liu says. “You have limited resources, limited time, and you’re trying to accomplish a goal. What we found is trying a lot of different things, putting our ideas out there and testing them with real data, really helped us focus on the things that actually mattered. That method of iteration and continual improvement set the foundation for how we approach building products and startups.”

    Liu and Skates next participated in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition with an idea for a cloud-based music streaming service. After graduation, Skates began working in finance and Liu got a job at Google, but they continued pursuing startup ideas on the side, including a website that let alumni see where their classmates ended up and a marketplace for finding photographers.

    A year after graduation, the founders decided to quit their jobs and work on a startup full time. Skates moved into Liu’s apartment in San Francisco, setting up a mattress on the floor, and they began working on a project that became Sonalight, a voice recognition app. As part of the project, the founders built an internal system to understand where users got stuck in the app and what features were used the most.

    Despite getting over 100,000 downloads, the founders decided Sonalight was a little too early for its time and started thinking their analytics feature could be useful to other companies. They spoke with about 30 different product teams to learn more about what companies wanted from their digital analytics. Amplitude was officially founded in 2012.

    Amplitude gathers fine details about digital product usage, parsing out individual features and actions to give customers a better view of how their products are being used. Using the data in Amplitude’s intuitive, no-code interface, customers can make strategic decisions like whether to launch a feature or change a distribution channel.

    The platform is designed to ease the bottlenecks that arise when executives, product teams, salespeople, and marketers want to answer questions about customer experience or behavior but need the data science team to crunch the numbers for them.

    “It’s a very collaborative interface to encourage customers to work together to understand how users are engaging with their apps,” Skates says.

    Amplitude’s database also uses machine learning to segment users, predict user outcomes, and uncover novel correlations. Earlier this year, the company unveiled a service called Recommend that helps companies create personalized user experiences across their entire platform in minutes. The service goes beyond demographics to personalize customer experiences based on what users have done or seen before within the product.

    “We’re very conscious on the privacy front,” Skates says. “A lot of analytics companies will resell your data to third parties or use it for advertising purposes. We don’t do any of that. We’re only here to provide product insights to our customers. We’re not using data to track you across the web. Everyone expects Netflix to use the data on what you’ve watched before to recommend what to watch next. That’s effectively what we’re helping other companies do.”

    Optimizing digital experiences

    The meditation app Calm is on a mission to help users build habits that improve their mental wellness. Using Amplitude, the company learned that users most often use the app to get better sleep and reduce stress. The insights helped Calm’s team double down on content geared toward those goals, launching “sleep stories” to help users unwind at the end of each day and adding content around anxiety relief and relaxation. Sleep stories are now Calm’s most popular type of content, and Calm has grown rapidly to millions of people around the world.

    Calm’s story shows the power of letting user behavior drive product decisions. Amplitude has also helped the online fundraising site GoFundMe increase donations by showing users more compelling campaigns and the exercise bike company Peloton realize the importance of social features like leaderboards.

    Moving forward, the founders believe Amplitude’s platform will continue helping companies adapt to an increasingly digital world in which users expect more compelling, personalized experiences.

    “If you think about the online experience for companies today compared to 10 years ago, now [digital] is the main point of contact, whether you’re a media company streaming content, a retail company, or a finance company,” Skates says. “That’s only going to continue. That’s where we’re trying to help.” More

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    Study finds lockdowns effective at reducing travel in Sierra Leone

    Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, governments have used data on people’s movements to inform strategies for containing the spread of the virus. In Europe and the United States, for example, contact-tracing apps have used Bluetooth signals in smartphones to alert people when they’ve spent time near app users who have tested positive for Covid-19. 

    But how can governments make evidence-based decisions in countries where such fine-grained data isn’t available? In recent findings, MIT researchers, in collaboration with Sierra Leone’s government, use cell tower records in Sierra Leone to show that people were traveling less during lockdowns. “When the government implemented novel three-day lockdowns, there was a dual aim to reduce virus spread and also limit social impacts, like increased hunger or food insecurity,” says Professor Lily L. Tsai, MIT Governance Lab’s (MIT GOV/LAB) director and founder. “We wanted to know if shorter lockdowns would be successful.”   

    The research was conducted by MIT GOV/LAB and MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL), in partnership with Sierra Leone’s Directorate for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSTI) and Africell, a wireless service provider. The findings will be published as a chapter in the book “Urban Informatics and Future Cities,” a selection of research submitted to the 2021 Computational Urban Planning and Urban Management conference. 

    A proxy for mobility: cell tower records

    Any time someone’s cellphone sends or receives a text, or makes or receives a call, the nearest cell tower is pinged. The tower collects some data (call-detail records, or CDRs), including the date and time of the event and the phone number. By tracking which towers a certain (anonymized) phone number pings, the researchers could approximately measure how much someone was moving around.  

    These measurements showed that, on average, people were traveling less during lockdowns than before lockdowns. Professor Sarah Williams, CDDL’s director, says the analysis also revealed frequently traveled routes, which “allow the government to develop region-specific lockdowns.” 

    While more fine-grained GPS data from smartphones paint a more accurate picture of movement, “there just isn’t a systematic effort in many developing countries to build the infrastructure to collect this data,” says Innocent Ndubuisi-Obi Jr., an MIT GOV/LAB research associate. “In many cases, the closest thing we can use as a proxy for mobility is CDR data.”

    Measuring the effectiveness of lockdowns

    Sierra Leone’s government imposed the three-day lockdown, which required people stay in their homes, in April 2020. A few days after the lockdown ended, a two-week inter-district travel ban began. “Analysis of aggregated CDRs was the quickest means to understanding mobility prior to and during lockdowns,” says Michala Mackay, DSTI’s director and chief operating officer. 

    The data MIT and DSTI received was anonymized — an essential part of ensuring the privacy of the individuals whose data was used. 

    Extracting meaning from the data, though, presented some challenges. Only about 75 percent of adults in Sierra Leone own cellphones, and people sometimes share phones. So the towers pinged by a specific phone might actually represent the movement of several people, and not everyone’s movement will be captured by cell towers. 

    Furthermore, some districts in Sierra Leone have significantly fewer towers than others. When the data were collected, Falaba, a rural district in the northeast, had only five towers, while over 100 towers were clustered in and around Freetown, the capital. In areas with very few towers, it’s harder to detect changes in how much people are traveling. 

    Since each district had a unique tower distribution, the researchers looked at each district separately, establishing a baseline for average distance traveled in each district before the lockdowns, then measuring how movement compared to this average during lockdowns. They found that travel to other districts declined in every district, by as much as 72 percent and by as little as 16 percent. Travel within districts also dropped in all but one district. 

    This map shows change in average distance traveled per trip to other districts in Sierra Leone in 2020.

    Image courtesy of the MIT GOV/LAB and CDDL.

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    Lockdowns have greater costs in poorer areas

    While movement did decline in all districts, the effect was less dramatic in poorer, more sparsely populated areas. This finding was to be expected; other studies have shown that poorer people often can’t afford to comply with lockdowns, since they can’t take time off work or need to travel to get food. Evidence showing how lockdowns are less effective in poorer areas highlights the importance of distributing resources to poorer areas during crises, which could both provide support during a particularly challenging time and make it less costly for people to comply with social distancing measures. 

    “In low-income communities that demonstrated moderate or low compliance, one of the most common reasons why people left their homes was to search for water,” says Mackay. “A policy takeaway was that lockdowns should only be implemented in extreme cases and for no longer than three days at a time.”

    Throughout the project, the researchers collaborated intimately with DSTI. “This meant government officials learned along with the MIT researchers and added crucial local knowledge,” says Williams. “We hope this model can be replicated elsewhere — especially during crises.” 

    The researchers will be developing an MITx course teaching government officials and MIT students how to collaboratively use CDR data during crises, with a focus on how to do the analysis in a way that protects people’s privacy.

    Ndubuisi-Obi Jr. also has led a training on CDR analysis for Sierra Leonean government officials and has written a guide on how policymakers can use CDRs safely and effectively. “Some of these data sets will help us answer really important policy questions, and we have to balance that with the privacy risks,” he says. More

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    Lockdowns reveal inequities in opportunities for walking activities

    Lockdowns saved lives during the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. But as much as they have slowed the spread of Covid-19, there have been some unintended consequences.

    New MIT research shows that lockdowns in 10 metropolitan areas throughout the United States led to a marked reduction in walking. These decreases were mostly seen among residents living in lower-income areas of the city, effectively reducing access to physical activity for minorities and people suffering from illnesses such as obesity and diabetes.

    “Walking is the cheapest, most accessible physical exercise that you can do,” says Esteban Moro, visiting research scientist in the MIT Connection Science Group and senior author on the Nature Communications paper published on June 16. “Places in which people have lower incomes, less park access, and more obesity prevalence were more affected by this walking reduction — which you can think of as another pandemic, the lack of access to affordable exercise.”

    The research focused on recreational versus utilitarian walking done by residents in the U.S. cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. (Utilitarian walking is defined as having a goal; for example, walking to the store or to public transportation. Recreational walking is a walk meant for leisure or exercise.)

    Comparing cellphone data from February 2020 to different time points throughout 2020 lockdowns, the researchers saw an average 70 percent decrease in the number of walks — which remained down by about 18 percent after loosened restrictions — a 50 percent decrease in distance walked, and a 72 percent decrease in utilitarian walking — which remained down by 39 percent even after restrictions were lifted.

    On their face, these findings may not be surprising. When people couldn’t leave their homes, they walked less. But digging deeper into the data yields troubling insights. For example, people in lower-income regions are more likely to rely on public transportation. Lockdowns cut back on those services, meaning fewer people walking to trains and buses.

    Another statistic showed that people in higher-income areas reduced their number of utilitarian walks but were able to replace some of the lost movement with recreational walks around their neighborhoods or in nearby parks.

    “People in higher-income areas generally not only have a park nearby, but also have jobs that give them a degree of flexibility. Jobs that permit them to take a break and walk,” says Moro. “People in the low-income regions often don’t have the ability, the opportunity or even the facilities to actually do this.”

    How it was done

    The researchers used de-identified mobile data obtained through a partnership within the company Cuebiq’s Data for Good COVID-19 Collaborative program. The completely anonymized dataset consisted of GPS locations gathered from smartphone accelerometers from users who opted into the program. Moro and his collaborators took these data and, using specifically designed algorithms, determined when people walked, for how long, and for what purpose. They compared this information from before the pandemic, at different points throughout lockdown, and at a point when most restrictions had been eased. They matched the GPS-identified locations of the smartphones with census data to understand income level and other demographics.

    To make sure their dataset was robust, they only used information from areas that could reasonably be considered pedestrian. The researchers also acknowledge that the dataset may be incomplete, considering people may have occasionally walked without their phones on them.

    Leisure versus utilitarian walks were separated according to distance and/or destination. Utilitarian walks are usually shorter and involve stops at destinations other than the starting point. Leisure walks are longer and usually happen closer to home or in dedicated outdoor spaces.

    For example, many of the walks recorded pre-Covid-19 were short and occurred at around 7 a.m. and between 3 and 5 p.m., which would indicate a walking commute. These bouts of walking were replaced on weekends by short walks around noon.

    The key takeaway is that most walking in cities occurs with the goal of getting to a place. If people don’t have the opportunity to walk to places they need to go, they will reduce their walking activity overall. But when provided opportunity and access, people can supplement utilitarian activity with leisure walking.

    What can be done about it

    Taking into account the public health implications of physical inactivity, the authors argue a reduction in access to walking should be considered a second pandemic and be addressed with the same rigor as the Covid-19 pandemic.

    They suggest several tactical urbanization strategies (defined as non-permanent but easily accessible measures) to increase safety and appeal for both utilitarian and recreational walkers. Many of these have already been implemented in various cities around the world to ease economic and other hardships of the pandemic. Sections of city streets have been closed off to cars on weekends or other non-busy times to allow for pedestrian walking areas. Restaurants have been given curb space to allow for outdoor dining.

    “But most of these pop-up pedestrian areas happen in downtown, where people are high-income and have easier access to more walking opportunities,” notes Moro.

    The same attention needs to be paid to lower-income areas, the researchers argue. This study’s data showed that people explored their own neighborhoods in a recreational way more during lockdown than pre-pandemic. Such wanderings, the researcher say, should be encouraged by making any large, multi-lane intersections safer to cross for the elderly, sick, or those with young children. And local parks, usually seen as places for running laps, should be made more attractive destinations by adding amenities like water fountains, shaded pavilions, and hygiene and sanitation spaces.

    This study was unique in that its data came straight from mobile devices, rather than being self-reported in surveys. This more reliable method of tracking made this study more data-driven than other, similar efforts. And the geotagged data allowed the researchers to dig into socioeconomic trends associated with the findings.

    This is the team’s first analysis of physical activity during and just after lockdown. They hope to use lessons learned from this and planned follow-ups to encourage more permanent adoption of pedestrian-friendly pandemic-era changes.

    The Connection Science Group, co-led by faculty member Alex “Sandy” Pentland — who, along with Moro was a co-author on the paper along with six others from the UK, Brazil, and Australia — is part of the MIT Sociotechnical Systems Research Center within the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. The collaborative research exemplified in this study is core to the mission of the SSRC; in pairing computer science with public health, the group not only observes trends but also contextualizes data and use them to make improvements for everyone.

    “SSRC merges both the social and technological components of the research,” says Moro. “We’re not only building an analysis, but going beyond that to propose new policies and interventions to change what we are seeing for the better.” More