More stories

  • in

    MIT Policy Hackathon produces new solutions for technology policy challenges

    Almost three years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world. Many are still looking to uncover a “new normal.”

    “Instead of going back to normal, [there’s a new generation that] wants to build back something different, something better,” says Jorge Sandoval, a second-year graduate student in MIT’s Technology and Policy Program (TPP) at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS). “How do we communicate this mindset to others, that the world cannot be the same as before?”

    This was the inspiration behind “A New (Re)generation,” this year’s theme for the IDSS-student-run MIT Policy Hackathon, which Sandoval helped to organize as the event chair. The Policy Hackathon is a weekend-long, interdisciplinary competition that brings together participants from around the globe to explore potential solutions to some of society’s greatest challenges. 

    Unlike other competitions of its kind, Sandoval says MIT’s event emphasizes a humanistic approach. “The idea of our hackathon is to promote applications of technology that are humanistic or human-centered,” he says. “We take the opportunity to examine aspects of technology in the spaces where they tend to interact with society and people, an opportunity most technical competitions don’t offer because their primary focus is on the technology.”

    The competition started with 50 teams spread across four challenge categories. This year’s categories included Internet and Cybersecurity, Environmental Justice, Logistics, and Housing and City Planning. While some people come into the challenge with friends, Sandoval said most teams form organically during an online networking meeting hosted by MIT.

    “We encourage people to pair up with others outside of their country and to form teams of different diverse backgrounds and ages,” Sandoval says. “We try to give people who are often not invited to the decision-making table the opportunity to be a policymaker, bringing in those with backgrounds in not only law, policy, or politics, but also medicine, and people who have careers in engineering or experience working in nonprofits.”

    Once an in-person event, the Policy Hackathon has gone through its own regeneration process these past three years, according to Sandoval. After going entirely online during the pandemic’s height, last year they successfully hosted the first hybrid version of the event, which served as their model again this year.

    “The hybrid version of the event gives us the opportunity to allow people to connect in a way that is lost if it is only online, while also keeping the wide range of accessibility, allowing people to join from anywhere in the world, regardless of nationality or income, to provide their input,” Sandoval says.

    For Swetha Tadisina, an undergraduate computer science major at Lafayette College and participant in the internet and cybersecurity category, the hackathon was a unique opportunity to meet and work with people much more advanced in their careers. “I was surprised how such a diverse team that had never met before was able to work so efficiently and creatively,” Tadisina says.

    Erika Spangler, a public high school teacher from Massachusetts and member of the environmental justice category’s winning team, says that while each member of “Team Slime Mold” came to the table with a different set of skills, they managed to be in sync from the start — even working across the nine-and-a-half-hour time difference the four-person team faced when working with policy advocate Shruti Nandy from Calcutta, India.

    “We divided the project into data, policy, and research and trusted each other’s expertise,” Spangler says, “Despite having separate areas of focus, we made sure to have regular check-ins to problem-solve and cross-pollinate ideas.”

    During the 48-hour period, her team proposed the creation of an algorithm to identify high-quality brownfields that could be cleaned up and used as sites for building renewable energy. Their corresponding policy sought to mandate additional requirements for renewable energy businesses seeking tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act.

    “Their policy memo had the most in-depth technical assessment, including deep dives in a few key cities to show the impact of their proposed approach for site selection at a very granular level,” says Amanda Levin, director of policy analysis for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Levin acted as both a judge and challenge provider for the environmental justice category.

    “They also presented their policy recommendations in the memo in a well-thought-out way, clearly noting the relevant actor,” she adds. This clarity around what can be done, and who would be responsible for those actions, is highly valuable for those in policy.”

    Levin says the NRDC, one of the largest environmental nonprofits in the United States, provided five “challenge questions,” making it clear that teams did not need to address all of them. She notes that this gave teams significant leeway, bringing a wide variety of recommendations to the table. 

    “As a challenge partner, the work put together by all the teams is already being used to help inform discussions about the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act,” Levin says. “Being able to tap into the collective intelligence of the hackathon helped uncover new perspectives and policy solutions that can help make an impact in addressing the important policy challenges we face today.”

    While having partners with experience in data science and policy definitely helped, fellow Team Slime Mold member Sara Sheffels, a PhD candidate in MIT’s biomaterials program, says she was surprised how much her experiences outside of science and policy were relevant to the challenge: “My experience organizing MIT’s Graduate Student Union shaped my ideas about more meaningful community involvement in renewables projects on brownfields. It is not meaningful to merely educate people about the importance of renewables or ask them to sign off on a pre-planned project without addressing their other needs.”

    “I wanted to test my limits, gain exposure, and expand my world,” Tadisina adds. “The exposure, friendships, and experiences you gain in such a short period of time are incredible.”

    For Willy R. Vasquez, an electrical and computer engineering PhD student at the University of Texas, the hackathon is not to be missed. “If you’re interested in the intersection of tech, society, and policy, then this is a must-do experience.” More

  • in

    Ad hoc committee releases report on remote teaching best practices for on-campus education

    The Ad Hoc Committee on Leveraging Best Practices from Remote Teaching for On-Campus Education has released a report that captures how instructors are weaving lessons learned from remote teaching into in-person classes. Despite the challenges imposed by teaching and learning remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, the report says, “there were seeds planted then that, we hope, will bear fruit in the coming years.”

    “In the long run, one of the best things about having lived through our remote learning experience may be the intense and broad focus on pedagogy that it necessitated,” the report continues. “In a moment when nobody could just teach the way they had always done before, all of us had to go back to first principles and ask ourselves: What are our learning goals for our students? How can we best help them to achieve these goals?”

    The committee’s work is a direct response to one of the Refinement and Implementation Committees (RIC) formed as part of Task Force 2021 and Beyond. Led by co-chairs Krishna Rajagopal, the William A. M. Burden Professor of Physics, and Janet Rankin, director of the MIT Teaching + Learning Lab, the committee engaged with faculty and instructional staff, associate department heads, and undergraduate and graduate officers across MIT.

    The findings are distilled into four broad themes:

    Community, Well-being, and Belonging. Conversations revealed new ways that instructors cultivated these key interrelated concepts, all of which are fundamental to student learning and success. Many instructors focused more on supporting well-being and building community and belonging during the height of the pandemic precisely because the MIT community, and everyone in it, was under such great stress. Some of the resulting practices are continuing, the committee found. Examples include introducing simple gestures, such as start-of-class welcoming practices, and providing extensions and greater flexibility on student assignments. Also, many across MIT felt that the week-long Thanksgiving break offered in 2020 should become a permanent fixture in the academic calendar, because it enhances the well-being of both students and instructors at a time in the fall semester when everyone’s batteries need recharging. 
    Enhancing Engagement. The committee found a variety of practices that have enhanced engagement between students and instructors; among students; and among instructors. For example, many instructors have continued to offer some office hours on Zoom, which seems to reduce barriers to participation for many students, while offering in-person office hours for those who want to take advantage of opportunities for more open-ended conversations. Several departments increased their usage of undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) in ways that make students’ learning experience more engaging and give the UTAs a real teaching experience. In addition, many instructors are leveraging out-of-class communication spaces like Slack, Perusall, and Piazza so students can work together, ask questions, and share ideas. 
    Enriching and Augmenting the Learning Environment. The report presents two ways in which instructors have enhanced learning within the classroom: through blended learning and by incorporating authentic experiences. Although blended learning techniques are not new at MIT, after having made it through remote teaching many faculty have found new ways to combine synchronous in-person teaching with asynchronous activities for on-campus students, such as pre-class or pre-lab sequences of videos with exercises interspersed, take-home lab kits, auto-graded online problems that give students immediate feedback, and recorded lab experiences for subsequent review. In addition, instructors found many creative ways to make students’ learning more authentic by going on virtual field trips, using Zoom to bring experts from around the world into MIT classrooms or to enable interactions with students at other universities, and live-streaming experiments that students could not otherwise experience since they cannot be performed in a teaching lab.   
     Assessing Learning. For all its challenges, the report notes, remote teaching prompted instructors to take a step back and think about what they wanted students to learn, how to support it, and how to measure it. The committee found a variety of examples of alternatives to traditional assessments, such as papers or timed, written exams, that instructors tried during the pandemic and are continuing to use. These alternatives include shorter, more frequent, lower-stakes assessments; oral exams or debates; asynchronous, open-book/notes exams; virtual poster sessions; alternate grading schemes; and uploading paper psets and exams into Gradescope to use its logistics and rubrics to improve grading effectiveness and efficiency.
    A large portion of the report is devoted to an extensive, annotated list of best practices from remote instruction that are being used in the classroom. Interestingly, Rankin says, “so many of the strategies and practices developed and used during the pandemic are based on, and supported by, solid educational research.”

    The report concludes with one broad recommendation: that all faculty and instructors read the findings and experiment with some of the best practices in their own instruction. “Our hope is that the practices shared in the report will continue to be adopted, adapted, and expanded by members of the teaching community at MIT, and that instructors’ openness in sharing and learning from each will continue,” Rankin says.

    Two additional, specific recommendations are included in the report. First, the committee endorses the RIC 16 recommendation that a Classroom Advisory Board be created to provide strategic input grounded in evolving pedagogy about future classroom use and technology needs. In its conversations, the committee found a number of ways that remote teaching and learning have impacted students’ and instructors’ perceptions as they have returned to the classroom. For example, during the pandemic students benefited from being able to see everyone else’s faces on Zoom. As a result, some instructors would prefer classrooms that enable students to face each other, such as semi-circular classrooms instead of rectangular ones.

    More generally, the committee concluded, MIT needs classrooms with seats and tables that can be quickly and flexibly reconfigured to facilitate varying pedagogical objectives. The Classroom Advisory Board could also examine classroom technology; this includes the role of videoconferencing to create authentic engagement between MIT students and people far from campus, and blended learning that allows students to experience more of the in-classroom engagement with their peers and instructors from which the “magic of MIT” originates.

    Second, the committee recommends that an implementation group be formed to investigate the possibility of changing the MIT academic calendar to create a one-week break over Thanksgiving. “Finalizing an implementation plan will require careful consideration of various significant logistical challenges,” the report says. “However, the resulting gains to both well-being and learning from this change to the fall calendar make doing so worthwhile.”

    Rankin notes that the report findings dovetail with the recently released MIT Strategic Action Plan for Belonging, Achievement and Composition. “I believe that one of the most important things that became really apparent during remote teaching was that community, inclusion, and belonging really matter and are necessary for both learning and teaching, and that instructors can and should play a central role in creating structures and processes to support them in their classrooms and other learning environments,” she says.

    Rajagopal finds it inspiring that “during a time of intense stress — that nobody ever wants to relive — there was such an intense focus on how we teach and how our students learn that, today, in essentially every direction we look we see colleagues improving on-campus education for tomorrow. I hope that the report will help instructors across the Institute, and perhaps elsewhere, learn from each other. Its readers will see, as our committee did, new ways in which students and instructors are finding those moments, those interactions, where the magic of MIT is created.”

    In addition to the report, the co-chairs recommend two other valuable remote teaching resources: a video interview series, TLL’s Fresh Perspectives, and Open Learning’s collection of examples of how MIT faculty and instructors leveraged digital technology to support and transform teaching and learning during the heart of the pandemic. More

  • in

    Companies use MIT research to identify and respond to supply chain risks

    In February 2020, MIT professor David Simchi-Levi predicted the future. In an article in Harvard Business Review, he and his colleague warned that the new coronavirus outbreak would throttle supply chains and shutter tens of thousands of businesses across North America and Europe by mid-March.

    For Simchi-Levi, who had developed new models of supply chain resiliency and advised major companies on how to best shield themselves from supply chain woes, the signs of disruption were plain to see. Two years later, the professor of engineering systems at the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and director of the MIT Data Science Lab has found a “flood of interest” from companies anxious to apply his Risk Exposure Index (REI) research to identify and respond to hidden risks in their own supply chains.

    His work on “stress tests” for critical supply chains and ways to guide global supply chain recovery were included in the 2022 Economic Report of the President presented to the U.S. Congress in April.

    It is rare that data science research can influence policy at the highest levels, Simchi-Levi says, but his models reflect something that business needs now: a new world of continuing global crisis, without relying on historical precedent.

    “What the last two years showed is that you cannot plan just based on what happened last year or the last two years,” Simchi-Levi says.

    He recalled the famous quote, sometimes attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzsky, that good players don’t skate to where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be. “We are not focusing on the state of the supply chain right now, but what may happen six weeks from now, eight weeks from now, to prepare ourselves today to prevent the problems of the future.”

    Finding hidden risks

    At the heart of REI is a mathematical model of the supply chain that focuses on potential failures at different supply chain nodes — a flood at a supplier’s factory, or a shortage of raw materials at another factory, for instance. By calculating variables such as “time-to-recover” (TTR), which measures how long it will take a particular node to be back at full function, and time-to-survive (TTS), which identifies the maximum duration that the supply chain can match supply with demand after a disruption, the model focuses on the impact of disruption on the supply chain, rather than the cause of disruption.

    Even before the pandemic, catastrophic events such as the 2010 Iceland volcanic eruption and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan were threatening these nodes. “For many years, companies from a variety of industries focused mostly on efficiency, cutting costs as much as possible, using strategies like outsourcing and offshoring,” Simchi-Levi says. “They were very successful doing this, but it has dramatically increased their exposure to risk.”

    Using their model, Simchi-Levi and colleagues began working with Ford Motor Company in 2013 to improve the company’s supply chain resiliency. The partnership uncovered some surprising hidden risks.

    To begin with, the researchers found out that Ford’s “strategic suppliers” — the nodes of the supply chain where the company spent large amount of money each year — had only moderate exposure to risk. Instead, the biggest risk “tended to come from tiny suppliers that provide Ford with components that cost about 10 cents,” says Simchi-Levi.

    The analysis also found that risky suppliers are everywhere across the globe. “There is this idea that if you just move suppliers closer to market, to demand, to North America or to Mexico, you increase the resiliency of your supply chain. That is not supported by our data,” he says.

    Rewards of resiliency

    By creating a virtual representation, or “digital twin,” of the Ford supply chain, the researchers were able to test out strategies at each node to see what would increase supply chain resiliency. Should the company invest in more warehouses to store a key component? Should it shift production of a component to another factory?

    Companies are sometimes reluctant to invest in supply chain resiliency, Simchi-Levi says, but the analysis isn’t just about risk. “It’s also going to help you identify savings opportunities. The company may be building a lot of misplaced, costly inventory, for instance, and our method helps them to identify these inefficiencies and cut costs.”

    Since working with Ford, Simchi-Levi and colleagues have collaborated with many other companies, including a partnership with Accenture, to scale the REI technology to a variety of industries including high-tech, industrial equipment, home improvement retailers, fashion retailers, and consumer packaged goods.

    Annette Clayton, the CEO of Schneider Electric North America and previously its chief supply chain officer, has worked with Simchi-Levi for 17 years. “When I first went to work for Schneider, I asked David and his team to help us look at resiliency and inventory positioning in order to make the best cost, delivery, flexibility, and speed trade-offs for the North American supply chain,” she says. “As the pandemic unfolded, the very learnings in supply chain resiliency we had worked on before became even more important and we partnered with David and his team again,”

    “We have used TTR and TTS to determine places where we need to develop and duplicate supplier capability, from raw materials to assembled parts. We increased inventories where our time-to-recover because of extended logistics times exceeded our time-to-survive,” Clayton adds. “We have used TTR and TTS to prioritize our workload in supplier development, procurement and expanding our own manufacturing capacity.”

    The REI approach can even be applied to an entire country’s economy, as the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has done for developing countries such as Thailand in the wake of disastrous flooding in 2011.

    Simchi-Levi and colleagues have been motivated by the pandemic to enhance the REI model with new features. “Because we have started collaborating with more companies, we have realized some interesting, company-specific business constraints,” he says, which are leading to more efficient ways of calculating hidden risk. More

  • in

    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

  • in

    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

  • in

    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

  • in

    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

  • in

    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