Briefings

  • Spring 2019
précis SPRING 2019: Briefings
May 14, 2019

Joi Ito on the Uyghur human rights crisis

Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab
First published here and as a MIT Starr Forum Report

A few weeks ago I was asked to make some remarks at the MIT-Harvard conference on the Uyghur human rights crisis. I wasn’t sure what I would say because I’m definitely not an expert on this topic. But as I dove into researching what is happening to the Uyghur community in China, I realized that it connected to a lot of the themes I have run up against in my own work, particularly the importance of considering the ethical and social implications of technology early on in the design and development process. The Uyghur human rights crisis demonstrates how the technology we build, even with the best of intentions, may be used to surveil and harm people. Many of my activities these days are focused on the prevention of misuse of technology in the future, but it requires more than just bolting ethicists onto product teams—I think it involves a fundamental shift in our priorities and a redesign of the relationship of the humanities and social sciences with engineering and science in academia and society. As a starting point, I think it is critically important to facilitate conversations about this problem through events like this one.

Joi Ito

Joi Ito is director of the MIT Media Lab and a Professor of the Practice in Media Arts and Sciences Photo: Laura Kerwin/CIS

First of all, I’m very grateful to all of the people who have been working on this topic and for helping me get more informed. I’m broadly interested in human rights, its relationship with technology and our role as Harvard and MIT and academia in general to intervene in these types of situations. So I want to talk mainly about that.

One of the things to think about not just in this case, but also more broadly, is the role of technology in surveillance and human rights. I specifically want to address the continuing investment in and ascension of the engineering and sciences in the world through ventures like MIT’s new Schwarzman College of Computing, in terms of their influence and the scale at which they’re being deployed. I believe that thinking about the ethical aspects of these investments is essential.

I remember when JJ Abrams, one of our Director’s Fellows and a film director for those of you who don’t know, visited the Media Lab. We have 500 or so ongoing projects at the Media Lab and he asked some of the students, “Do you do anything that involves things like war or surveillance or things that you know, harm people?” And all of the students said, “No, of course we don’t do that kind of thing. We make technology for good.” And then he said, “Well let me re-frame that question, can you imagine an evil villain in any of my shows or movies using anything here to do really terrible things?” And everybody went, “Yeah!”

What’s important to understand is that most engineers and scientists are developing tools to try to help the world, whether it’s trying to model the brains of children in order to increase the quality and the effectiveness of education, or using sensors to help farmers grow crops. But what most people don’t spend enough time thinking about is the dual use nature of the technology—the fact that technology can easily be used in ways that the designer did not intend.

Now, I think there are a lot of arguments about whose job it is to think about how technology can be used in unexpected and harmful ways. If I took the faculty in the Media Lab and put them on a line where at one end, the faculty believe we should think about all the social implications before doing anything, and at the other end they believe we should just build stuff and society will figure it out, I think there would be a fairly even distribution along the line. I would say that at MIT that’s also roughly true. My argument is that we actually have to think more about the social implications of technology before designing it. It’s very hard to un-design things, and I’m not saying that it’s an easy task, and I’m not saying that we have to get everything perfect, but I think that having a more coherent view of the world and these implications is tremendously important.

The Media Lab is a little over 30 years old, and I’ve been there for eight years, but I was very involved in the early days of the internet. The other day, I was describing to Susan Silbey, the current faculty chair at MIT, how when we were building the internet we thought if we could just provide a voice to everyone, if we could just connect everyone together, we would have world peace. I really believed that when we started, and I was expressing to Susan how naïve I feel now that the internet has become something that’s more akin to the little girl in the Exorcist, for those of you who have seen the movie. But Susan, being an anthropologist and historian said, “Well when you guys talked about connecting everybody together, we knew. The social scientists knew that it was going to be a mess.”

One of the really important things I learned from my conversation with Susan was the extent to which the humanities have thought about and fought about a lot of these things. History has taught us a lot of these things. I know that it’s somewhat taboo to invoke Nazi Germany in too many conversations, but if you look at the data that was collected in Europe to support social services, much of it was later used by the Nazis to roundup and persecute the Jews. And it’s not exactly the same situation, but a lot of the databases that we’re creating to help poor and disadvantaged families are also being used by the immigration services to find and target people for deportation.

Even the databases and technology that we use and create for the best of intentions can be subverted depending on who’s in charge. So thinking about these systems is tremendously important. At MIT, we are working with tech companies that are working directly on surveillance technology or are in some way creating technologies that could be used for surveillance in China. Again thinking about the ethical issues is very important. I will point out that there are whole disciplines that work in this, MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), that’s really what they do. They think about the impact of science and technology in society. They think about it in a historical context and provide us with a framework for thinking about these things. Thinking about how to integrate anthropology and STS into both the curriculum and the research at MIT is tremendously important.

The other thing to think about is allowing engineers more freedom to explore the application and impact of their work. One of the problems with scholarship is that many researchers don’t have the freedom to fully test their hypotheses. For example, in January, Eric Topol tweeted about his paper that showed that of the 15 most impactful machine learning and medicine papers that had been published, none of them had been clinically validated.1 Many cases, in machine learning, you get some data, you tweak it and you get a very high effectiveness and then you walk away. Then the clinicians come in and they say “oh, but we can’t replicate this, and we don’t have the expertise” or “we tried it but it doesn’t seem to work in practice.” We’re not providing, if you’re following an academic path, the proper incentives for the computer scientists to integrate with and work closely with the clinicians in the field. One of the other challenges that we have is that our reward systems and the incentives that are in place don’t encourage technologists to explore the social implications of the tech they produce. When this is the case, you fall a little bit short of actually getting to the question, “well, what does this actually mean?”

I co-teach a course at Harvard Law School called the Applied Challenges in Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence, and through that class we’ve explored some research that considers the ethical and social impact of AI. To give you an example, one Media Lab project2 that we discussed was looking at risk scores used by the criminal justice system for sentencing and pre-trial assessments and bail. The project team initially thought “oh, we could just use a blockchain to verify the data and make the whole criminal sentencing system more efficient.” But as the team started looking into it, they realized that the whole criminal justice system was somewhat broken. And as they started going deeper and deeper into the problem, they realized that while these prediction systems were making policing and judging possibly more efficient, they were also taking power away from the predictee and giving it to the predictor.

Basically, these automated systems were saying “okay, if you happen to live in this zip code, you will have a higher recidivism rate.” But in reality, rearrest has more to do with policing and policy and the courts than it does with the criminality of the individual. By saying that this risk score can accurately predict how likely it is that this person will commit another crime, you’re attributing the agency to the individual when actually much of the agency lies with the system. And by focusing on making the prediction tool more accurate, you end up ignoring existing weaknesses and biases in the overall justice system and the cause of those weaknesses. It’s reminiscent of Caley Horan’s writing on the history of insurance and redlining. She looks at the way in which insurance pricing, called actuarial fairness, became a legitimate way to use math to discriminate against people and how it took the debate away from the feminists and the civil rights leaders and made it an argument about the accuracy of algorithms.

The researchers who were trying to improve the criminal risk scoring system have completely pivoted to recommending that we stop using automated decision making in criminal justice. Instead they think we should use technology to look at the long term effects of policies in the criminal justice system and not to predict the criminality of individuals.

But this outcome is not common. I find that whether we’re talking about tenure cases or publications or funding, we don’t typically allow our researchers to end up in places that contradict the fundamental place where they started. So I think that’s another thing that’s really important. How do we create both research and curricular opportunities for people to explore their initial assumptions and hypotheses? As we think about this and this conversation, we should ask “how can we integrate this into our educational system?”

Now I want to pivot a little bit and talk about the role of academia in the Uyghur crisis. I know there are people who view this meeting as provocative or political and it reminds me of the March for Science that we had several years ago. I gave a talk at the first March for Science. Before the talk, when I was at a dinner table with a bunch of faculty (I won’t name the faculty), someone said, “Why are you doing that? It’s very political. We try not to be political, we’re just scientists.” And I said, “Well when it becomes political to tell the truth, when being supportive of climate science is political, when trying to support fundamental scientific research is political, then I’m political.” So I don’t want to be partisan, but I think if the truth is political, then I think we need to be political.

And this is not a new concept. If you look at the history of MIT, or just the history of academic freedom (there’s the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure)3 you will find a bunch of interesting MIT history. In the late 40s and 50s, during the McCarthy period, society was going after communists and left wing people out of the fear of Communism. And many institutions were turning over their left wing Marxist academics, or firing them under pressure from the government. But MIT was quite good about protecting their Marxist affiliated faculty, and there’s a very famous case that shows this. Dirk Struik, a math professor at MIT, was indicted by the Middlesex grand jury on charges of advocating the overthrow of the US and Massachusetts governments in 1951. At the time MIT suspended him with pay, but once the court abandoned the case due to lack of evidence and the fact that states shouldn’t be ruling on this type of charge, MIT reinstated Professor Struik. This is a quote from the president at the time, James Killian, about the incident.

“MIT believes that its faculty, as long as its members abide by the law, maintain the dignity and responsibility of their position, must be free to inquire, to challenge and to doubt in their search for what is true and good. They must be free to examine controversial matters, to reach conclusions of their own, to criticize and be criticized, and only through such unqualified freedom of thought and investigation can an educational institution, especially one dealing with science, perform its function of seeking truth.”

Many of you may wonder why we have tenure at universities. We have tenure to protect our ability to question authority, to speak the truth and to really say what we think without fear of retribution.

There’s another important case that demonstrates MIT’s willingness to protect its faculty and students. In the early 1990s, MIT and a bunch of Ivy League schools came up with this idea to provide financial aid for low income students on a need basis. The Ivy League schools got together to coordinate on how they would assess need and how they would figure out how much financial aid to give to students. Weirdly, the United States government sued the Ivy League schools saying that this was an antitrust case, which was ridiculous because it was a charity. Most of the other universities caved in after this lawsuit, but Chuck Vest the president at the time said, “MIT has a long history of admitting students based on merit and a tradition of ensuring these students full financial aid.” He refused to deny students financial aid, and a multi-year lawsuit ensued, in which eventually MIT won. And then this need-based scholarship system was enshrined in actual policy in the United States.

Many of the people who are here at MIT today probably don’t remember this, but there’s a great documentary film that shows MIT students and faculty literally clashing with police on these streets in an anti-Vietnam War protest 50 years ago. So in the not so distant past, MIT has been a very political place when it meant protecting our freedom to speak up.

More recently, I personally experienced this support for academic freedom. When Chelsea Manning’s fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School was rescinded, she emailed me and asked if she could speak at the Media Lab. I was thinking about it, and I asked the administration what they thought, and they thought it was a terrible idea. And when they told me that I said, “You know, now that means I have to invite her.” I remember our Provost Martin Schmidt saying, “I know.” And that’s what I think is wonderful about being here at MIT: the fact that the administration understands that faculty must be allowed to act independently of the Institute. Another example is when the administration was deciding what to do about funding from Saudi Arabia. The administration released a report,4 which has a few critics, that basically said, “we’re going to let people decide what they want to do.” I think each group or faculty member at MIT is permitted to make their own decision about whether to accept funding from Saudi Arabia. MIT, in my experience, has always stood by the academic freedom of whatever unit at the Institute that’s trying to do what it wants to do.

I think we’re in a very privileged place and I think that it’s not only our freedom, but our obligation to speak up. It’s also our responsibility to fight for the academic freedom of people in our community as well as people in other communities, and provide leadership. I really do want to thank the organizers of this conference for doing that. I think it’s very bold, but I think it’s very becoming of both MIT and Harvard. I read a very disturbing report from Human Rights Watch that talked about how Chinese scholars overseas are starting to have difficulties in speaking up, which I think is somewhat unprecedented because of the capabilities of today’s technology.5 And I think there are similar reports about scholars from Saudi Arabia. The ability of these countries to surveil their citizens overseas and impinge on their academic freedom is a tremendously important topic to discuss, and think about both technically, legally and otherwise. I think it’s also a very important thing for us to talk about how to protect the freedoms of students studying here. 

References
1 @EricTopol, Jan 26, 2019, 9:51 AM, https://twitter.com/erictopol/status/1089219196032958464?lang=en
2 MIT Media Lab Project, Humanizing AI in Law (HAL), https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/HAL/overview/ 
3 American Association of University Professors, 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, December 31, 1915, and January 1, 1916, https://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure
4 MIT News Office, Report reassesses MIT’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, December, 6, 2018, http://news.mit.edu/2018/provost-report-assesses-mit-relationships-saudi-arabian-entities-1206 
5 Human Rights Watch China: Government Threats to Academic Freedom Abroad, March 21, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/03/21/china-government-threats-academic-freedom-abroad 
Joi Ito's transcript is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Learning to study a painful past

Peter Dizikes, MIT News
First published here.

If you ask MIT associate professor Lerna Ekmekçioğlu how she wound up in academia, she has a straightforward answer.

“I was born a historian,” Ekmekçioğlu says. “It was my destiny.”

Lerna Ekmekçioğlu

Lerna Ekmekçioğlu is the McMillan-Stewart Associate Professor of History at MIT, and an affiliate of the Women and Gender Studies Program and the Center for International Studies

That natural affinity for history has propelled her through the ranks of academia, as a pioneering scholar of Armenians in Turkey, including Armenian women. Her specialty is a complex topic involving a historical catastrophe: the role of women in society after the 1915 Armenian genocide.

More specifically, Ekmekçioğlu studies how Armenian women helped keep their community intact, even while transforming it by introducing feminist ideas. Her best-known book, “Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey,” published in 2016 by Stanford University Press, reconstructs the life of the community of survivors, including its feminist voices, in the first decades after World War I.

Ekmekçioğlu’s basic interest in this subject is not hard to account for. She grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, as part of the small Armenian community remaining there over the decades. In this sense, Ekmekçioğlu really was born to be an Armenian historian. Understanding the world she grew up in meant understanding its past.

“I always had a curiosity about Armenian history,” Ekmekçioğlu notes. Still, it is a big leap from personal curiosity to a sustained career. And, as she recounts it, “I did not have any role models, really,” in academia, because there was so little work about what she wanted to study.

For this reason, Ekmekçioğlu’s career has two layers. One is her research and teaching—for which Ekmekçioğlu was awarded tenure at MIT last year.

The other is the extensive effort she has made to disseminate Armenian history to other students. Ekmekçioğlu is currently working on multiple projects at MIT to make Armenian historical materials widely available, and thus to create conditions in which today’s students and future researchers and historians can readily study the subject.

“I almost feel it as a responsibility,” Ekmekçioğlu says. “I see this as a public service.”

To see why this matters to Ekmekçioğlu, consider the circumstances in which she first started studying Armenian history and Armenian feminism, as an undergraduate at Bogazici University in Istanbul. The basic problem Ekmekçioğlu encountered: There weren’t established courses about Armenians, let alone Armenian women, at the university. Teaching Armenian history, to this day, remains a punishable crime in Turkey.

So Ekmekçioğlu and a few other students founded reading groups to study Armenian history and share information about written sources and materials that pertained to Armenian women. Together, a few of them entered a research paper competition, for all fields of history‚ and finished third.

That was enough to help Ekmekçioğlu and her friends gain more support from professors, who encouraged them to keep pursuing the subject. And they have: One of Ekmekçioğlu’s undergraduate friends was Melissa Bilal, now a faculty member at the American University of Armenia, in Yerevan, Armenia, with whom Ekmekçioğlu still collaborates on research and pedagogical projects.

As an undergraduate, Ekmekçioğlu also spent a year abroad at the University of Athens before graduating from Bogazici University in 2002. She then attended New York University as a graduate student, receiving her MA in 2004 and her PhD in 2010. After a year as a postdoc at the University of Michigan, Ekmekçioğlu joined the MIT faculty in 2011. Today she is the McMillan-Stewart Associate Professor of History at the Institute, and is affiliated with MIT’s Women’s and Gender Studies program and the Center for International Studies.

Ekmekçioğlu’s work examines a psychological and social strain at the heart of the lives of many Armenian women. After a shocking, traumatic human catastrophe, they were simultaneously trying to push their society forward, by developing new norms and rights for women, while also trying to hold their fractured community together by maintaining the cultural traditions of the past.

“By definition, they had to change,” Ekmekçioğlu says. “But that goal is in tension with maintaining Armenian tradition.”

In her book, Ekmekçioğlu’s work cleverly draws on written sources, such as an overlooked Armenian magazine called Hay Gin, to draw out the thoughts of the women she studies. More broadly, she has collaborated with Bilal to both publish and analyze an array of original-source documents about Armenian women, ranging in time from the 1860s to the 1960s.

When Ekmekçioğlu was still in graduate school, she and Bilal co-edited the first such volume on the subject, published in Istanbul in 2006 and translated as, “A Cry for Justice: Five Armenian Feminist Writers from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic.” Today, she and Bilal are working on a more comprehensive volume for publication, to be published in English as well as the original languages, with the working project title, “Feminism in Armenian: An Interpretive Anthology and Digital Archive.”

One component of this will be a volume combining original primary-source writings and scholarly essays, meant to make the ideas of Armenians a more easily accessible part of mainstream women’s history, and intended for classroom use.

Moreover, as the title suggests, Ekmekçioğlu and Bilal are working on a digital component of the project, which is intended to be the most comprehensive set of source materials on the subject yet in existence. She credits MIT as one of the institutions that has made this kind of project possible; she also recently received a Mellon Faculty Grant of the Center for Art, Science, and Technology, for a related public exhibition on the subject.

“There is a lot of curation involved in this,” Ekmekçioğlu says. “I’ve had a lot of support at MIT.”

While Ekmekçioğlu is a leading historian of the early Turkish Republic in general,  most of her work has come with the clear purpose of calling attention to overlooked women who, in exceedingly difficult times, sought to keep their society alive.

“It’s only fair to those women who worked so hard, to do that,” Ekmekçioğlu says.

Saudi scholar and activist Hala Aldosari joins CIS as the Robert E Wilhelm Fellow

First published here

Hala Aldosari

Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar and activist, is the Center's 2019-20 Robert E Wilhelm Fellow

Hala Aldosari, a Saudi scholar and activist in women’s rights in Arab societies, violence against women, and the “guardianship” system in Saudi Arabia, joins the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS) as its Robert E Wilhelm Fellow.

Aldosari arrives to MIT on June 1, 2019, and will spend the academic year conducting research on successful initiatives of women's rights in the Arab countries. In addition, she will use the fellowship to establish an advocacy organization to advance women’s and human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Aldosari maintains a women’s rights advocacy project online (www.aminah.org) and participates in advocacy efforts and community capacity building aimed at promoting women’s rights and combating violence against women in Saudi Arabia. She is an advisory board member for Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and the Gulf Center for Human Rights. She is also serving as a steering committee member in the Harvard-lead initiative, Every Woman, to establish a United Nations global treaty on violence against women.

She has worked as a medical scientist, lecturer, and an administrator in the Saudi health and education sector. She has also worked as a consultant to the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia in research and planning of the country’s national health policy and services.

A writer and a blogger, Aldosari comments on Saudi political and social affairs. Her writings have been featured in several major media outlets including Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Foreign Policy, among others.

In February, she was selected as the inaugural recipient of The Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi Fellowship. The fellowship—a new global opinions program established to honor the late Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi—provides an independent platform for journalists and writers to offer their perspectives from parts of the world where freedom of expression is threatened or suppressed. 

“When surveying the turbulence in the Middle East, the Center’s concerns include the dissolution of order and optimism in Arab states, the crisis in the Gulf generally, and the quashing of human rights values and aspirations 6-8 years after Arab Spring.  We need to understand the region more clearly, and our students should be exposed to first-hand knowledge of pressing issues. Dr. Aldosari is a recognized pioneer on many of these issues and will contribute greatly to our intellectual community. We look forward to welcoming her to MIT,” said Richard Samuels, Ford International Professor of Political Science and the director of CIS.

Aldosari comes to CIS from New York University where she served as a scholar in residence at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. Prior to that, she was a visiting scholar at The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University (2017-2018), and at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC (2016-2017). In 2015, she completed a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, focusing on social determinants of women’s health and violence against women.

She earned her PhD in health services research from Old Dominion University, concentrating on the epidemiology of violence against women and its adverse health outcomes in Saudi Arabia. She earned her MSc in medical science from the University of Surrey, United Kingdom.

“It is an honor to receive the fellowship at such a pivotal and transformative moment in the Arab countries. I am grateful that it will provide me with a precious opportunity to organize my thinking and research for political and civil reforms in Saudi Arabia,” said Aldosari.

MIT Policy Lab launches EdX course on policy outreach

Dan Pomeroy, PL@CIS
First published here

The MIT Policy Lab at the Center for International Studies (PL@CIS) recently launched a new EdX course entitled “Tools for Academic Engagement in Public Policy.” This short course provides a clear, concise, high quality resource for scientists and engineers who are seeking to inform the development of public policy with their research. By providing a basic overview of how governing bodies work, how policy is made, and specific strategies for impacting this process the PL@CIS hopes to significantly reduce the amount of time it takes for researchers to begin engaging with policymakers and increase their effectiveness at policy outreach.

Dan Pomeroy

Dan Pomeroy is the managing director and senior policy advisor of MIT's Policy Lab at the Center for International Studies (PL@CIS) 

The content of the course is informed by over four years of PL@CIS (formerly the International Policy Lab) experience working with MIT faculty to develop strategies for engaging with policymakers. The PL@CIS was created to ensure that public policies are informed by the best available research and that scholars understand the potential policy impact of their own work. This online tool seeks to take the lessons learned by the PL@CIS and make them available to the broader research community.

“MIT generates a lot of research with important implications for public policy that unfortunately doesn't always find its way into policy circles,” said Faculty Director Chappell Lawson, Associate Professor of Political Science. “Many faculty members here want to have an impact on policy but don't feel familiar enough with how the process works to do so efficiently. Creating an online educational tool to help connect the academic and policy communities is another way MIT can fulfill its mission of helping to solve the world's great challenges.”

This short course will provide an essential introduction to the policymaking process through the lens of the U.S. federal government, while providing specific steps researchers can take to engage policy stakeholders and articulate the policy implications of their work. It also includes community discussion forums to receive peer feedback on engagement strategies and to contribute to the online community of scientists interested in informing public policy.

“Academic training rarely covers the importance of engaging with policymakers or provides the tools necessary to do so effectively,” said Dan Pomeroy, PL@CIS Managing Director and Senior Policy Advisor. “When I decided to transition to work in public policy after receiving a PhD in physics, I struggled to understand how to apply my skillset to this new field. The intent of this tool is to provide a resource for both people within academia wanting to engage with policymakers as well as scientists and engineers interested in pursuing a career in public policy.”

The mission of the PL@CIS is to develop and enhance connections between MIT research and public policy. The PL@CIS accomplishes this mission by helping faculty define realistic policy goals and develop effective outreach strategies based on these goals and the time the faculty member wishes to devote.

The PL@CIS then provides mentorship, staff assistance, and training to help faculty conduct outreach efficiently and effectively. In addition, the PL@CIS provides modest grants for MIT faculty members to translate their scholarship for policy audiences and to cover the costs of engaging with the policy stakeholders. All of these efforts are designed to maximize the impact of faculty members' policy engagements while minimizing the expenditure of faculty time.

This course was produced in partnership with Meghan Perdue, SHASS Digital Learning Fellow, and with the support of MIT’s Office of Open Learning. It was also sponsored in part by Harvard Medical School's Scientific Citizenship Initiative (SCI). SCI works to make science more socially responsive and responsible by empowering scientists to collaboratively engage with and lead in their communities and society.

3Q: Sarah Williams on mapping urban transport

Digitally mapping informal transportation networks in developing cities can help them reach the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals

Michelle English, MIT Center for International Studies
First published here

Imagine that you’re a city planner who needs to make decisions about where to place public housing, amenities, or critical services, but you don’t have a complete picture of how people move throughout the city. You simply don’t have the data needed to make these decisions. That is the case for 92 percent of the world’s largest low- and middle-income cities faced with transportation data deficits. Add informal transit into the picture—matatus in Nairobi, colectivos in Mexico City, jeepneys in Manila—and the situation gets even more complex since these modes operate outside of formal public transportation and their routes and schedules tend to be irregular. Not every city has the means of creating or collecting data on informal transit to get that full picture of the network. Sarah Williams is combining her skills as a geographer, architect, data scientist, and city planner to address such deficiencies in developing cities. Her goal is to create data for civic change. Her latest project is an open-platform resource center for Latin American and Caribbean cities.

Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams is associate professor of technology and urban planning  Photo: Laura Kerwin/CIS

Q: What is your new initiative and what do you hope to accomplish?

A: We’re creating an open platform for anyone who is interested in accessing tools for mapping urban informal transit in Latin American and Caribbean cities. Transportation data is essential for economic development, and the goal is to make creating and collecting transportation data easier.

Our resource center will link people to the right resources and tools to create transportation data that can influence policy outcomes. We’re linking city transit operators, local governments, nonprofit and civic organizations, startups, and researchers to open access data collection and analysis tools, tutorials, case studies, and a global knowledge network on policy, data, and mobility. Overall, the resource center’s efforts contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11 to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and to target 11.2, which calls for “safe, affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport systems for all.”

The MIT Civic Data Design Lab’s main partners for this project are the Inter-American Development Bank and Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, and it will be led by World Resources Institute Mexico, the MIT International Policy Lab, and Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Q: What are the main challenges to collecting urban data in this region and how are you addressing those challenges?

A: When it comes to developing cities, one major challenge is that data is scarce. This is the case across many sectors but especially urban transportation. Another challenge is that governments, NGOs, transit operators, and other actors don’t know how to access funds to pay for data collection, and there is lack of knowledge about the tools that are available for accomplishing this. On top of everything, transportation networks in developing cities are rarely unified. There are hundreds of operators across public transit and informal transit that are not necessarily coordinated with each other in terms of who goes where and who serves whom. This presents challenges to urban planning, reaching sustainable development targets, and providing accessibility to public transit and amenities in cities. 

To address these challenges, we coordinate the right stakeholders to be part of transit mapping initiatives, help connect them to funding sources, train people to develop transit data in a standardized format, show people who use transit data as an analysis tool, and connect people to the local tech community to build new products with the transit data.

Q. How did you become interested in urban transportation?  

A: I wasn't always interested in transportation, but when I saw how severe congestion in Nairobi could bring the city to a standstill, I knew I needed to get involved and use my skills to address critical transportation problems. I quickly learned how the crippling problems I saw in Nairobi also afflict other developing cities. 

The resource center that we’ve launched is largely inspired by the Civic Data Design Lab’s Digital Matatus project in Nairobi. Launched in 2012, Digital Matatus began as a collaboration between MIT, Columbia University, and the University of Nairobi. The project captured transportation data for Nairobi’s informal matatu network and resulted in the development of mobile routing applications and a new transit map for the city. The data, maps and apps are now free and available to the public, transforming the way residents of Nairobi navigate and think about their transportation system.