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    3 Questions: Fotini Christia on racial equity and data science

    Fotini Christia is the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences in the Department of Political Science, associate director of the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS), and director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC). Her research interests include issues of conflict and cooperation in the Muslim world, and she has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iran, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, and Yemen. She has co-organized the IDSS Research Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR), which works to bridge the social sciences, data science, and computation by bringing researchers from these disciplines together to address systemic racism across housing, health care, policing, education, employment, and other sectors of society.

    Q: What is the IDSS/ICSR approach to systemic racism research?

    A: The Research Initiative on Combatting Systemic Racism (ICSR) aims to seed and coordinate cross-disciplinary research to identify and overcome racially discriminatory processes and outcomes across a range of U.S. institutions and policy domains.

    Building off the extensive social science literature on systemic racism, the focus of this research initiative is to use big data to develop and harness computational tools that can help effect structural and normative change toward racial equity.

    The initiative aims to create a visible presence at MIT for cutting-edge computational research with a racial equity lens, across societal domains that will attract and train students and scholars.

    The steering committee for this research initiative is composed of underrepresented minority faculty members from across MIT’s five schools and the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. Members will serve as close advisors to the initiative as well as share the findings of our work beyond MIT’s campus. MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles heads this committee.

    Q: What role can data science play in helping to effect change toward racial equity?

    A: Existing work has shown racial discrimination in the job market, in the criminal justice system, as well as in education, health care, and access to housing, among other places. It has also underlined how algorithms could further entrench such bias — be it in training data or in the people who build them. Data science tools can not only help identify, but also contribute to, proposing fixes on racially inequitable outcomes that result from implicit or explicit biases in governing institutional practices in the public and private sector, and more recently from the use of AI and algorithmic methods in decision-making.

    To that effect, this initiative will produce research that explores and collects the relevant big data across domains, while paying attention to the ways such data are collected, and focus on improving and developing data-driven computational tools to address racial disparities in structures and institutions that have reproduced racially discriminatory outcomes in American society.

    The strong correlation between race, class, educational attainment, and various attitudes and behaviors in the American context can make it extremely difficult to rule out the influence of confounding factors. Thus, a key motivation for our research initiative is to highlight the importance of causal analysis using computational methods, and focus on understanding the opportunities of big data and algorithmic decision-making to address racial inequities and promote racial justice — beyond de-biasing algorithms. The intent is to also codify methodologies on equity-informed research practices and produce tools that are clear on the quantifiable expected social costs and benefits, as well as on the downstream effects on systemic racism more broadly.

    Q: What are some ways that the ICSR might conduct or follow-up on research seeking real-world impact or policy change?

    A: This type of research has ethical and societal considerations at its core, especially as they pertain to historically disadvantaged groups in the U.S., and will be coordinated with and communicated to local stakeholders to drive relevant policy decisions. This initiative intends to establish connections to URM [underrepresented minority] researchers and students at underrepresented universities and to directly collaborate with them on these research efforts. To that effect, we are leveraging existing programs such as the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP).

    To ensure that our research targets the right problems bringing a racial equity lens with an interest to effect policy change, we will also connect with community organizations in minority neighborhoods who often bear the brunt of the direct and indirect effects of systemic racism, as well as with local government offices that work to address inequity in service provision in these communities. Our intent is to directly engage IDSS students with these organizations to help develop and test algorithmic tools for racial equity. More

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    Q&A: Can the world change course on climate?

    In this ongoing series on climate issues, MIT faculty, students, and alumni in the humanistic fields share perspectives that are significant for solving climate change and mitigating its myriad social and ecological impacts. Nazli Choucri is a professor of political science and an expert on climate issues, who also focuses on international relations and cyberpolitics. She is the architect and director of the Global System for Sustainable Development, an evolving knowledge networking system centered on sustainability problems and solution strategies. The author and/or editor of 12 books, she is also the founding editor of the MIT Press book series “Global Environmental Accord: Strategies for Sustainability and Institutional Innovation.” Q: The impacts of climate change — including storms, floods, wildfires, and droughts — have the potential to destabilize nations, yet they are not constrained by borders. What international developments most concern you in terms of addressing climate change and its myriad ecological and social impacts?

    A: Climate change is a global issue. By definition, and a long history of practice, countries focus on their own priorities and challenges. Over time, we have seen the gradual development of norms reflecting shared interests, and the institutional arrangements to support and pursue the global good. What concerns me most is that general responses to the climate crisis are being framed in broad terms; the overall pace of change remains perilously slow; and uncertainty remains about operational action and implementation of stated intent. We have just seen the completion of the 26th meeting of states devoted to climate change, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). In some ways this is positive. Yet, past commitments remain unfulfilled, creating added stress in an already stressful political situation. Industrial countries are uneven in their recognition of, and responses to, climate change. This may signal uncertainty about whether climate matters are sufficiently compelling to call for immediate action. Alternatively, the push for changing course may seem too costly at a time when other imperatives — such as employment, economic growth, or protecting borders — inevitably dominate discourse and decisions. Whatever the cause, the result has been an unwillingness to take strong action. Unfortunately, climate change remains within the domain of “low politics,” although there are signs the issue is making a slow but steady shift to “high politics” — those issues deemed vital to the existence of the state. This means that short-term priorities, such as those noted above, continue to shape national politics and international positions and, by extension, to obscure the existential threat revealed by scientific evidence. As for developing countries, these are overwhelmed by internal challenges, and managing the difficulties of daily life always takes priority over other challenges, however compelling. Long-term thinking is a luxury, but daily bread is a necessity. Non-state actors — including registered nongovernmental organizations, climate organizations, sustainability support groups, activists of various sorts, and in some cases much of civil society — have been left with a large share of the responsibility for educating and convincing diverse constituencies of the consequences of inaction on climate change. But many of these institutions carry their own burdens and struggle to manage current pressures. The international community, through its formal and informal institutions, continues to articulate the perils of climate change and to search for a powerful consensus that can prove effective both in form and in function. The general contours are agreed upon — more or less. But leadership of, for, and by the global collective is elusive and difficult to shape. Most concerning of all is the clear reluctance to address head-on the challenge of planning for changes that we know will occur. The reality that we are all being affected — in different ways and to different degrees — has yet to be sufficiently appreciated by everyone, everywhere. Yet, in many parts of the world, major shifts in climate will create pressures on human settlements, spur forced migrations, or generate social dislocations. Some small island states, for example, may not survive a sea-level surge. Everywhere there is a need to cut emissions, and this means adaptation and/or major changes in economic activity and in lifestyle.The discourse and debate at COP26 reflect all of such persistent features in the international system. So far, the largest achievements center on the common consensus that more must be done to prevent the rise in temperature from creating a global catastrophe. This is not enough, however. Differences remain, and countries have yet to specify what cuts in emissions they are willing to make.Echoes of who is responsible for what remains strong. The thorny matter of the unfulfilled pledge of $100 billion once promised by rich countries to help countries to reduce their emissions remained unresolved. At the same time, however, some important agreements were reached. The United States and China announced they would make greater efforts to cut methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. More than 100 countries agreed to end deforestation. India joined the countries committed to attain zero emissions by 2070. And on matters of finance, countries agreed to a two-year plan to determine how to meet the needs of the most-vulnerable countries. Q: In what ways do you think the tools and insights from political science can advance efforts to address climate change and its impacts?A: I prefer to take a multidisciplinary view of the issues at hand, rather than focus on the tools of political science alone. Disciplinary perspectives can create siloed views and positions that undermine any overall drive toward consensus. The scientific evidence is pointing to, even anticipating, pervasive changes that transcend known and established parameters of social order all across the globe.That said, political science provides important insight, even guidance, for addressing the impacts of climate change in some notable ways. One is understanding the extent to which our formal institutions enable discussion, debate, and decisions about the directions we can take collectively to adapt, adjust, or even depart from the established practices of managing social order.If we consider politics as the allocation of values in terms of who gets what, when, and how, then it becomes clear that the current allocation requires a change in course. Coordination and cooperation across the jurisdictions of sovereign states is foundational for any response to climate change impacts.We have already recognized, and to some extent, developed targets for reducing carbon emissions — a central impact from traditional forms of energy use — and are making notable efforts to shift toward alternatives. This move is an easy one compared to all the work that needs to be done to address climate change. But, in taking this step we have learned quite a bit that might help in creating a necessary consensus for cross-jurisdiction coordination and response.Respecting individuals and protecting life is increasingly recognized as a global value — at least in principle. As we work to change course, new norms will be developed, and political science provides important perspectives on how to establish such norms. We will be faced with demands for institutional design, and these will need to embody our guiding values. For example, having learned to recognize the burdens of inequity, we can establish the value of equity as foundational for our social order both now and as we recognize and address the impacts of climate change.

    Q: You teach a class on “Sustainability Development: Theory and Practice.” Broadly speaking, what are goals of this class? What lessons do you hope students will carry with them into the future?A: The goal of 17.181, my class on sustainability, is to frame as clearly as possible the concept of sustainable development (sustainability) with attention to conceptual, empirical, institutional, and policy issues.The course centers on human activities. Individuals are embedded in complex interactive systems: the social system, the natural environment, and the constructed cyber domain — each with distinct temporal, special, and dynamic features. Sustainability issues intersect with, but cannot be folded into, the impacts of climate change. Sustainability places human beings in social systems at the core of what must be done to respect the imperatives of a highly complex natural environment.We consider sustainability an evolving knowledge domain with attendant policy implications. It is driven by events on the ground, not by revolution in academic or theoretical concerns per se. Overall, sustainable development refers to the process of meeting the needs of current and future generations, without undermining the resilience of the life-supporting properties, the integrity of social systems, or the supports of the human-constructed cyberspace.More specifically, we differentiate among four fundamental dimensions and their necessary conditions:

    (a) ecological systems — exhibiting balance and resilience;(b) economic production and consumption — with equity and efficiency;(c) governance and politics — with participation and responsiveness; and(d) institutional performance — demonstrating adaptation and incorporating feedback.The core proposition is this: If all conditions hold, then the system is (or can be) sustainable. Then, we must examine the critical drivers — people, resources, technology, and their interactions — followed by a review and assessment of evolving policy responses. Then we ask: What are new opportunities?I would like students to carry forward these ideas and issues: what has been deemed “normal” in modern Western societies and in developing societies seeking to emulate the Western model is damaging humans in many ways — all well-known. Yet only recently have alternatives begun to be considered to the traditional economic growth model based on industrialization and high levels of energy use. To make changes, we must first understand the underlying incentives, realities, and choices that shape a whole set of dysfunctional behaviors and outcomes. We then need to delve deep into the driving sources and consequences, and to consider the many ways in which our known “normal” can be adjusted — in theory and in practice. Q: In confronting an issue as formidable as global climate change, what gives you hope?  A: I see a few hopeful signs; among them:The scientific evidence is clear and compelling. We are no longer discussing whether there is climate change, or if we will face major challenges of unprecedented proportions, or even how to bring about an international consensus on the salience of such threats.Climate change has been recognized as a global phenomenon. Imperatives for cooperation are necessary. No one can go it alone. Major efforts have and are being made in world politics to forge action agendas with specific targets.The issue appears to be on the verge of becoming one of “high politics” in the United States.Younger generations are more sensitive to the reality that we are altering the life-supporting properties of our planet. They are generally more educated, skilled, and open to addressing such challenges than their elders.However disappointing the results of COP26 might seem, the global community is moving in the right direction.None of the above points, individually or jointly, translates into an effective response to the known impacts of climate change — let alone the unknown. But, this is what gives me hope.

    Interview prepared by MIT SHASS CommunicationsEditorial, design, and series director: Emily HiestandSenior writer: Kathryn O’Neill More

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    Community policing in the Global South

    Community policing is meant to combat citizen mistrust of the police force. The concept was developed in the mid-20th century to help officers become part of the communities they are responsible for. The hope was that such presence would create a partnership between citizens and the police force, leading to reduced crime and increased trust. Studies in the 1990s from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia showed that these goals can be achieved in certain circumstances. Many metropolitan areas in the Global North have since included community policing in their techniques.

    But a recently published study of six different sites in the Global South showed no significant positive effect associated with community policing across a range of countries.

    “We found no reduction in crime or insecurity in these communities, and no increase in trust in the police,” says Fotini Christia, an author of the paper, which was published in Science. Christia is the Ford International Professor in the Social Sciences at MIT and the director of the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC) within the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS). She was one of three on the steering committee for the research, which also included lead author Graeme Blair at the University of California at Los Angeles and Jeremy Weinstein at Stanford University. Fellow MIT political scientist Lily Tsai was also a co-author on the paper.

    In this study, randomized-control trials of community policing initiatives were implemented at sites in Santa Catarina State, Brazil; Medellín, Colombia; Monrovia, Liberia; Sorsogon Province, Philippines; Ugandan rural areas; and two Punjab Province districts in Pakistan. Each suite of interventions was developed based on the needs of the area but consisted of core elements of community policing such as officer recruitment and training, foot patrols, town hall meetings, and problem-oriented policing. The work was done by a collaboration of several social scientists in the United States and abroad. Major funding for this project was provided by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, awarded through the Evidence in Governance and Politics network.

    The null results were determined after interviewing 18,382 citizens and 874 police officers involved in the experiment over six years.

    The strength of these results lies in the size of the collaboration and the care taken in the research design. Input from researchers representing 22 different departments from universities around the world allowed for a broad diversity of study sites across the Global South. And the study was preregistered to establish a common approach to measurement and indicate exactly which effects the researchers were tracking, to avoid any chance of mining the data to find positive effects.

    “This is a pathbreaking study across a diverse set of sites that provides a new understanding about community policing outside of the Western world” says Christopher Winship, the Diker-Tishman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, who was not an author on the paper.

    Structural overhaul

    The reasons for the failure of community policing to elicit positive results were as varied as the sites themselves, but an important commonality was difficulties in implementation.

    “We saw three common problems: limited resources, a lack of prioritization of the reform, and rapid rotation of officers,” says Blair. “These challenges lead to weaker implementation of community policing than we’ve seen in ‘success stories’ in the U.S. and may explain why community policing didn’t deliver the same results in these Global South contexts.”

    Citizen attendance at community meetings was variable. And then, resources dedicated to following up on problems identified by citizens were scarce. Police officers in the countries represented in the study are often over-stretched, leaving them unable to adequately follow up on their community policing duties.

    For example, Ugandan police stations averaged one motorbike per whole station, and outposts averaged less than one. At the study sites in Pakistan, fewer than 25 percent of issues that arose in community meetings were followed up on. The police officers tried to push the problems through to other agencies that could assist, but those agencies were also underresourced.            

    There was also significant officer turnover. “In many places, we started with and trained one group of officers and ended with a completely different set of folks,” says Christia.

    In the Philippines, only 25 percent of officers were still in the same post 11 months after the start of the study. Not only is it difficult to train new recruits in the methods of community policing with that rate of turnover, it also makes it extremely difficult to build community respect and familiarity with officers.

    Even in the Global North, the success of community policing can vary. As part of their study, the researchers conducted a review of 43 existing randomized trials conducted since the 1970s to determine the success rate of community policing endeavors already in place.

    They found that in these initiatives, problem-oriented policing reduces crime and likely improves perceptions of safety in a community, but there is mixed-to-negative evidence on the benefits of police presence on crime and perceptions of police. 

    That these initiatives struggle to achieve consistently positive results in countries with better resources indicates there is significant work to be done before success can be achieved in the Global South. Improvements in policing in the Global South may require major structural overhauls of the systems to ensure resource availability, encourage community engagement, and enhance officers’ abilities to follow up on issues of concern.

    “Issues of crime and violence are at the top of the policy agenda in the Global South, and this research demonstrates how universities and government partners can work together to identify the most effective strategies from improving people’s sense of safety,” says Weinstein. “While community policing strategies didn’t deliver the anticipated results on their own, the challenges in implementation point to the need for more systemic reforms that provide the necessary resources and align incentives for police to respond to citizens’ primary concerns.” More

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    Exploring the human stories behind the data

    Shaking in the back of a police cruiser, handcuffs digging into his wrists, Brian Williams was overwhelmed with fear. He had been pulled over, but before he was asked for his name, license, or registration, a police officer ordered him out of his car and into back of the police cruiser, saying into his radio, “Black male detained.” The officer’s explanation for these actions was: “for your safety and mine.”

    Williams walked away from the experience with two tickets, a pair of bruised wrists, and a desire to do everything in his power to prevent others from experiencing the utter powerlessness he had felt.

    Now an MIT senior majoring in biological engineering and minoring in Black studies, Williams has continued working to empower his community. Through experiences in and out of the classroom, he has leveraged his background in bioengineering to explore interests in public health and social justice, specifically looking at how the medical sector can uplift and support communities of color.

    Williams grew up in a close-knit family and community in Broward County, Florida, where he found comfort in the routine of Sunday church services, playing outside with friends, and cookouts on the weekends. Broward County was home to him — a home he felt deeply invested in and indebted to.

    “It takes a village. The Black community has invested a lot in me, and I have a lot to invest back in it,” he says.

    Williams initially focused on STEM subjects at MIT, but in his sophomore year, his interests in exploring data science and humanities research led him to an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project in the Department of Political Science. Working with Professor Ariel White, he analyzed information on incarceration and voting rights, studied the behavior patterns of police officers, and screened 911 calls to identify correlations between how people described events to how the police responded to them.

    In the summer before his junior year, Williams also joined MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab, where he worked as a researcher for the Missing Data Project, which uses both journalism and data science to visualize statistics and humanize the people behind the numbers. As the project’s name suggests, there is often much to be learned from seeking out data that aren’t easily available. Using datasets and interviews describing how the pandemic affected Black communities, Williams and a team of researchers created a series called the Color of Covid, which told the stories behind the grim statistics on race and the pandemic.

    The following year, Williams undertook a research-and-development internship with the biopharmaceutical company Amgen in San Francisco, working on protein engineering to combat autoimmune diseases. Because this work was primarily in the lab, focusing on science-based applications, he saw it as an opportunity to ask himself: “Do I want to dedicate my life to this area of bioengineering?” He found the issue of social justice to be more compelling.

    At the same time, Williams was drawn toward tackling problems the local Black community was experiencing related to the pandemic. He found himself thinking deeply about how to educate the public, address disparities in case rates, and, above all, help people.

    Working through Amgen’s Black Employee Resource Group and its Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Team, Williams crafted a proposal, which the company adopted, for addressing Covid-19 vaccination misinformation in Black and Brown communities in San Mateo and San Francisco County. He paid special attention to how to frame vaccine hesitancy among members of these communities, understanding that a longstanding history of racism in scientific discovery and medicine led many Black and Brown people to distrust the entire medical industry.

    “Trying to meet people where they are is important,” Williams says.

    This experience reinforced the idea for Williams that he wanted to do everything in his power to uplift the Black community.

    “I think it’s only right that I go out and I shine bright because it’s not easy being Black. You know, you have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” he says.

    As the current political action co-chair of the MIT Black Students’ Union (BSU), Williams also works to inspire change on campus, promoting and participating in events that uplift the BSU. During his Amgen internship, he also organized the MIT Black History Month Takeover Series, which involved organizing eight events from February through the beginning of spring semester. These included promotions through social media and virtual meetings for students and faculty. For his leadership, he received the “We Are Family” award from the BSU executive board.

    Williams prioritizes community in everything he does, whether in the classroom, at a campus event, or spending time outside in local communities of color around Boston.

    “The things that really keep me going are the stories of other people,” says Williams, who is currently applying to a variety of postgraduate programs. After receiving MIT endorsement, he applied to the Rhodes and Marshall Fellowships; he also plans to apply to law school with a joint master’s degree in public health and policy.

    Ultimately, Williams hopes to bring his fight for racial justice to the policy level, looking at how a long, ongoing history of medical racism has led marginalized communities to mistrust current scientific endeavors. He wants to help bring about new legislation to fix old systems which disproportionately harm communities of color. He says he aims to be “an engineer of social solutions, one who reaches deep into their toolbox of social justice, pulling the levers of activism, advocacy, democracy, and legislation to radically change our world — to improve our social institutions at the root and liberate our communities.” While he understands this is a big feat, he sees his ambition as an asset.

    “I’m just another person with huge aspirations, and an understanding that you have to go get it if you want it,” he says. “You feel me? At the end of the day, this is just the beginning of my story. And I’m grateful to everyone in my life that’s helping me write it. Tap in.” More

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    Data flow’s decisive role on the global stage

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

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

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

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

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

    Protect or innovate

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Data, politics, and economy

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

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

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

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

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

    “Doer mindset”

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

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

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

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    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