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    Emma Gibson: Optimizing health care logistics in Africa

    Growing up in South Africa at the turn of the century, Emma Gibson saw the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its devastating impact on her home country, where many people lacked life-saving health care. At the time, Gibson was too young to understand what a sexually transmitted infection was, but she knew that HIV was infecting millions of South Africans and AIDS was taking hundreds of thousands of lives. “As a child, I was terrified by this monster that was HIV and felt so powerless to do anything about it,” she says.

    Now, as an adult, her childhood fear of the HIV epidemic has evolved into a desire to fight it. Gibson seeks to improve health care for HIV and other diseases in regions with limited resources, including South Africa. She wants to help health care facilities in these areas to use their resources more effectively so that patients can more easily obtain care.

    To help reach her goal, Gibson sought mathematics and logistics training through higher education in South Africa. She first earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematical sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, and then her master’s degree in operations research at Stellenbosch University. There, she learned to tackle complex decision-making problems using math, statistics, and computer simulations.

    During her master’s, Gibson studied the operational challenges faced in rural South African health care facilities by working with staff at Zithulele Hospital in the Eastern Cape, one of the country’s poorest provinces. Her research focused on ways to reduce hours-long wait times for patients seeking same-day care. In the end, she developed a software tool to model patient congestion throughout the day and optimize staff schedules accordingly, enabling the hospital to care for its patients more efficiently.

    After completing her master’s, Gibson wanted to further her education outside of South Africa and left to pursue a PhD in operations research at MIT. Upon arrival, she branched out in her research and worked on a project to improve breast cancer treatment in U.S. health care, a very different environment from what she was used to.

    Two years later, Gibson had the opportunity to return to researching health care in resource-limited settings and began working with Jónas Jónasson, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, on a new project to improve diagnostic services in sub-Saharan Africa. For the past four years, she has been working diligently on this project in collaboration with researchers at the Indian School of Business and Northwestern University. “My love language is time,” she says. “If I’m investing a lot of time in something, I really value it.”

    Scheduling sample transport

    Diagnostic testing is an essential tool that allows medical professionals to identify new diagnoses in patients and monitor patients’ conditions as they undergo treatment. For example, people living with HIV require regular blood tests to ensure that their prescribed treatments are working effectively and provide an early warning of potential treatment failures.

    For Gibson’s current project, she’s trying to improve diagnostic services in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeast Africa. “We have the tools” to diagnose and treat diseases like HIV, she says. “But in resource-limited settings, we often lack the money, the staff, and the infrastructure to reach every patient that needs them.”

    When diagnostic testing is needed, clinicians collect samples from patients and send the samples to be tested at a laboratory, which then returns the results to the facility where the patient is treated. To move these items between facilities and laboratories, Malawi has developed a national sample transportation network. The transportation system plays an important role in linking remote, rural facilities to laboratory services and ensuring that patients in these areas can access diagnostic testing through community clinics. Samples collected at these clinics are first transported to nearby district hubs, and then forwarded to laboratories located in urban areas. Since most facilities do not have computers or communications infrastructure, laboratories print copies of test results and send them back to facilities through the same transportation process.

    The sample transportation cycle is onerous, but it’s a practical solution to a difficult problem. “During the Covid pandemic, we saw how hard it was to scale up diagnostic infrastructure,” Gibson says. Diagnostic services in sub-Saharan Africa face “similar challenges, but in a much poorer setting.”

    In Malawi, sample transportation is managed by a  nongovernment organization called Riders 4 Health. The organization has around 80 couriers on motorcycles who transport samples and test results between facilities. “When we started working with [Riders], the couriers operated on fixed weekly schedules, visiting each site once or twice a week,” Gibson says. But that led to “a lot of unnecessary trips and delays.”

    To make sample transportation more efficient, Gibson developed a dynamic scheduling system that adapts to the current demand for diagnostic testing. The system consists of two main parts: an information sharing platform that aggregates sample transportation data, and an algorithm that uses the data to generate optimized routes and schedules for sample transport couriers.

    In 2019, Gibson ran a four-month-long pilot test for this system in three out of the 27 districts in Malawi. During the pilot study, six couriers transported over 20,000 samples and results across 51 health care facilities, and 150 health care workers participated in data sharing.

    The pilot was a success. Gibson’s dynamic scheduling system eliminated about half the unnecessary trips and reduced transportation delays by 25 percent — a delay that used to be four days was reduced to three. Now, Riders 4 Health is developing their own version of Gibson’s system to operate nationally in Malawi. Throughout this project, “we focused on making sure this was something that could grow with the organization,” she says. “It’s gratifying to see that actually happening.”

    Leveraging patient data

    Gibson is completing her MIT degree this September but will continue working to improve health care in Africa. After graduation, she will join the technology and analytics health care practice of an established company in South Africa. Her initial focus will be on public health care institutions, including Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Johannesburg, the third-largest hospital in the world.

    In this role, Gibson will work to fill in gaps in African patient data for medical operational research and develop ways to use this data more effectively to improve health care in resource-limited areas. For example, better data systems can help to monitor the prevalence and impact of different diseases, guiding where health care workers and researchers put their efforts to help the most people. “You can’t make good decisions if you don’t have all the information,” Gibson says.

    To best leverage patient data for improving health care, Gibson plans to reevaluate how data systems are structured and used in the hospital. For ideas on upgrading the current system, she’ll look to existing data systems in other countries to see what works and what doesn’t, while also drawing upon her past research experience in U.S. health care. Ultimately, she’ll tailor the new hospital data system to South African needs to accurately inform future directions in health care.

    Gibson’s new job — her “dream job” — will be based in the United Kingdom, but she anticipates spending a significant amount of time in Johannesburg. “I have so many opportunities in the wider world, but the ones that appeal to me are always back in the place I came from,” she says. More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Preseason patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Go outside”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Research aims to mitigate chemical and biological airborne threats

    When the air harbors harmful matter, such as a virus or toxic chemical, it’s not always easy to promptly detect this danger. Whether spread maliciously or accidentally, how fast and how far could hazardous plumes travel through a city? What could emergency managers do in response?

    These were questions that scientists, public health officials, and government agencies probed with an air flow study conducted recently in New York City. At 120 locations across all five boroughs of the city, a team led by MIT Lincoln Laboratory collected safe test particles and gases released earlier in subway stations and on streets, tracking their journeys. The exercise measured how far the materials traveled and what their concentrations were when detected.

    The results are expected to improve air dispersion models, and in turn, help emergency planners improve response protocols if a real chemical or biological event were to take place. 

    The study was performed under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Urban Threat Dispersion Project. The project is largely driven by Lincoln Laboratory’s Counter–Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Systems Group to improve homeland defenses against airborne threats. This exercise followed a similar, though much smaller, study in 2016 that focused mainly on the subway system within Manhattan.

    “The idea was to look at how particles and gases move through urban environments, starting with a focus on subways,” says Mandeep Virdi, a researcher in the CWMD Systems Group who helped lead both studies.

    The particles and gases used in the study are safe to disperse. The particulates are primarily composed of maltodextrin sugar, and have been used in prior public safety exercises. To enable researchers to track the particles, the particles are modified with small amounts of synthetic DNA that acts as a unique “barcode.” This barcode corresponds to the location from which the particle was released and the day of release. When these particles are later collected and analyzed, researchers can know exactly where they came from.

    The laboratory’s team led the process of releasing the particles and collecting the particle samples for analysis. A small sprayer is used to aerosolize the particles into the air. As the particles flow throughout the city, some get trapped in filters set up at the many dispersed collection sites. 

    To make processes more efficient for this large study, the team built special filter heads that rotated through multiple filters, saving time spent revisiting a collection site. They also developed a system using NFC (near-field communication) tags to simplify the cataloging and tracking of samples and equipment through a mobile app. 

    The researchers are still processing the approximately 5,000 samples that were collected over the five-day measurement campaign. The data will feed into existing particle dispersion models to improve simulations. One of these models, from Argonne National Laboratory, focuses on subway environments, and another model from Los Alamos National Laboratory simulates above-ground city environments, taking into account buildings and urban canyon air flows.

    Together, these models can show how a plume would travel from the subway to the streets, for example. These insights will enable emergency managers in New York City to develop more informed response strategies, as they did following the 2016 subway study.

    “The big question has always been, if there is a release and law enforcement can detect it in time, what do you actually do? Do you shut down the subway system? What can you do to mitigate those effects? Knowing that is the end goal,” Virdi says. 

    A new program, called the Chemical and Biological Defense Testbed, has just kicked off to further investigate those questions. Trina Vian at Lincoln Laboratory is leading this program, also under S&T funding.

    “Now that we’ve learned more about how material transports through the subway system, this test bed is looking at ways that we can mitigate that transport in a low-regret way,” Vian says.

    According to Vian, emergency managers don’t have many options other than to evacuate the area when a biological or chemical sensor is triggered. Yet current sensors tend to have high false-alarm rates, particularly in dirty environments. “You really can’t afford to make that evacuation call in error. Not only do you undermine people’s trust in the system, but also people can become injured, and it may actually be a non-threatening situation.”

    The goal of this test bed is to develop architectures and technologies that could allow for a range of appropriate response activities. For example, the team will be looking at ways through which air flow could be constrained or filtered in place, without disrupting traffic, while responders validate an alarm. They’ll also be testing the performance of new chemical and biological sensor technologies.

    Both Vian and Virdi stress the importance of collaboration for carrying out these large-scale studies, and in tackling the problem of airborne dangers in general. The test bed program is already benefiting by using equipment provided through the CWMD Alliance, a partnership of DHS and the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense.

    A team of nearly 175 personnel worked together on the air flow exercise, spanning the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York City Transit, New York City Police Department, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Energy National Laboratories, in addition to S&T and Lincoln Laboratory.

    “It really was all about teamwork,” Virdi reflects. “Programs like this are why I came to Lincoln Laboratory. Seeing how the science is applied in a way that has real actionable results and how appreciative agencies are of what we’re doing has been rewarding. It’s exciting to see your program through, especially one as intense as this.” More

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    Understanding air pollution from space

    Climate change and air pollution are interlocking crises that threaten human health. Reducing emissions of some air pollutants can help achieve climate goals, and some climate mitigation efforts can in turn improve air quality.

    One part of MIT Professor Arlene Fiore’s research program is to investigate the fundamental science in understanding air pollutants — how long they persist and move through our environment to affect air quality.

    “We need to understand the conditions under which pollutants, such as ozone, form. How much ozone is formed locally and how much is transported long distances?” says Fiore, who notes that Asian air pollution can be transported across the Pacific Ocean to North America. “We need to think about processes spanning local to global dimensions.”

    Fiore, the Peter H. Stone and Paola Malanotte Stone Professor in Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, analyzes data from on-the-ground readings and from satellites, along with models, to better understand the chemistry and behavior of air pollutants — which ultimately can inform mitigation strategies and policy setting.

    A global concern

    At the United Nations’ most recent climate change conference, COP26, air quality management was a topic discussed over two days of presentations.

    “Breathing is vital. It’s life. But for the vast majority of people on this planet right now, the air that they breathe is not giving life, but cutting it short,” said Sarah Vogel, senior vice president for health at the Environmental Defense Fund, at the COP26 session.

    “We need to confront this twin challenge now through both a climate and clean air lens, of targeting those pollutants that warm both the air and harm our health.”

    Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its global air quality guidelines it had issued 15 years earlier for six key pollutants including ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). The new guidelines are more stringent based on what the WHO stated is the “quality and quantity of evidence” of how these pollutants affect human health. WHO estimates that roughly 7 million premature deaths are attributable to the joint effects of air pollution.

    “We’ve had all these health-motivated reductions of aerosol and ozone precursor emissions. What are the implications for the climate system, both locally but also around the globe? How does air quality respond to climate change? We study these two-way interactions between air pollution and the climate system,” says Fiore.

    But fundamental science is still required to understand how gases, such as ozone and nitrogen dioxide, linger and move throughout the troposphere — the lowermost layer of our atmosphere, containing the air we breathe.

    “We care about ozone in the air we’re breathing where we live at the Earth’s surface,” says Fiore. “Ozone reacts with biological tissue, and can be damaging to plants and human lungs. Even if you’re a healthy adult, if you’re out running hard during an ozone smog event, you might feel an extra weight on your lungs.”

    Telltale signs from space

    Ozone is not emitted directly, but instead forms through chemical reactions catalyzed by radiation from the sun interacting with nitrogen oxides — pollutants released in large part from burning fossil fuels—and volatile organic compounds. However, current satellite instruments cannot sense ground-level ozone.

    “We can’t retrieve surface- or even near-surface ozone from space,” says Fiore of the satellite data, “although the anticipated launch of a new instrument looks promising for new advances in retrieving lower-tropospheric ozone”. Instead, scientists can look at signatures from other gas emissions to get a sense of ozone formation. “Nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde are a heavy focus of our research because they serve as proxies for two of the key ingredients that go on to form ozone in the atmosphere.”

    To understand ozone formation via these precursor pollutants, scientists have gathered data for more than two decades using spectrometer instruments aboard satellites that measure sunlight in ultraviolet and visible wavelengths that interact with these pollutants in the Earth’s atmosphere — known as solar backscatter radiation.

    Satellites, such as NASA’s Aura, carry instruments like the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI). OMI, along with European-launched satellites such as the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment (GOME) and the Scanning Imaging Absorption spectroMeter for Atmospheric CartograpHY (SCIAMACHY), and the newest generation TROPOspheric Monitoring instrument (TROPOMI), all orbit the Earth, collecting data during daylight hours when sunlight is interacting with the atmosphere over a particular location.

    In a recent paper from Fiore’s group, former graduate student Xiaomeng Jin (now a postdoc at the University of California at Berkeley), demonstrated that she could bring together and “beat down the noise in the data,” as Fiore says, to identify trends in ozone formation chemistry over several U.S. metropolitan areas that “are consistent with our on-the-ground understanding from in situ ozone measurements.”

    “This finding implies that we can use these records to learn about changes in surface ozone chemistry in places where we lack on-the-ground monitoring,” says Fiore. Extracting these signals by stringing together satellite data — OMI, GOME, and SCIAMACHY — to produce a two-decade record required reconciling the instruments’ differing orbit days, times, and fields of view on the ground, or spatial resolutions. 

    Currently, spectrometer instruments aboard satellites are retrieving data once per day. However, newer instruments, such as the Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer launched in February 2020 by the National Institute of Environmental Research in the Ministry of Environment of South Korea, will monitor a particular region continuously, providing much more data in real time.

    Over North America, the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution Search (TEMPO) collaboration between NASA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, led by Kelly Chance of Harvard University, will provide not only a stationary view of the atmospheric chemistry over the continent, but also a finer-resolution view — with the instrument recording pollution data from only a few square miles per pixel (with an anticipated launch in 2022).

    “What we’re very excited about is the opportunity to have continuous coverage where we get hourly measurements that allow us to follow pollution from morning rush hour through the course of the day and see how plumes of pollution are evolving in real time,” says Fiore.

    Data for the people

    Providing Earth-observing data to people in addition to scientists — namely environmental managers, city planners, and other government officials — is the goal for the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST).

    Since 2016, Fiore has been part of HAQAST, including collaborative “tiger teams” — projects that bring together scientists, nongovernment entities, and government officials — to bring data to bear on real issues.

    For example, in 2017, Fiore led a tiger team that provided guidance to state air management agencies on how satellite data can be incorporated into state implementation plans (SIPs). “Submission of a SIP is required for any state with a region in non-attainment of U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standards to demonstrate their approach to achieving compliance with the standard,” says Fiore. “What we found is that small tweaks in, for example, the metrics we use to convey the science findings, can go a long way to making the science more usable, especially when there are detailed policy frameworks in place that must be followed.”

    Now, in 2021, Fiore is part of two tiger teams announced by HAQAST in late September. One team is looking at data to address environmental justice issues, by providing data to assess communities disproportionately affected by environmental health risks. Such information can be used to estimate the benefits of governmental investments in environmental improvements for disproportionately burdened communities. The other team is looking at urban emissions of nitrogen oxides to try to better quantify and communicate uncertainties in the estimates of anthropogenic sources of pollution.

    “For our HAQAST work, we’re looking at not just the estimate of the exposure to air pollutants, or in other words their concentrations,” says Fiore, “but how confident are we in our exposure estimates, which in turn affect our understanding of the public health burden due to exposure. We have stakeholder partners at the New York Department of Health who will pair exposure datasets with health data to help prioritize decisions around public health.

    “I enjoy working with stakeholders who have questions that require science to answer and can make a difference in their decisions.” Fiore says. 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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    Enabling AI-driven health advances without sacrificing patient privacy

    There’s a lot of excitement at the intersection of artificial intelligence and health care. AI has already been used to improve disease treatment and detection, discover promising new drugs, identify links between genes and diseases, and more.

    By analyzing large datasets and finding patterns, virtually any new algorithm has the potential to help patients — AI researchers just need access to the right data to train and test those algorithms. Hospitals, understandably, are hesitant to share sensitive patient information with research teams. When they do share data, it’s difficult to verify that researchers are only using the data they need and deleting it after they’re done.

    Secure AI Labs (SAIL) is addressing those problems with a technology that lets AI algorithms run on encrypted datasets that never leave the data owner’s system. Health care organizations can control how their datasets are used, while researchers can protect the confidentiality of their models and search queries. Neither party needs to see the data or the model to collaborate.

    SAIL’s platform can also combine data from multiple sources, creating rich insights that fuel more effective algorithms.

    “You shouldn’t have to schmooze with hospital executives for five years before you can run your machine learning algorithm,” says SAIL co-founder and MIT Professor Manolis Kellis, who co-founded the company with CEO Anne Kim ’16, SM ’17. “Our goal is to help patients, to help machine learning scientists, and to create new therapeutics. We want new algorithms — the best algorithms — to be applied to the biggest possible data set.”

    SAIL has already partnered with hospitals and life science companies to unlock anonymized data for researchers. In the next year, the company hopes to be working with about half of the top 50 academic medical centers in the country.

    Unleashing AI’s full potential

    As an undergraduate at MIT studying computer science and molecular biology, Kim worked with researchers in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) to analyze data from clinical trials, gene association studies, hospital intensive care units, and more.

    “I realized there is something severely broken in data sharing, whether it was hospitals using hard drives, ancient file transfer protocol, or even sending stuff in the mail,” Kim says. “It was all just not well-tracked.”

    Kellis, who is also a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, has spent years establishing partnerships with hospitals and consortia across a range of diseases including cancers, heart disease, schizophrenia, and obesity. He knew that smaller research teams would struggle to get access to the same data his lab was working with.

    In 2017, Kellis and Kim decided to commercialize technology they were developing to allow AI algorithms to run on encrypted data.

    In the summer of 2018, Kim participated in the delta v startup accelerator run by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The founders also received support from the Sandbox Innovation Fund and the Venture Mentoring Service, and made various early connections through their MIT network.

    To participate in SAIL’s program, hospitals and other health care organizations make parts of their data available to researchers by setting up a node behind their firewall. SAIL then sends encrypted algorithms to the servers where the datasets reside in a process called federated learning. The algorithms crunch the data locally in each server and transmit the results back to a central model, which updates itself. No one — not the researchers, the data owners, or even SAIL —has access to the models or the datasets.

    The approach allows a much broader set of researchers to apply their models to large datasets. To further engage the research community, Kellis’ lab at MIT has begun holding competitions in which it gives access to datasets in areas like protein function and gene expression, and challenges researchers to predict results.

    “We invite machine learning researchers to come and train on last year’s data and predict this year’s data,” says Kellis. “If we see there’s a new type of algorithm that is performing best in these community-level assessments, people can adopt it locally at many different institutions and level the playing field. So, the only thing that matters is the quality of your algorithm rather than the power of your connections.”

    By enabling a large number of datasets to be anonymized into aggregate insights, SAIL’s technology also allows researchers to study rare diseases, in which small pools of relevant patient data are often spread out among many institutions. That has historically made the data difficult to apply AI models to.

    “We’re hoping that all of these datasets will eventually be open,” Kellis says. “We can cut across all the silos and enable a new era where every patient with every rare disorder across the entire world can come together in a single keystroke to analyze data.”

    Enabling the medicine of the future

    To work with large amounts of data around specific diseases, SAIL has increasingly sought to partner with patient associations and consortia of health care groups, including an international health care consulting company and the Kidney Cancer Association. The partnerships also align SAIL with patients, the group they’re most trying to help.

    Overall, the founders are happy to see SAIL solving problems they faced in their labs for researchers around the world.

    “The right place to solve this is not an academic project. The right place to solve this is in industry, where we can provide a platform not just for my lab but for any researcher,” Kellis says. “It’s about creating an ecosystem of academia, researchers, pharma, biotech, and hospital partners. I think it’s the blending all of these different areas that will make that vision of medicine of the future become a reality.” More

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    Finding common ground in Malden

    When disparate groups convene around a common goal, exciting things can happen.

    That is the inspiring story unfolding in Malden, Massachusetts, a city of about 60,000 — nearly half people of color — where a new type of community coalition continues to gain momentum on its plan to build a climate-resilient waterfront park along its river. The Malden River Works (MRW) project, recipient of the inaugural Leventhal City Prize, is seeking to connect to a contiguous greenway network where neighboring cities already have visitors coming to their parks and enjoying recreational boating. More important, the MRW is changing the model for how cities address civic growth, community engagement, equitable climate resilience, and environmental justice.                                                                                        

    The MRW’s steering committee consists of eight resident leaders of color, a resident environmental advocate, and three city representatives. One of the committee’s primary responsibilities is providing direction to the MRW’s project team, which includes urban designers, watershed and climate resilience planners, and a community outreach specialist. MIT’s Kathleen Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach Education and Engagement Core at MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS), and Marie Law Adams MArch ’06, a lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), serve on the project team.

    “This governance structure is somewhat unusual,” says Adams. “More typical is having city government as the primary decision-maker. It is important that one of the first things our team did was build a steering committee that is the decision maker on this project.”

    Evan Spetrini ’18 is the senior planner and policy manager for the Malden Redevelopment Authority and sits on both the steering committee and project team. He says placing the decision-making power with the steering committee and building it to be representative of marginalized communities was intentional. 

    “Changing that paradigm of power and decision-making in planning processes was the way we approached social resilience,” says Spetrini. “We have always intended this project to be a model for future planning projects in Malden.”

    This model ushers in a new history chapter for a city founded in 1640.

    Located about six miles north of Boston, Malden was home to mills and factories that used the Malden River for power, and a site for industrial waste over the last two centuries. Decades after the city’s industrial decline, there is little to no public access to the river. Many residents were not even aware there was a river in their city. Before the project was under way, Vandiver initiated a collaborative effort to evaluate the quality of the river’s water. Working with the Mystic River Watershed Association, Gradient Corporation, and CEHS, water samples were tested and a risk analysis conducted.

    “Having the study done made it clear the public could safely enjoy boating on the water,” says Vandiver. “It was a breakthrough that allowed people to see the river as an amenity.”

    A team effort

    Marcia Manong had never seen the river, but the Malden resident was persuaded to join the steering committee with the promise the project would be inclusive and of value to the community. Manong has been involved with civic engagement most of her life in the United States and for 20 years in South Africa.

    “It wasn’t going to be a marginalized, token-ized engagement,” says Manong. “It was clear to me that they were looking for people that would actually be sitting at the table.”

    Manong agreed to recruit additional people of color to join the team. From the beginning, she says, language was a huge barrier, given that nearly half of Malden’s residents do not speak English at home. Finding the translation efforts at their public events to be inadequate, the steering committee directed more funds to be made available for translation in several languages when public meetings began being held over Zoom this past year.

    “It’s unusual for most cities to spend this money, but our population is so diverse that we require it,” says Manong. “We have to do it. If the steering committee wasn’t raising this issue with the rest of the team, perhaps this would be overlooked.”

    Another alteration the steering committee has made is how the project engages with the community. While public attendance at meetings had been successful before the pandemic, Manong says they are “constantly working” to reach new people. One method has been to request invitations to attend the virtual meetings of other organizations to keep them apprised of the project.

    “We’ve said that people feel most comfortable when they’re in their own surroundings, so why not go where the people are instead of trying to get them to where we are,” says Manong.

    Buoyed by the $100,000 grant from MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU) in 2019, the project team worked with Malden’s Department of Public Works, which is located along the river, to redesign its site and buildings and to study how to create a flood-resistant public open space as well as an elevated greenway path, connecting with other neighboring cities’ paths. The park’s plans also call for 75 new trees to reduce urban heat island effect, open lawn for gathering, and a dock for boating on the river.

    “The storm water infrastructure in these cities is old and isn’t going to be able to keep up with increased precipitation,” says Adams. “We’re looking for ways to store as much water as possible on the DPW site so we can hold it and release it more gradually into the river to avoid flooding.”

    The project along the 2.3-mile-long river continues to receive attention. Recently, the city of Malden was awarded a 2021 Accelerating Climate Resilience Grant of more than $50,000 from the state’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Barr Foundation to support the project. Last fall, the project was awarded a $150,015 Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Action Grant. Both awards are being directed to fund engineering work to refine the project’s design.

    “We — and in general, the planning profession — are striving to create more community empowerment in decision-making as to what happens to their community,” says Spetrini. “Putting the power in the community ensures that it’s actually responding to the needs of the community.”

    Contagious enthusiasm

    Manong says she’s happy she got involved with the project and believes the new governance structure is making a difference.

    “This project is definitely engaging with communities of color in a manner that is transformative and that is looking to build a long-lasting power dynamic built on trust,” she says. “It’s a new energized civic engagement and we’re making that happen. It’s very exciting.”

    Spetrini finds the challenge of creating an open space that’s publicly accessible and alongside an active work site professionally compelling.

    “There is a way to preserve the industrial employment base while also giving the public greater access to this natural resource,” he says. “It has real implications for other communities to follow this type of model.”

    Despite the pandemic this past year, enthusiasm for the project is palpable. For Spetrini, a Malden resident, it’s building “the first significant piece of what has been envisioned as the Malden River Greenway.” Adams sees the total project as a way to build social resilience as well as garnering community interest in climate resilience. For Vandiver, it’s the implications for improved community access.

    “From a health standpoint, everybody has learned from Covid-19 that the health aspects of walking in nature are really restorative,” says Vandiver. “Creating greater green space gives more attention to health issues. These are seemingly small side benefits, but they’re huge for mental health benefits.”

    Leventhal City Prize’s next cycle

    The Leventhal City Prize was established by the LCAU to catalyze innovative, interdisciplinary urban design, and planning approaches worldwide to improve both the environment and the quality of life for residents. Support for the LCAU was provided by the Muriel and Norman B. Leventhal Family Foundation and the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Family Foundation.

    “We’re thrilled with inaugural recipients of the award and the extensive work they’ve undertaken that is being held up as an exemplary model for others to learn from,” says Sarah Williams, LCAU director and a professor in DUSP. “Their work reflects the prize’s intent. We look forward to catalyzing these types of collaborative partnership in the next prize cycle.”

    Submissions for the next cycle of the Leventhal City Prize will open in early 2022.    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