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    Living better with algorithms

    Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) student Sarah Cen remembers the lecture that sent her down the track to an upstream question.

    At a talk on ethical artificial intelligence, the speaker brought up a variation on the famous trolley problem, which outlines a philosophical choice between two undesirable outcomes.

    The speaker’s scenario: Say a self-driving car is traveling down a narrow alley with an elderly woman walking on one side and a small child on the other, and no way to thread between both without a fatality. Who should the car hit?

    Then the speaker said: Let’s take a step back. Is this the question we should even be asking?

    That’s when things clicked for Cen. Instead of considering the point of impact, a self-driving car could have avoided choosing between two bad outcomes by making a decision earlier on — the speaker pointed out that, when entering the alley, the car could have determined that the space was narrow and slowed to a speed that would keep everyone safe.

    Recognizing that today’s AI safety approaches often resemble the trolley problem, focusing on downstream regulation such as liability after someone is left with no good choices, Cen wondered: What if we could design better upstream and downstream safeguards to such problems? This question has informed much of Cen’s work.

    “Engineering systems are not divorced from the social systems on which they intervene,” Cen says. Ignoring this fact risks creating tools that fail to be useful when deployed or, more worryingly, that are harmful.

    Cen arrived at LIDS in 2018 via a slightly roundabout route. She first got a taste for research during her undergraduate degree at Princeton University, where she majored in mechanical engineering. For her master’s degree, she changed course, working on radar solutions in mobile robotics (primarily for self-driving cars) at Oxford University. There, she developed an interest in AI algorithms, curious about when and why they misbehave. So, she came to MIT and LIDS for her doctoral research, working with Professor Devavrat Shah in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, for a stronger theoretical grounding in information systems.

    Auditing social media algorithms

    Together with Shah and other collaborators, Cen has worked on a wide range of projects during her time at LIDS, many of which tie directly to her interest in the interactions between humans and computational systems. In one such project, Cen studies options for regulating social media. Her recent work provides a method for translating human-readable regulations into implementable audits.

    To get a sense of what this means, suppose that regulators require that any public health content — for example, on vaccines — not be vastly different for politically left- and right-leaning users. How should auditors check that a social media platform complies with this regulation? Can a platform be made to comply with the regulation without damaging its bottom line? And how does compliance affect the actual content that users do see?

    Designing an auditing procedure is difficult in large part because there are so many stakeholders when it comes to social media. Auditors have to inspect the algorithm without accessing sensitive user data. They also have to work around tricky trade secrets, which can prevent them from getting a close look at the very algorithm that they are auditing because these algorithms are legally protected. Other considerations come into play as well, such as balancing the removal of misinformation with the protection of free speech.

    To meet these challenges, Cen and Shah developed an auditing procedure that does not need more than black-box access to the social media algorithm (which respects trade secrets), does not remove content (which avoids issues of censorship), and does not require access to users (which preserves users’ privacy).

    In their design process, the team also analyzed the properties of their auditing procedure, finding that it ensures a desirable property they call decision robustness. As good news for the platform, they show that a platform can pass the audit without sacrificing profits. Interestingly, they also found the audit naturally incentivizes the platform to show users diverse content, which is known to help reduce the spread of misinformation, counteract echo chambers, and more.

    Who gets good outcomes and who gets bad ones?

    In another line of research, Cen looks at whether people can receive good long-term outcomes when they not only compete for resources, but also don’t know upfront what resources are best for them.

    Some platforms, such as job-search platforms or ride-sharing apps, are part of what is called a matching market, which uses an algorithm to match one set of individuals (such as workers or riders) with another (such as employers or drivers). In many cases, individuals have matching preferences that they learn through trial and error. In labor markets, for example, workers learn their preferences about what kinds of jobs they want, and employers learn their preferences about the qualifications they seek from workers.

    But learning can be disrupted by competition. If workers with a particular background are repeatedly denied jobs in tech because of high competition for tech jobs, for instance, they may never get the knowledge they need to make an informed decision about whether they want to work in tech. Similarly, tech employers may never see and learn what these workers could do if they were hired.

    Cen’s work examines this interaction between learning and competition, studying whether it is possible for individuals on both sides of the matching market to walk away happy.

    Modeling such matching markets, Cen and Shah found that it is indeed possible to get to a stable outcome (workers aren’t incentivized to leave the matching market), with low regret (workers are happy with their long-term outcomes), fairness (happiness is evenly distributed), and high social welfare.

    Interestingly, it’s not obvious that it’s possible to get stability, low regret, fairness, and high social welfare simultaneously.  So another important aspect of the research was uncovering when it is possible to achieve all four criteria at once and exploring the implications of those conditions.

    What is the effect of X on Y?

    For the next few years, though, Cen plans to work on a new project, studying how to quantify the effect of an action X on an outcome Y when it’s expensive — or impossible — to measure this effect, focusing in particular on systems that have complex social behaviors.

    For instance, when Covid-19 cases surged in the pandemic, many cities had to decide what restrictions to adopt, such as mask mandates, business closures, or stay-home orders. They had to act fast and balance public health with community and business needs, public spending, and a host of other considerations.

    Typically, in order to estimate the effect of restrictions on the rate of infection, one might compare the rates of infection in areas that underwent different interventions. If one county has a mask mandate while its neighboring county does not, one might think comparing the counties’ infection rates would reveal the effectiveness of mask mandates. 

    But of course, no county exists in a vacuum. If, for instance, people from both counties gather to watch a football game in the maskless county every week, people from both counties mix. These complex interactions matter, and Sarah plans to study questions of cause and effect in such settings.

    “We’re interested in how decisions or interventions affect an outcome of interest, such as how criminal justice reform affects incarceration rates or how an ad campaign might change the public’s behaviors,” Cen says.

    Cen has also applied the principles of promoting inclusivity to her work in the MIT community.

    As one of three co-presidents of the Graduate Women in MIT EECS student group, she helped organize the inaugural GW6 research summit featuring the research of women graduate students — not only to showcase positive role models to students, but also to highlight the many successful graduate women at MIT who are not to be underestimated.

    Whether in computing or in the community, a system taking steps to address bias is one that enjoys legitimacy and trust, Cen says. “Accountability, legitimacy, trust — these principles play crucial roles in society and, ultimately, will determine which systems endure with time.”  More

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    Study: With masking and distancing in place, NFL stadium openings in 2020 had no impact on local Covid-19 infections

    As with most everything in the world, football looked very different in 2020. As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded, many National Football League (NFL) games were played in empty stadiums, while other stadiums opened to fans at significantly reduced capacity, with strict safety protocols in place.

    At the time it was unclear what impact such large sporting events would have on Covid-19 case counts, particularly at a time when vaccination against the virus was not widely available.

    Now, MIT engineers have taken a look back at the NFL’s 2020 regular season and found that for this specific period during the pandemic, opening stadiums to fans while requiring face coverings, social distancing, and other measures had no impact on the number of Covid-19 infections in those stadiums’ local counties.

    As they write in a new paper appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “the benefits of providing a tightly controlled outdoor spectating environment — including masking and distancing requirements — counterbalanced the risks associated with opening.”

    The study concentrates on the NFL’s 2020 regular season (September 2020 to early January 2021), at a time when earlier strains of the virus dominated, before the rise of more transmissible Delta and Omicron variants. Nevertheless, the results may inform decisions on whether and how to hold large outdoor gatherings in the face of future public health crises.

    “These results show that the measures adopted by the NFL were effective in safely opening stadiums,” says study author Anette “Peko” Hosoi, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. “If case counts start to rise again, we know what to do: mask people, put them outside, and distance them from each other.”

    The study’s co-authors are members of MIT’s Institue for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), and include Bernardo García Bulle, Dennis Shen, and Devavrat Shah, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS).

    Preseason patterns

    Last year a group led by the University of Southern Mississippi compared Covid-19 case counts in the counties of NFL stadiums that allowed fans in, versus those that did not. Their analysis showed that stadiums that opened to large numbers of fans led to “tangible increases” in the local county’s number of Covid-19 cases.

    But there are a number of factors in addition to a stadium’s opening that can affect case counts, including local policies, mandates, and attitudes. As the MIT team writes, “it is not at all obvious that one can attribute the differences in case spikes to the stadiums given the enormous number of confounding factors.”

    To truly isolate the effects of a stadium’s opening, one could imagine tracking Covid cases in a county with an open stadium through the 2020 season, then turning back the clock, closing the stadium, then tracking that same county’s Covid cases through the same season, all things being equal.

    “That’s the perfect experiment, with the exception that you would need a time machine,” Hosoi says.

    As it turns out, the next best thing is synthetic control — a statistical method that is used to determine the effect of an “intervention” (such as the opening of a stadium) compared with the exact same scenario without that intervention.

    In synthetic control, researchers use a weighted combination of groups to construct a “synthetic” version of an actual  scenario. In this case, the actual scenario is a county such as Dallas that hosts an open stadium. A synthetic version would be a county that looks similar to Dallas, only without a stadium. In the context of this study, a county that “looks” like Dallas has a similar preseason pattern of Covid-19 cases.

    To construct a synthetic Dallas, the researchers looked for surrounding counties without stadiums, that had similar Covid-19 trajectories leading up to the 2020 football season. They combined these counties in a way that best fit Dallas’ actual case trajectory. They then used data from the combined counties to calculate the number of Covid cases for this synthetic Dallas through the season, and compared these counts to the real Dallas.

    The team carried out this analysis for every “stadium county.” They determined a county to be a stadium county if more than 10 percent of a stadium’s fans came from that county, which the researchers estimated based on attendance data provided by the NFL.

    “Go outside”

    Of the stadiums included in the study, 13 were closed through the regular season, while 16 opened with reduced capacity and multiple pandemic requirements in place, such as required masking, distanced seating, mobile ticketing, and enhanced cleaning protocols.

    The researchers found the trajectory of infections in all stadium counties mirrored that of synthetic counties, showing that the number of infections would have been the same if the stadiums had remained closed. In other words, they found no evidence that NFL stadium openings led to any increase in local Covid case counts.

    To check that their method wasn’t missing any case spikes, they tested it on a known superspreader: the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which was held in August of 2020. The analysis successfully picked up an increase in cases in Meade, the host county, compared to a synthetic counterpart, in the two weeks following the rally.

    Surprisingly, the researchers found that several stadium counties’ case counts dipped slightly compared to their synthetic counterparts. In these counties — including Hamilton, Ohio, home of the Cincinnati Bengals — it appeared that opening the stadium to fans was tied to a dip in Covid-19 infections. Hosoi has a guess as to why:

    “These are football communities with dedicated fans. Rather than stay home alone, those fans may have gone to a sports bar or hosted indoor football gatherings if the stadium had not opened,” Hosoi proposes. “Opening the stadium under those circumstances would have been beneficial to the community because it makes people go outside.”

    The team’s analysis also revealed another connection: Counties with similar Covid trajectories also shared similar politics. To illustrate this point, the team mapped the county-wide temporal trajectories of Covid case counts in Ohio in 2020 and found them to be a strong predictor of the state’s 2020 electoral map.

    “That is not a coincidence,” Hosoi notes. “It tells us that local political leanings determined the temporal trajectory of the pandemic.”

    The team plans to apply their analysis to see how other factors may have influenced the pandemic.

    “Covid is a different beast [today],” she says. “Omicron is more transmissive, and more of the population is vaccinated. It’s possible we’d find something different if we ran this analysis on the upcoming season, and I think we probably should try.” More

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    Transforming the travel experience for the Hong Kong airport

    MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node welcomed 33 students to its flagship program, MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI). Designed to develop entrepreneurial prowess through exposure to industry-driven challenges, MIT students joined forces with Hong Kong peers in this two-week hybrid bootcamp, developing unique proposals for the Airport Authority of Hong Kong.

    Many airports across the world continue to be affected by the broader impact of Covid-19 with reduced air travel, prompting airlines to cut capacity. The result is a need for new business opportunities to propel economic development. For Hong Kong, the expansion toward non-aeronautical activities to boost regional consumption is therefore crucial, and included as part of the blueprint to transform the city’s airport into an airport city — characterized by capacity expansion, commercial developments, air cargo leadership, an autonomous transport system, connectivity to neighboring cities in mainland China, and evolution into a smart airport guided by sustainable practices. To enhance the customer experience, a key focus is capturing business opportunities at the nexus of digital and physical interactions. 

    These challenges “bring ideas and talent together to tackle real-world problems in the areas of digital service creation for the airport and engaging regional customers to experience the new airport city,” says Charles Sodini, the LeBel Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT and faculty director at the Node. 

    The new travel standard

    Businesses are exploring new digital technologies, both to drive bookings and to facilitate safe travel. Developments such as Hong Kong airport’s Flight Token, a biometric technology using facial recognition to enable contactless check-ins and boarding at airports, unlock enormous potential that speeds up the departure journey of passengers. Seamless virtual experiences are not going to disappear.

    “What we may see could be a strong rebounce especially for travelers after the travel ban lifts … an opportunity to make travel easier, flying as simple as riding the bus,” says Chris Au Young, general manager of smart airport and general manager of data analytics at the Airport Authority of Hong Kong. 

    The passenger experience of the future will be “enabled by mobile technology, internet of things, and digital platforms,” he explains, adding that in the aviation community, “international organizations have already stipulated that biometric technology will be the new standard for the future … the next question is how this can be connected across airports.”  

    This extends further beyond travel, where Au Young illustrates, “If you go to a concert at Asia World Expo, which is the airport’s new arena in the future, you might just simply show your face rather than queue up in a long line waiting to show your tickets.”

    Accelerating the learning curve with industry support

    Working closely with industry mentors involved in the airport city’s development, students dived deep into discussions on the future of adapted travel, interviewed and surveyed travelers, and plowed through a range of airport data to uncover business insights.

    “With the large amount of data provided, my teammates and I worked hard to identify modeling opportunities that were both theoretically feasible and valuable in a business sense,” says Sean Mann, a junior at MIT studying computer science.

    Mann and his team applied geolocation data to inform machine learning predictions on a passenger’s journey once they enter the airside area. Coupled with biometric technology, passengers can receive personalized recommendations with improved accuracy via the airport’s bespoke passenger app, powered by data collected through thousands of iBeacons dispersed across the vicinity. Armed with these insights, the aim is to enhance the user experience by driving meaningful footfall to retail shops, restaurants, and other airport amenities.

    The support of industry partners inspired his team “with their deep understanding of the aviation industry,” he added. “In a short period of two weeks, we built a proof-of-concept and a rudimentary business plan — the latter of which was very new to me.”

    Collaborating across time zones, Rumen Dangovski, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, joined MEMSI from his home in Bulgaria. For him, learning “how to continually revisit ideas to discover important problems and meaningful solutions for a large and complex real-world system” was a key takeaway. The iterative process helped his team overcome the obstacle of narrowing down the scope of their proposal, with the help of industry mentors and advisors. 

    “Without the feedback from industry partners, we would not have been able to formulate a concrete solution that is actually helpful to the airport,” says Dangovski.  

    Beyond valuable mentorship, he adds, “there was incredible energy in our team, consisting of diverse talent, grit, discipline and organization. I was positively surprised how MEMSI can form quickly and give continual support to our team. The overall experience was very fun.“

    A sustainable future

    Mrigi Munjal, a PhD candidate studying materials science and engineering at MIT, had just taken a long-haul flight from Boston to Delhi prior to the program, and “was beginning to fully appreciate the scale of carbon emissions from aviation.” For her, “that one journey basically overshadowed all of my conscious pro-sustainability lifestyle changes,” she says.

    Knowing that international flights constitute the largest part of an individual’s carbon footprint, Munjal and her team wanted “to make flying more sustainable with an idea that is economically viable for all of the stakeholders involved.” 

    They proposed a carbon offset API that integrates into an airline’s ticket payment system, empowering individuals to take action to offset their carbon footprint, track their personal carbon history, and pick and monitor green projects. The advocacy extends to a digital display of interactive art featured in physical installations across the airport city. The intent is to raise community awareness about one’s impact on the environment and making carbon offsetting accessible. 

    Shaping the travel narrative

    Six teams of students created innovative solutions for the Hong Kong airport which they presented in hybrid format to a panel of judges on Showcase Day. The diverse ideas included an app-based airport retail recommendations supported by iBeacons; a platform that empowers customers to offset their carbon footprint; an app that connects fellow travelers for social and incentive-driven retail experiences; a travel membership exchange platform offering added flexibility to earn and redeem loyalty rewards; an interactive and gamified location-based retail experience using augmented reality; and a digital companion avatar to increase adoption of the airport’s Flight Token and improve airside passenger experience.

    Among the judges was Julian Lee ’97, former president of the MIT Club of Hong Kong and current executive director of finance at the Airport Authority of Hong Kong, who commended the students for demonstrably having “worked very thoroughly and thinking through the specific challenges,” addressing the real pain points that the airport is experiencing.

    “The ideas were very thoughtful and very unique to us. Some of you defined transit passengers as a sub-segment of the market that works. It only happens at the airport and you’ve been able to leverage this transit time in between,” remarked Lee. 

    Strong solutions include an implementation plan to see a path for execution and a viable future. Among the solutions proposed, Au Young was impressed by teams for “paying a lot of attention to the business model … a very important aspect in all the ideas generated.”  

    Addressing the students, Au Young says, “What we love is the way you reinvent the airport business and partnerships, presenting a new way of attracting people to engage more in new services and experiences — not just returning for a flight or just shopping with us, but innovating beyond the airport and using emerging technologies, using location data, using the retailer’s capability and adding some social activities in your solutions.”

    Despite today’s rapidly evolving travel industry, what remains unchanged is a focus on the customer. In the end, “it’s still about the passengers,” added Au Young.  More

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    Physics and the machine-learning “black box”

    Machine-learning algorithms are often referred to as a “black box.” Once data are put into an algorithm, it’s not always known exactly how the algorithm arrives at its prediction. This can be particularly frustrating when things go wrong. A new mechanical engineering (MechE) course at MIT teaches students how to tackle the “black box” problem, through a combination of data science and physics-based engineering.

    In class 2.C161 (Physical Systems Modeling and Design Using Machine Learning), Professor George Barbastathis demonstrates how mechanical engineers can use their unique knowledge of physical systems to keep algorithms in check and develop more accurate predictions.

    “I wanted to take 2.C161 because machine-learning models are usually a “black box,” but this class taught us how to construct a system model that is informed by physics so we can peek inside,” explains Crystal Owens, a mechanical engineering graduate student who took the course in spring 2021.

    As chair of the Committee on the Strategic Integration of Data Science into Mechanical Engineering, Barbastathis has had many conversations with mechanical engineering students, researchers, and faculty to better understand the challenges and successes they’ve had using machine learning in their work.

    “One comment we heard frequently was that these colleagues can see the value of data science methods for problems they are facing in their mechanical engineering-centric research; yet they are lacking the tools to make the most out of it,” says Barbastathis. “Mechanical, civil, electrical, and other types of engineers want a fundamental understanding of data principles without having to convert themselves to being full-time data scientists or AI researchers.”

    Additionally, as mechanical engineering students move on from MIT to their careers, many will need to manage data scientists on their teams someday. Barbastathis hopes to set these students up for success with class 2.C161.

    Bridging MechE and the MIT Schwartzman College of Computing

    Class 2.C161 is part of the MIT Schwartzman College of Computing “Computing Core.” The goal of these classes is to connect data science and physics-based engineering disciplines, like mechanical engineering. Students take the course alongside 6.C402 (Modeling with Machine Learning: from Algorithms to Applications), taught by professors of electrical engineering and computer science Regina Barzilay and Tommi Jaakkola.

    The two classes are taught concurrently during the semester, exposing students to both fundamentals in machine learning and domain-specific applications in mechanical engineering.

    In 2.C161, Barbastathis highlights how complementary physics-based engineering and data science are. Physical laws present a number of ambiguities and unknowns, ranging from temperature and humidity to electromagnetic forces. Data science can be used to predict these physical phenomena. Meanwhile, having an understanding of physical systems helps ensure the resulting output of an algorithm is accurate and explainable.

    “What’s needed is a deeper combined understanding of the associated physical phenomena and the principles of data science, machine learning in particular, to close the gap,” adds Barbastathis. “By combining data with physical principles, the new revolution in physics-based engineering is relatively immune to the “black box” problem facing other types of machine learning.”

    Equipped with a working knowledge of machine-learning topics covered in class 6.C402 and a deeper understanding of how to pair data science with physics, students are charged with developing a final project that solves for an actual physical system.

    Developing solutions for real-world physical systems

    For their final project, students in 2.C161 are asked to identify a real-world problem that requires data science to address the ambiguity inherent in physical systems. After obtaining all relevant data, students are asked to select a machine-learning method, implement their chosen solution, and present and critique the results.

    Topics this past semester ranged from weather forecasting to the flow of gas in combustion engines, with two student teams drawing inspiration from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

    Owens and her teammates, fellow graduate students Arun Krishnadas and Joshua David John Rathinaraj, set out to develop a model for the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

    “We developed a method of combining a neural network with a susceptible-infected-recovered (SIR) epidemiological model to create a physics-informed prediction system for the spread of Covid-19 after vaccinations started,” explains Owens.

    The team accounted for various unknowns including population mobility, weather, and political climate. This combined approach resulted in a prediction of Covid-19’s spread during the vaccine rollout that was more reliable than using either the SIR model or a neural network alone.

    Another team, including graduate student Yiwen Hu, developed a model to predict mutation rates in Covid-19, a topic that became all too pertinent as the delta variant began its global spread.

    “We used machine learning to predict the time-series-based mutation rate of Covid-19, and then incorporated that as an independent parameter into the prediction of pandemic dynamics to see if it could help us better predict the trend of the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Hu.

    Hu, who had previously conducted research into how vibrations on coronavirus protein spikes affect infection rates, hopes to apply the physics-based machine-learning approaches he learned in 2.C161 to his research on de novo protein design.

    Whatever the physical system students addressed in their final projects, Barbastathis was careful to stress one unifying goal: the need to assess ethical implications in data science. While more traditional computing methods like face or voice recognition have proven to be rife with ethical issues, there is an opportunity to combine physical systems with machine learning in a fair, ethical way.

    “We must ensure that collection and use of data are carried out equitably and inclusively, respecting the diversity in our society and avoiding well-known problems that computer scientists in the past have run into,” says Barbastathis.

    Barbastathis hopes that by encouraging mechanical engineering students to be both ethics-literate and well-versed in data science, they can move on to develop reliable, ethically sound solutions and predictions for physical-based engineering challenges. More

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    Studying learner engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic

    While massive open online classes (MOOCs) have been a significant trend in higher education for many years now, they have gained a new level of attention during the Covid-19 pandemic. Open online courses became a critical resource for a wide audience of new learners during the first stages of the pandemic — including students whose academic programs had shifted online, teachers seeking online resources, and individuals suddenly facing lockdown or unemployment and looking to build new skills.

    Mary Ellen Wiltrout, director of online and blended learning initiatives and lecturer in digital learning in the Department of Biology, and Virginia “Katie” Blackwell, currently an MIT PhD student in biology, published a paper this summer in the European MOOC Stakeholder Summit (EMOOCs 2021) conference proceedings evaluating data for the online course 7.00x (Introduction to Biology). Their research objective was to better understand whether the shift to online learning that occurred during the pandemic led to increased learner engagement in the course.Blackwell participated in this research as part of the Bernard S. and Sophie G. Gould MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) in Biology, during the uniquely remote MSRPx-Biology 2020 student cohort. She collaborated on the project while working toward her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Texas at Dallas, and collaborated on the research while in Texas. She has since applied and been accepted into MIT’s PhD program in biology.

    “MSRP Biology was a transformative experience for me. I learned a lot about the nature of research and the MIT community in a very short period of time and loved every second of the program. Without MSRP, I would never have even considered applying to MIT for my PhD. After MSRP and working with Mary Ellen, MIT biology became my first-choice program and I felt like I had a shot at getting in,” says Blackwell.

    Play video

    Many MOOC platforms experienced increased website traffic in 2020, with 30 new MOOC-based degrees and more than 60 million new learners.

    “We find that the tremendous, lifelong learning opportunities that MOOCs provide are even more important and sought-after when traditional education is disrupted. During the pandemic, people had to be at home more often, and some faced unemployment requiring a career transition,” says Wiltrout.

    Wiltrout and Blackwell wanted to build a deeper understanding of learner profiles rather than looking exclusively at enrollments. They looked at all available data, including: enrollment demographics (i.e., country and “.edu” participants); proportion of learners engaged with videos, problems, and forums; number of individual engagement events with videos, problems, and forums; verification and performance; and the course “track” level — including auditing (for free) and verified (paying and receiving access to additional course content, including access to a comprehensive competency exam). They analyzed data in these areas from five runs of 7.00x in this study, including three pre-pandemic runs of April, July, and November 2019 and two pandemic runs of March and July 2020. 

    The March 2020 run had the same count of verified-track participants as all three pre-pandemic runs combined. The July 2020 run enrolled nearly as many verified-track participants as the March 2020 run. Wiltrout says that introductory biology content may have attracted great attention during the early days and months of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people may have had a new (or renewed) interest in learning about (or reviewing) viruses, RNA, the inner workings of cells, and more.

    Wiltrout and Blackwell found that the enrollment count for the March 2020 run of the course increased at almost triple the rate of the three pre-pandemic runs. During the early days of March 2020, the enrollment metrics appeared similar to enrollment metrics for the April 2019 run — both in rate and count — but the enrollment rate increased sharply around March 15, 2020. The July 2020 run began with more than twice as many learners already enrolled by the first day of the course, but continued with half the enrollment rate of the March 2020 course. In terms of learner demographics, during the pandemic, there was a higher proportion of learners with .edu addresses, indicating that MOOCs were often used by students enrolled in other schools. 

    Viewings of course videos increased at the beginning of the pandemic. During the March 2020 run, both verified-track and certified participants viewed far more unique videos during March 2020 than in the pre-pandemic runs of the course; even auditor-track learners — not aiming for certification — still viewed all videos offered. During the July 2020 run, however, both verified-track and certified participants viewed far fewer unique videos than during all prior runs. The proportion of participants who viewed at least one video decreased in the July 2020 run to 53 percent, from a mean of 64 percent in prior runs. Blackwell and Wiltrout say that this decrease — as well as the overall dip in participation in July 2020 — might be attributed to shifting circumstances for learners that allowed for less time to watch videos and participate in the course, as well as some fatigue from the extra screen time.

    The study found that 4.4 percent of March 2020 participants and 4.5 percent of July 2020 participants engaged through forum posting — which was 1.4 to 3.3 times higher than pre-pandemic proportions of forum posting. The increase in forum engagement may point to a desire for community engagement during a time when many were isolated and sheltering in place.

    “Through the day-to-day work of my research team and also through the engagement of the learners in 7.00x, we can see that there is great potential for meaningful connections in remote experiences,” says Wiltrout. “An increase in participation for an online course may not always remain at the same high level, in the long term, but overall, we’re continuing to see an increase in the number of MOOCs and other online programs offered by all universities and institutions, as well as an increase in online learners.” More

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    3 Questions: Peko Hosoi on the data-driven reasoning behind MIT’s Covid-19 policies for the fall

    As students, faculty, and staff prepare for a full return to the MIT campus in the weeks ahead, procedures for entering buildings, navigating classrooms and labs, and interacting with friends and colleagues will likely take some getting used to.

    The Institute recently reinforced its policies for indoor masking and has also continued to require regular testing for people who live, work, or study on campus — procedures that apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Vaccination is required for all students, faculty, and staff on campus unless a medical or religious exemption is granted.

    These and other policies adopted by MIT to control the spread of Covid-19 have been informed by modeling efforts from a volunteer group of MIT faculty, students, and postdocs. The collaboration, dubbed Isolat, was co-founded by Anette “Peko” Hosoi, the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering and associate dean in the School of Engineering.

    The group, which is organized through MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), has run numerous models to show how measures such as mask wearing, testing, ventilation, and quarantining could affect Covid-19’s spread. These models have helped to shape MIT’s Covid-19 policies throughout the pandemic, including its procedures for returning to campus this fall.

    Hosoi spoke with MIT News about the data-backed reasoning behind some of these procedures, including indoor masking and regular testing, and how a “generous community” will help MIT safely weather the virus and its variants.

    Q: Take us through how you have been modeling Covid-19 and its variants, in regard to helping MIT shape its Covid policies. What’s the approach you’ve taken, and why?

    A: The approach we’re taking uses a simple counting exercise developed in IDSS to estimate the balance of testing, masking, and vaccination that is required to keep the virus in check. The underlying objective is to find infected people faster, on average, than they can infect others, which is captured in a simple algebraic expression. Our objective can be accomplished either by speeding up the rate of finding infected people (i.e. increasing testing frequency) or slowing down the rate of infection (i.e. increasing masking and vaccination) or by a combination of both. To give you a sense of the numbers, balances for different levels of testing are shown in the chart below for a vaccine efficacy of 67 percent and a contagious period of 18 days (which are the CDC’s latest parameters for the Delta variant).

    The vertical axis shows the now-famous reproduction number R0, i.e. the average number of people that one infected person will infect throughout the course of their illness. These R0 are averages for the population, and in specific circumstances the spreading could be more than that.

    Each blue line represents a different testing frequency: Below the line, the virus is controlled; above the line, it spreads. For example, the dotted blue line shows the boundary if we rely solely on vaccination with no testing. In that case, even if everyone is vaccinated, we can only control up to an R0 of about 3.  Unfortunately, the CDC places R0 of the Delta variant somewhere between 5 and 9, so vaccination alone is insufficient to control the spread. (As an aside, this also means that given the efficacy estimates for the current vaccines, herd immunity is not possible.)

    Next consider the dashed blue line, which represents the stability boundary if we test everyone once per week. If our vaccination rate is greater than about 90 percent, testing one time per week can control even the CDC’s most pessimistic estimate for the Delta variant’s R0.

    Q: In returning to campus over the next few weeks, indoor masking and regular testing are required of every MIT community member, even those who are vaccinated. What in your modeling has shown that each of these policies is necessary?

    A: Given that the chart above shows that vaccination and weekly testing are sufficient to control the virus, one should certainly ask “Why have we reinstated indoor masking?” The answer is related to the fact that, as a university, our population turns over once a year; every September we bring in a few thousand new people. Those people are coming from all over the world, and some of them may not have had the opportunity to get vaccinated yet. The good news is that MIT Medical has vaccines and will be administering them to any unvaccinated students as soon as they arrive; the bad news is that, as we all know, it takes three to five weeks for resistance to build up, depending on the vaccine. This means that we should think of August and September as a transition period during which the vaccination rates may fluctuate as new people arrive. 

    The other revelation that has informed our policies for September is the recent report from the CDC that infected vaccinated people carry roughly the same viral load as unvaccinated infected people. This suggests that vaccinated people — although they are highly unlikely to get seriously ill — are a consequential part of the transmission chain and can pass the virus along to others. So, in order to avoid giving the virus to people who are not yet fully vaccinated during the transition period, we all need to exercise a little extra care to give the newly vaccinated time for their immune systems to ramp up. 

    Q: As the fall progresses, what signs are you looking for that might shift decisions on masking and testing on campus?

    A: Eventually we will have to shift responsibility toward individuals rather than institutions, and allow people to make decisions about masks and testing based on their own risk tolerance. The success of the vaccines in suppressing severe illness will enable us to shift to a position in which our objective is not necessarily to control the spread of the virus, but rather to reduce the risk of serious outcomes to an acceptable level. There are many people who believe we need to make this adjustment and wean ourselves off pandemic living. They are right; we cannot continue like this forever. However, we have not played all our cards yet, and, in my opinion, we need to carefully consider what’s left in our hand before we abdicate institutional responsibility.

    The final ace we have to play is vaccinating kids. It is important to remember that we have many people in our community with kids who are too young to be vaccinated and, understandably, those parents do not want to bring Covid home to their children. Furthermore, our campus is not just a workplace; it is also home to thousands of people, some of whom have children living in our residences or attending an MIT childcare center. Given that context, and the high probability that a vaccine will be approved for children in the near future, it is my belief that our community has the empathy and fortitude to try to keep the virus in check until parents have the option to protect their children with vaccines. 

    Bearing in mind that children constitute an unprotected portion of our population, let me return to the original question and speculate on the fate of masks and testing in the fall. Regarding testing, the analysis suggests that we cannot give that up entirely if we would like to control the spread of the virus. Second, control of the virus is not the only benefit we get from testing. It also gives us situational awareness, serves as an early warning beacon, and provides information that individual members of the community can use as they make decisions about their own risk budget. Personally, I’ve been testing for a year now and I find it easy and reassuring. Honestly, it’s nice to know that I’m Covid-free before I see friends (outside!) or go home to my family.

    Regarding masks, there is always uncertainty around whether a new variant will arise or whether vaccine efficacy will fade, but, given the current parameters and our analysis, my hope is that we will be in a position to provide some relief on the mask mandate once the incoming members of our population have been fully vaccinated. I also suspect that whenever the mask mandate is lifted, masks are not likely to go away. There are certainly situations in which I will continue to wear a mask regardless of the mandate, and many in our community will continue to feel safer wearing masks even when they are not required.

    I believe that we are a generous community and that we will be willing to take precautions to help keep each other healthy. The students who were on campus last year did an outstanding job, and they have given me a tremendous amount of faith that we can be considerate and good to one another even in extremely trying times.

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    “AI for Impact” lives up to its name

    For entrepreneurial MIT students looking to put their skills to work for a greater good, the Media Arts and Sciences class MAS.664 (AI for Impact) has been a destination point. With the onset of the pandemic, that goal came into even sharper focus. Just weeks before the campus shut down in 2020, a team of students from the class launched a project that would make significant strides toward an open-source platform to identify coronavirus exposures without compromising personal privacy.

    Their work was at the heart of Safe Paths, one of the earliest contact tracing apps in the United States. The students joined with volunteers from other universities, medical centers, and companies to publish their code, alongside a well-received white paper describing the privacy-preserving, decentralized protocol, all while working with organizations wishing to launch the app within their communities. The app and related software eventually got spun out into the nonprofit PathCheck Foundation, which today engages with public health entities and is providing exposure notifications in Guam, Cyprus, Hawaii, Minnesota, Alabama, and Louisiana.

    The formation of Safe Paths demonstrates the special sense among MIT researchers that “we can launch something that can help people around the world,” notes Media Lab Associate Professor Ramesh Raskar, who teaches the class together with Media Lab Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland and Media Lab Lecturer Joost Bonsen. “To have that kind of passion and ambition — but also the confidence that what you create here can actually be deployed globally — is kind of amazing.”

    AI for Impact, created by Pentland, began meeting two decades ago under the course name Development Ventures, and has nurtured multiple thriving businesses. Examples of class ventures that Pentland incubated or co-founded include Dimagi, Cogito, Ginger, Prosperia, and Sanergy.

    The aim-high challenge posed to each class is to come up with a business plan that touches a billion people, and it can’t all be in one country, Pentland explains. Not every class effort becomes a business, “but 20 percent to 30 percent of students start something, which is great for an entrepreneur class,” says Pentland.

    Opportunities for Impact

    The numbers behind Dimagi, for instance, are striking. Its core product CommCare has helped front-line health workers provide care for more than 400 million people in more than 130 countries around the world. When it comes to maternal and child care, Dimagi’s platform has registered one in every 110 pregnancies worldwide. This past year, several governments around the world deployed CommCare applications for Covid-19 response — from Sierra Leone and Somalia to New York and Colorado.

    Spinoffs like Cogito, Prosperia, and Ginger have likewise grown into highly successful companies. Cogito helps a million people a day gain access to the health care they need; Prosperia helps manage social support payments to 80 million people in Latin America; and Ginger handles mental health services for over 1 million people.

    The passion behind these and other class ventures points to a central idea of the class, Pentland notes: MIT students are often looking for ways to build entrepreneurial businesses that enable positive social change.

    During the spring 2021 class, for example, a number of promising student projects included tools to help residents of poor communities transition to owning their homes rather than renting, and to take better control of their community health.

    “It’s clear that the people who are graduating from here want to do something significant with their lives … they want to have an impact on their world,” Pentland says. “This class enables them to meet other people who are interested in doing the same thing, and offers them some help in starting a company to do it.”

    Many of the students who join the class come in with a broad set of interests. Guest lectures, case studies of other social entrepreneurship projects, and an introduction to a broad ecosystem of expertise and funding, then helps students to refine their general ideas into specific and viable projects.

    A path toward confronting a pandemic 

    Raskar began co-teaching the class in 2019, and brought a “Big AI” focus to the Development Ventures class, inspired by an AI for Impact team he had set up at his former employer, Facebook. “What I realized is that companies like Google or Facebook or Amazon actually have enough data about all of us that they can solve major problems in our society — climate, transportation, health, and so on,” he says. “This is something we should think about more seriously: how to use AI and data for positive social impact, while protecting privacy.”

    Early into the spring 2020 class, as students were beginning to consider their own projects, Raskar approached the class about the emerging coronavirus outbreak. Students like Kristen Vilcans recognized the urgency, and the opportunity. She and 10 other students joined forces to work on a project that would focus on Covid-19.

    “Students felt empowered to do something to help tackle the spread of this alarming new virus,” Raskar recalls. “They immediately began to develop data- and AI-based solutions to one of the most critical pieces of addressing a pandemic: halting the chain of infections. They created and launched one of the first digital contact tracing and exposure notification solutions in the U.S., developing an early alert system that engaged the public and protected privacy.” 

    Raskar looks back on the moment when a core group of students coalesced into a team. “It was very rare for a significant part of the class to just come together saying, ‘let’s do this, right away.’ It became as much a movement as a venture.”

    Group discussions soon began to center around an open-source, privacy-first digital set of tools for Covid-19 contact tracing. For the next two weeks, right up to the campus shutdown in March 2020, the team took over two adjacent conference rooms in the Media Lab, and started a Slack messaging channel devoted to the project. As the team members reached out to an ever-wider circle of friends, colleagues, and mentors, the number of participants grew to nearly 1,600 people, coming together virtually from all corners of the world.

    Kaushal Jain, a Harvard Business School student who had cross-registered for the spring 2020 class to get to know the MIT ecosystem, was also an early participant in Safe Paths. He wrote up an initial plan for the venture and began working with external organizations to figure out how to structure it into a nonprofit company. Jain eventually became the project’s lead for funding and partnerships.

    Vilcans, a graduate student in system design and management, served as Safe Paths’ communications lead through July 2020, while still working a part-time job at Draper Laboratory and taking classes.

    “There are these moments when you want to dive in, you want to contribute and you want to work nonstop,” she says, adding that the experience was also a wake-up call on how to manage burnout, and how to balance what you need as a person while contributing to a high-impact team. “That’s important to understand as a leader for the future.”

    MIT recognized Vilcan’s contributions later that year with the 2020 SDM Student Award for Leadership, Innovation, and Systems Thinking. 

    Jain, too, says the class gave him more than he could have expected.

    “I made strong friendships with like-minded people from very different backgrounds,” he says. “One key thing that I learned was to be flexible about the kind of work you want to do. Be open and see if there’s an opportunity, either through crisis or through something that you believe could really change a lot of things in the world. And then just go for it.” 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