Ideo Method card: Perspective taking/role playing

WARNING: the following content is polarizing. I advise those to only read if they have a truly open mind about the issue of the rape crisis and are willing to be more flexible about our current understanding of “victim” and “perpetrator”.

During my interview with a psychology professor and lecturer who teaches about social and cultural causes of rape on campus we tried a version of “role-playing”. The goal of the exercise was to come to a deeper understanding of why sexual assault might happen beyond the desire to either totalizing villainize perpetrators or blame victims… or any prefiguration of those two angles.

In the role-playing, I played the female victim (for the sake of simplicity, sorry to male victims, I know this doesn’t just happen to women!) and she played the male perpetrator. We took turns bringing up real incidents and used role-playing to try and open up all the narratives contained in each instance and how a particular event might look from both sides. We started with an example in which a boy kissed a girl who had been saying “no, I’m really not interested.” In this dialogue, we talked about how the girl was afraid to insult him and so she was laughing and shy and nervous about saying no, and in this circumstance, her conditioning to be passively created a miscommunication for her potential romantic interest, who perceived her to “coy” and “teasing him”. We even found ways to open up a dialogue about the intentionality behind someone attempting to overpower a woman and how even that may have been seriously misleading. A confession, that the last one was based on a true story in which after someone tried to overpower a woman I know, she struggled out of it and said, “What the f*** was that?” and then the man proceeded to break down in tears, claiming he was nervous and that the conception of masculinity he was raised on suggested that women were attracted to violence and dominance and that as soon as he did it he realized how wrong and horrible that was.

I think a lot of women may take serious offense to this exercise; my heart absolutely goes out to victims for what they have suffered. The goal of this exercise was not to blame either women or men for what happened but to open up and problematize the notion of intentionality. We found that intentionality is extremely complicated. To quote “future sex” by Emily Witt, “I came to understand that sexuality had very little to do with the sex you actually had. A straight woman who hooked up with people she met online in her search for a boyfriend was not different, in behavior, from the gay man who made a public declaration about looking for noncommittal sex. The man who cheated on his wife was no different, in action, from the polyamorist who slept with someone outside of his primary relationship. It was the ideation and expression of intent that differentiated sexualities, not the actual sex” (Witt).

The professor helped me realize the nuances under the surface: the same event could come from a variety of intentions so it is impossible to make “all” or “none” claims about this crime—even when the same “actual assault” appears to be happening. By shifting the blame from individuals to cultural conditioning… we opened up the door for dialogue and learning that could shift that conditioning. And this doesn’t just apply to men. I pointed out that when we teach about cultural conditioning and gender, we’re really marketing those messages to women. Why? She thinks it’s an incredibly important way to fight the crime by empowering women: “we want to make this idealistic argument about whether or not women need to change their behavior, but in a pragmatic sense, the answer is yes, they do have to change—the cultural programming that creates this issue resides in the ‘cultural programming’ of both men and women. Which isn’t to say that women aren’t at fault for the way they’re behaving, it’s very much a part of social conditioning. [As an educator] I believe that the value of educating women is so that they can reject that social conditioning.”

The value that I most resonate with

I do realize the ease of writing about one’s values as opposed to being true to them in action. It is a constant struggle towards our ideal Self.

The value of Universality encompasses within itself a lot of other values. Work that comes out of us when we recognize the inherent universality within all of us imbibes lot of traits like – absence of any form of discrimination (gender, race, status, is non-hierarchical …); is opendoes not recognize authorship of any sort; is transparent and truthful. And within such an environment or artifact all that is left is being playful.


The Unabused Childhood Hackathon
The Unabused Childhood Hackathon aims at generating solutions that address the most urgent issue of childhood abuse and rape. It invites people from a variety of backgrounds – people with experience in skin engineering research, sensors; designers; related medical experts; policy makers; developers and builders; parents and participants with personal stories and experiences with the issue.

Most cases of child abuse and rape go unreported, unknown even to the parents and guardians of the child. Most children are left clueless and helpless at making sense of the joltingly new and horrendous ordeal. Can we utilize the recent developments in Skin Engineering to address this issue? Given the sensitivity of the issue we need people from various backgrounds to come together to engage in co-developing possible solutions.

Looking at three social issues through the lens of Lessig’s levers of change

The three social issues that I am looking at through Lessig’s levers of change are:
Child Abuse & Rape ; Unjust Labels (Black; White; People of Color); Feeling safe and comfortable on the street

Issue 1: Child Abuse & Rape
During my recent trip to India, I came across several mentions in the media about cases of child abuse and rape. Having been through an incidence of abuse myself at the age of 11, I know that most of these cases go unheard as much as above 99%. I had read that the Government of India operates a helpline for addressing this. It is no surprise that one-third of calls received on this helpline go wordless, given how clueless a child is about what to even make out of this jolting ordeal. In most of these incidents, the culprits are someone in the family or someone known to the child. There is nothing more urgent and pressing than putting an end to this issue which might be happening somewhere around the world this very hour!

“Artificial Skin Engineering!”
In my opinion Code is the most critical lever here, as the biggest issue is of most cases going unreported and even being unknown to the close family of the child.

Utilizing the recent developments in the field of Artificial Skin Engineering (especially the capability of high resolution pressure sensing), one can look at developing artificial electronic skin implantable within the reproductive organ at a young age. And since children are likely to visit a doctor frequently, the doctor can keep a tab on noticing any unwanted activity through the electronic skin, and inform/alert the parents/guardians.

Obviously, a lot of thought and research has to be put to check the viability of this solution as there are multiple glaring issues (eg: growing age) that need to be solved to make this possible.

Finding appropriate ways to educate children and adults on these issues, to alleviate hurdles that restrict open discussion around them.

Stringent laws are already in place in most countries in this regard, but they are not able to help as the issues occur on a continuum with varying degrees of abuse, and thus most cases go unreported.

Issue 2: We are all People of Color (#WAAPOC)
The labels “White” and “Black” were created in 1779, which was a very different society where one group of people dominated another. In my understanding, in coming up with these labels the lighter skin color was taken 70-80 shades up and labelled as “White” and the darker skin shade was taken 70-80 shades towards the color “Black”. Also I think White and Black are very loaded terms, with all sorts of other meanings associated with them historically in different cultures and religions.

Even as of today, the very common way of categorizing people into “White” and “People of Color” does not seem right on some level. Should we relook at these labels and give everyone a chance to collectively come up with them. Would our future generations benefit by having other more playful and creative labels (toffee color, almond color …..) .

What if we let colors be just colors and not an identity for a person …

I am working on creating a simple app (#WAAPOC) that aims to defamiliarize us with these labels that we have grown with. The user simply clicks or uploads a picture of themselves and the app sees how far their skin shade (in RGB) is from the colors White (255,255,255) and Black (0,0,0). You can then also share the app with your friends and see the average skin shade of your close network, so you can see if you hang out with people who are very similar to you based on their skin color.

Finally, the app gives the users a chance to suggest labels that they would like to see in daily use. Next the app shows users a word cloud of suggestions made by others.

Using other media like video, games that can help us get defamiliarized with existing labels and rethink about their relevance and revise them if needed.

Issue 3: Feeling comfortable on the street (women)
There is big difference between the experience of a man vs a woman in walking on the streets or using public transport. It would become very apparent if we could measure the number of eye gazes that a woman encounters vs a man when going about their lives out of their homes. Obviously a lot of this attention is discomforting to say the least. And again, this is something which happens all the time and because it is so pervasive, the only option is to learn to live with it or somehow be okay with it!

WeSafe: An app that lets users to mark a location on the map where they felt uncomfortable due to presence of another in their surrounding.

Creating norms through education and awareness about being respectful to others.

Current code and architectures make the lever of law weak. With better computer vision systems this can be changed but those systems will have implications of their own if not thoughtfully implemented.

Safeguarding Biotechnology — Ecosystem Map

Biology is hard to do by yourself. More than just the collection of theories and logic it’s grounded in, the physical and organizational infrastructure required to develop projects make the barrier to entry quite steep. This makes it ever the more surprising that in the last ten or so years, a community of “do it yourself” biologists have found a way to actualize projects on scales approaching those of institutionally supported laboratories. Concurrently, the past two decades have seen the rise of synthetic biology, a sub-discipline that integrates the methods, strategies, and tools of engineering with the study of life. The confluence of these two developments has raised moral, ethical, and existential concerns with the democratization of biology.

Synthetic biology is a dual-use technology. Just as easy as it is to see how the application of engineering thinking to come up with ways of repurposing nature’s toolkit to tackle, say, waste management or develop more drought tolerant vegetables, it is also easy to see how biology can be weaponized to recreate pathogenic viruses or develop deadiler versions of the ones that plague us today. Biotechnology is regulated in the United States, broadly, by the UDSA, the FDA, and the EPA. However, on a more granular level, the processes, spaces, and materials involved in the practice of synthetic biology are managed by a wide web of companies, norms, and relationships. My network map attached begins to show how these actors are related. Safeguarding_DIY_Biology MAP

Three Interviews: Demonstrations against Nuclear Power Plants

Officer at international association of nuclear power plant

At the beginning of the interview, the officer asked the detailed objective of this interview, and made it sure that I won’t record the conversation, disclose his name or the name of his company, as his comment can be considered as representation of his company but not his personal idea, and it can be critical to his organization.

What the officer concerned the most about the demonstrations against nuclear power plants after Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 was caused by emotions and very radical like “all or nothing” without consideration of transformation from current situation to ideal future. First of all, he said, people need to anticipate ramification of closing nuclear power plants suddenly. There are people who are working for nuclear power plants. Form their viewpoint, they must feel like a solider to the battle field; being sent to fight for the country but being criticized for killing human after the war. And also, it would cause loss of 30 billion dollars. How could we compensate for the loss? Thus, people should step back and have sense of ownership like what he would do if they were “CEO of the country”, but not just criticizing the country.

The officer states that citizens need to cultivate sense of ownership about any social problem to avoid radical decision making based of emotions when incidents happen. To achieve this, there should be more opportunity to discuss, ponder and form their own opinions. The officer wish people have a sense to make a right decision on the technology as he believes that technology is neither good nor bad itself. Radiation can hurt people but cure cancer. We are the ones who turn technology into either good or bad.


Director of TV program covering demonstration against nuclear power plant

The director went to the site of the demonstrations in Tokyo and interviewed mainly people in their 20’s and 30’s. Some left Tokyo to cities further away from Fukushima with yelling that they won’t eat any food from Fukushima as they can harm their health and their children’s. The director couldn’t help feeling that they are self-centered as they considered only about themselves but not residents in Fukushima, who know that they depended on the plants in terms of job, and subsidy from the central government. Actually, the director heard from a peach farmer that she was encouraged by the demonstrations as they are enthusiastic about this matter. On the other hand, however, she was hurt to hear their voices such as “vegetables in Fukushima are contaminated”, “people can no longer live in Fukushima”.

In the demonstrations, the director met another type of people, whose motivations to join the demonstrations are very vague. Many of them are in uneasy condition in their own life for job-hunting, entrance exams to a university, recluse and so on. They got interest in the demonstrations to find what drives their motivation on something, and actually were included in the activities. The director was also moved by the heated atmosphere and believed that the nuclear plants should be shut down as soon as possible back then. After a while, however, the director feel that such a frenzy would not be able to change the society.

The director states that the reason why some people became emotional and went to extreme is because they did not have knowledge enough to analyze the situation, so that they were readily affected by loud voices. Thus, the director proposes that junior high schools and high should offer opportunities for students to have debates on this matter to motivate them to ponder by themselves. The director also insists that media companies should describe more details of the demonstrations, as coming to the on-site just to film the visual situation without detailed research, or superficial comments deriving from uncertainty of facts results in nothing.


Teacher at elementary school in Gumma, prefecture adjacent to Fukushima

The teacher taught sixth grade students a topic regarding nuclear power plants in a science class. Students were divided into small groups, and each group research on both advantage and disadvantage of one energy source assigned to them, such as nuclear power, hydropower, solar power, thermal power and so on, through several media. The most positive impression on them was solar power. The teacher thinks this derives from that fact the students are familiar with it as a third of the students’ houses have solar panel on the roofs. On the other hand, nuclear power was not popular because they see vegetables from Fukushima priced cheaper than from other areas.

The teacher said that there is no change in education on nuclear power after the disaster. It is about science but not social. Even the teacher thought that the most people who joined demonstrations are victims suffering from the disaster, with saying that the disinterest in the matter is because it seems like what happened in a place far away even from Gumma.

Sexual Assault Epidemic on Campus

founder of better-brave

I started my interviews with a peer. I had originally scheduled the call with her to talk about what excited me about this class, but as the call went on, it became clear that this should count as my first interview, as both of us have had personal experiences with the problem as students and as women in the workplace. Right now, she runs a company that she founded that helps women seek assistance outside of HR to report sexual harassment claims. In her experience, HR has failed to help her because their jobs were to protect the company’s interest… which actually meant protecting C-level executives with issues rather than female employees. For that reason, she was able to provide specific insights into the culture that causes sexual assault. During the interview, she mentioned that she feels that the cultural part of the problem has two poles: One pole is that systems of privilege and power can easily be abused and used to harm others. The other part of the problem was that many of the perpetrators are just truly ignorant to the fact that they are causing others harm. They literally have no idea that they are causing others harm. She cites how she led workshops at many workplaces… in these workshops, she would make sure to say that her educational space was a “safe space” for all genders to ask all questions. Many men came forward in the meeting admitting they didn’t know or understand the #metoo movement. Others admitted they have no idea what is appropriate and what isn’t, and that they don’t know how to read body cues. Others felt they were good men, but would make ignorant remarks like “I don’t understand why I should have to learn to use a different pronoun for a transgendered person” without realizing how hurtful they were being. In her perspective, the problem is “masculinity” and how it is man-ufactured by society as a role. She thinks that men are being unconsciously trained to enact masculinity in a particular way, and simultaneously we are training women to enact femininity in a particular way. This cultural coding results in both masculine “power” trips that abuse those who occupy feminine roles, and also ignorant reifications of what they take to be “obvious reality”…. To her, prevention lies in education and disassembling these structural privilages afforded to men.


Title 9 Officer at Harvard

The next interview I conducted was with a Title 9 officer at Harvard. Her interview was incredibly rich with insights of both the history of how Harvard, an elite institution with tons of money and resources, chose to design a particular set of support structures and the rationale behind them. In this paragraph I couldn’t possibly do the conversation justice, she was fantastically helpful! As a listener, it became clear that Harvard is *crushing it* in terms of the recourses they are providing to victims. There are so many kinds of resources, that a victim can kind of “choose their own adventure” for what they want to do about what happened to them. There’s title 9 for people who want justice in a judicial sense. There are support networks for people who want therapy and a variety of modalities so you can choose what therapy you need. Immediately, it became clear that perhaps support for victims or better police weren’t the answers for how to make more improvements for the issue… harvard was doing an excellent job in terms of both those things! The real thing that is harder to change is the cultural aspect of the problem—otherwise, you can only improve the response after the crime is committed and add security measures that make it harder to commit the crime, both of which are being addressed by Harvard’s massive amount of resources. And it’s not clear if the resources for victims or crime preventions or the policy is even having an impact at all. She cites how there were always resources for women, but it wasn’t until recently that Title 9 became this institutional “power” on campus that has created and enacted a policy that all students, faculty, and staff must obey. She says the main role is to hold and possess a definition of what sexual harassment is. We talked about how enacting institutional power around defining sexual harassment has huge benefits, it is hard to tell what effect it will have on the university. She mentioned that despite having a great system to report the assault, it is still so stigmatizing to do it, that many never get to use those fabulous resources. For example, a grad student that is assaulted by the most big-name professor in their field may never be able to come forward about it because of the power dynamics. nShe mentioned that there was a survey of the problem of sexual harassment on campus in 2015, and there will be a new one conducted this year that will be able to show if there has been an improvement.

I was fascinated by how she described how the different parts of the institution came together. There were many smaller organizations that all worked at the problem from different angles. She attended Harvard and was part of the student advocate group. now, as an officer in title 9, she maintains a connection with this student group so that they can, as she says, “keep each other honest.” the student group advocates for the students and helps to voice complaints that then filter back through the title 9 office and thus shape policy. She was also able to outline how there were multiple places on campus where education happens. She cited a group called OASPR who is responsible for cultural programming and changes like education about “affirmative consent”. Interestingly, this is not the cultural value enforced by the policy in title nine, which uses the language of “unwanted sexual conduct.” I asked her why this is, and she said that it was a choice to use “unwanted sexual conduct” because it is more nuanced for judiciary reasons and is more specific. This suddenly elucidated something to me: “affirmative consent” is a cultural education message because it is trying to re-educate both women and men at the same time… it tells women that “hey, you should be more upfront about what you want and need, because you have been trained to enact *passivity* as a part of your role as a female, which means that you might fail to communicate that you do not want someone’s sexual advances, and possess the inaccurate belief that you have to just endure it because that’s what it means to be a woman”. and it tells men “hey, you should listen to the subtle and obvious body cues of others because you have been trained to be *active* and often that means you neglect to pay attention to what other people are feeling and thinking and instead focus on how you can get what you want; there’s no reason to villainize you for that because it’s how you’ve been trained, but, seriously, start paying attention to this.” Among others, she pointed me to learn more about a specific person whose entire role is to be a safe space for men who believe they may have harmed someone to go and talk about what happened and learn from their mistakes. I was floored when I heard that this is a resource that is actually available on campus—that was exactly what tammy was asking for.

Staff Psychologist specializing in Victims of Sexual Misconduct  at Stanford

after such an interesting conversation with the title 9 officer at Harvard, I thought it would be interesting to do a “comparative anthropology/structural analysis” of how the same institution is composed at another school. Being an alum of Stanford (I was class of 2017) I remembered a lot of the institutions and how they were set up and was able to quickly get in touch with someone at Stanford. Although I had contacted the title 9 office, I was put in touch with someone who occupied a very different institutional role than the woman I spoke with at Harvard. As I learned from her, not all schools have the same “designed eco-system” of support and institutional measures made to combat sexual assault. The woman I spoke to at Harvard often used critical theory terms and structural analysis in order to speak about the problem. Yet something different was happening with the woman I talked to at Stanford. Her role was in the CST group, which is based in the health services group on campus. She was a psychologist primarily and spoke about the problem from a very social sciences angle. She was fascinated by different statistics than the title 9 officer. She readily admitted that Stanford has one of the highest rates of sexual assault. She also reported an interesting statistic: while on-campus women of the same age, comparatively to off-campus women of the same age, are less likely to experience sexual assault… on-campus men, comparatively to off-campus men of the same age, are more likely to experience sexual assault. We talked for a while about these stats and what story they might be telling. Both of us settled on “woah. this problem is really gnarly and weird” at the end of exploring several possible meanings. I have come away thinking that this is the problem with social sciences: they can provide data that show us what the reality currently is, but they cannot tell us the solution or how to be. You have to run “experiments” of ways to build a social reality and use social science data to map causality. Ultimately, in terms of causality, she thinks that there are so many levels to this issue: institutional, cultural and individual. In her mind, part of the problem is that we live in a culture that glorifies sex and gives it esteem and privilege and power to men who have it and to women to wield their desirability as a weapon. And yet at the same time that our culture glorifies this and uses sex as a status symbol, our culture fails to teach us enough about what’s going on for people to “get” the big picture of what is happening. Sex education for my entire generation, she says, was most likely porn; which is basically like trying to get an education about astrology by watching Star Wars. She talked about how alcohol is not truly causal… because it has many uses. It might cause people to make dumb choices that don’t reflect their sober beliefs… it might also be weaponized against women by men who want to, as she said, “have sex at all costs.” She says that both happen, and that’s why alcohol regulation is so complicated and is an incomplete solution because it doesn’t radically solve the issue. Being a clinical psychologist, she also talked about how students in college are still adolescents, and that might account for why they make “immature and dumb decisions”. That kind of claim makes me think about “boys will be boys” and made me question her rhetoric and if she was implicitly putting the blame on women for not protecting themselves from a dangerous reality by making that claim. She also mentioned that

She also mentioned that if you look at studies from 20 years ago, we’re seeing the same rates of sexual assault… which really brings up a deeper question of the efficacy of these systems and how they’re set up. From her perspective as a psychologist, the judicial systems are ultimately not helpful at preventing crime. She says that just recently a group called SERA has begun to release a bunch of very powerful and effective pedagogical cultural programming sessions, but its too soon to know if they will be effective. Hearing from her, I was extremely surprised to hear that even though it feels like I have been there so recently, Stanford’s resources have grown exponentially even during the time I was there. As I found out, a lot of the most key and progressive resources weren’t even available until after I had already left!

I was also surprised to see that Harvard and Stanford have somewhat similar structures in terms of the services they provide. They have the title 9 office which is in charge of policy and institutional/recourses-type help (like being placed in a new dorm or requesting a restraining order from a classmate who assaulted them). There’s also a group that deals with cultural programming. and beyond that, there are student-oriented groups. At Stanford, they have title 9 which also does investigations. they have CST which does a private and confidential consultation, SERA which does cultural programming. Despite their similarities, which I brought up in the interview, The psychologist insisted that there are many ways of doing things. For example, she says that Princeton has a distributed model in which there are confidential resources in each department, which all feed into the centralized title 9 system. This all reminded me a little bit of Bruno Latour’s argument about the modern constitution. I was fascinated at how we divide up the structural institutions that deal with a problem that is so multi-faceted. Where we draw the lines of responsibility is super fascinating. In both interviews, they brought up about how important messaging is—it tells students what kind of resources they will receive.

closing thoughts

In reading between these two interviews, I came to realize that there have always been resources for victims and there have always been cops. Now, there are more people to help these victims, but that doesn’t reduce the rate of the crime (or rather, in 2019 Spring we will know if the increases in resources at Harvard and Stanford have had an impact on the rate of the crime). I asked all three “What areas are you not working on that you wish you could?/if you had magic powers, what would you do to address the issue?” and all three mentioned that cultural change as being the area of most opportunity for causing change, but due to their institutional roles, they couldn’t really take part in that part of the change. That was where they drew the boundary line… but that was for the benefit of the whole system, surprisingly! in providing clinical, psychological and judicial systems independent from dogma or belief, they couldn’t be threatened by any groups’ beliefs. We can all agree that rape is a crime and that it needs to be treated as one…  even if in private you insist that your frat brother Joe who hooked up with a sleeping girl at that college party to make his brothers laugh is a “truly good guy”. The cultural issue seems to be centered in gendered privilege structures, and this applies both to cases of “ignorant abuses of power” as well as tyrannical abuses of power. Part of the problem is rooted in a culture that teaches men to be active and neglect the wants and needs of others, which encourages them to use their privilege to blindly hurt others. Another part of the problem is that we train women to be passive—making them think they can’t stand up and demand what they want.

What will happen if we start training men to be gentle as the most “desirable and powerful” form of masculinity? What will happen if we start training women to be Brave and courageous, and prove to men that these are desirable, admirable, even sexy qualities? in doing so, we’d be educating men to disassemble their structural privilege. wait. that’s going to be SUPER hard. Why? because the privilege is what benefits them… so why would they ever be incentivized to decrease what benefits them??? 

That’s the kind of stuff that this woman wants to know.





Regulating Algorithmic Discrimination

We are starting to rely on algorithms to decide for us: hire the next employee, detect cancer, enroll in insurance, and grant parole. We do not know, however, how algorithms make these decisions, and a lot of them are clearly biased. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, revealed how the software currently used in our judicial system to predict subsequent crimes of offenders was racially biased, giving many African Americans a higher risk score though they did not go on to reoffend. Similarly, Xiaolin Wu and Xi Zhang from Shanghai Jiao Tong University conducted a study on teaching a neural network to identify criminals by their photos with a 90 percent accuracy rate. Though this dataset was racially homogenous, there were questions of whether the machine was picking up on the white collar that non-criminals were more likely to wear.

These algorithms affect the entire world. While some foreign governments have shown more distributive efforts, such as the GDPR issued by the European Union, Germany’s ethics rules for autonomous vehicles (specifically banning algorithmic preferences on the lives of certain people over others), much of the discovery is heralded by academia and non-profit, non-governmental organizations such as EFF, ACLU, and Algorithm Watch that are dedicated to the cause.

Creating High Awareness of Nuclear Issue

After Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, a lot of demonstrations against restarting nuclear power plants happened especially in central Tokyo. Many of the demonstrators protested against the government’s directions of exploiting nuclear power whilst referring to the residents in Fukushima who might not be able to return to their hometowns for the rest of their lives due to the land being heavily contaminated with radiation. Although some of the people from Fukushima were encouraged with this movement, others were confused, or even wished that demonstrations would cease as soon as possible. Some of them are famers, who were afraid that those demonstrations impede rumor or negative images of contaminated foods from eroding. Some are workers from different companies and industries, for instance those affiliated with nuclear power plants such as engineers, restaurants, retailers and their families as well were worried of the consequences that would arise from the messages propagated by the demonstrators. They were essentially worried about the loss of their livelihoods as locals moved away and tourists decline, turning each town into a ghost town devoid of residents and economic vibrancy.  Actually, it turned out that there are many protestors who didn’t do much research on radiation, power ecosystem, or visit Fukushima to talk with residents there. They didn’t even practice the regular habit of saving electricity even though most electricity generated in Fukushima was for Tokyo.

Considering that Japan was the only country that has experienced the devastation of nuclear bombs and the history of the atomic bombings have been taught in schools from childhood, Japanese should have possessed the basic knowledge of this social matter. On the contrary, they have been caught up with and swayed by all the ‘noise’ from demonstrations without giving the issue any further thought. Emotions have been flying high ever since the nuclear power plant meltdown and the devastation from the earthquake and Tsunami. People have let emotions cloud their judgements and actions instead of trying to understand the key issues in a more objective manner.  Many a times, the impact to the residents of Fukushima were not being considered by demonstrators and their supporters. It was a time where a lot of radical voices backed by emotions without any rational thoughts instantaneously rose like a tsunami of noise, that swept across the nation and left just as fast as it came. It was a movement that lost momentum and was not sustained, resulting in giving more suffering to victims.

Hence, I aim to find ways that will create a society of high awareness where people have sufficient understanding and data to make decisions that benefit society at large instead of relying solely on emotions or being influenced by emotions and the crowd psychology.

Ecosystem map is here.

Modernizing Political Representation

Political Representation is the pillar upon which democracy rests.

However, many take the effective implementation of this ideal for granted. The systems that allow citizens to choose their representatives, and then hold them accountable as they govern, are often conflated directly with the ideals that they are attempting to approximate. In reality, the systems almost exclusively dictate the very definition of the “representation” they create. Although some high-profile issues, such as the electoral college and voter suppression, have brought this issue into the mainstream in recent times in the US, the discussion remains extremely superficial. Far more fundamental assumptions that determine how our electoral and governance systems work are left unchallenged and dealt, instead, with almost divine deference.

The systems of today were created by previous generations of policy makers attempting to find an appropriate balance between practicality and idealism. They were designed specifically to work around the constraints, and opportunities, presented by the technology of the time. Everything from one vote per arbitrary term length, to the need to choose from candidates in voters’ geographic proximity, were put in place to respect realistic expectations of, among other factors, communication and transportation. The world is unrecognizable from the time many of the world’s current democratic infrastructure was first designed, but most of those traditions, and in-built compromises, remain.

I am hoping to find ways in which technology can break through some of these assumptions and modernize and improve political representation. On a high level, there are three main goals.

I aim to develop proposals to help make political representation:

  1. more representative (by more effectively representing complex political preferences)
  2. more accountable and transparent (through improved exchange of information)
  3. more dynamic (through faster systems of aggregating and reacting to citizen participation)

Existing academic or policy research work in this space, that specifically explores radical changes to core democratic systems, is surprisingly sparse. Most of the recent focus has been on developing the idea of “government-as-a-platform”.  A forward-looking state that can be used as a potential real-world model, is that of Estonia. Their well established e-Estonia initiative already implements ambitious solutions such as remote online voting through mobile apps, among others.

A first draft of the ecosystem map can be found at the following link:

Building a Creative Learning Movement in South Africa

We’re interested in exploring how decentralized learning networks might be used to connect educators, administrators, and eventually policymakers and supporters (investors, funders, etc.) in order to spread creative learning practices and to help scale up creative learning approaches. We propose grounding this exploration in a pilot research project focused at first on Nairobi and Johannesburg.

Nairobi and Johannesburg are nascent hubs for innovations in learning. However, educators in both cities (across the two cities and within them) operate in loosely connected circles, with weak tie-ins to each-other for peer-learning, movement building, and shifting norms around learning. Moreover, donors, foundations, and international institutions often invest resources in non-African initiatives (e.g. Bridge International Academies) that are neither progressive nor connected to innovations already happening in these cities.

Building on the work of Aprendizagem Criativa no Brasil (Creative Learning in Brazil – a decentralized network of educators, designers, systems leaders, foundations, companies all involved in or hoping to support creative learning) and other initiatives, we hope to first gather stories of educators across a range of contexts, connect them with one another (including at next year’s Africa Scratch conference), support co-development of resources, and hopefully engage in movement building. 

Our aspiration is to start building a movement with distributed ownership and thick and thin forms of engagement. We’re starting this process by identifying and interviewing a range of stakeholders who might become a part of this network. This ecosystem map (and the one produced by Marian) are initial steps in this process. 

School to Prison Pipeline Ecosystem

Boston has been one of a few cities across the country to put some effort towards mitigating the over-incarceration of young children of color, otherwise known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Across the country, the school-to-prison pipeline is a pattern that can begin from pre-K and follows a child throughout their youth. Data shows that children who have been given out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, or otherwise fall victim to zero-tolerance policy within the school systems are far more likely to drop out later in their academic career, and consequently more likely to find themselves in the criminal justice system. Though strict disciplinary policies are rarely beneficial to all students, this is extremely detrimental for school-aged children of color and children with disabilities, the most deeply affected groups when it comes to this pattern.

In a recent study of Boston Public Schools, the school-to-prison pipeline was shown to be alive and well within the city. About 10 percent of all black males, 9 percent of all student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and 6 percent of all Latino males were suspended, slightly above the 5 percent of all students who were suspended in the 2014-15 school year. Those numbers are compelling, but not as compelling as the reasons behind those suspensions: In the 2012-13 school year, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice found that just over 72 percent of students in the state were disciplined for non-violent and non-criminal offenses with a suspension. In that same year, the Committee found similarly staggering patterns by race–1 in 8 black students were disciplined overall, compared to 1 in 27 white students. While the figures are quite stark, the implications are the most troubling. The high number people of color affected by out of school suspensions and expulsions mirror the prevalence of people of color found later in the criminal justice system.

Boston has been making strides in addressing these disparities by funneling resources towards this particular issue. Organizations like Greater Boston Legal Services and the ACLU of Massachusetts have dedicated funding and effort towards this through particular projects and efforts. One such initiative is the School to Prison Pipeline, created by Greater Boston Legal Services, which partners with MassHealth to provide more holistic treatment for kids who may be affected by this precedent.


An wide ecosystem of actors are also involved in either maintaining the status quo or actively working to mitigate it–they can be found in the ecosystem map here.


ethics of AI: a translation task

“To effectively contend with questions of fairness, the machine learning community cannot reduce fairness to a technical question. Instead, it must increasingly and explicitly adopt an agenda of broad institutional change and a stance on the political impacts of the technology itself.”

Does this statement seem obvious to you? It seemed obvious to me when I first read it – it totally fits in with the FAT*-style narrative that artificial intelligence simply amplifies the systemic biases of society and the STS-style argument that, ahem, artifacts do in fact have politics.

But, oh boy, this statement was the center of quite a bit of controversy at this past year’s International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML). In fact, this statement was the center of a hosted debate during the conference. There were two sides to this debate:  no, we cannot reduce fairness to a technical question, and yes – we can and should reduce fairness to a technical question!

And while you might (maybe strongly) disagree with one side or another, it’s important to note that this debate got a few hundred machine learning researchers and practitioners in a room to contend with a big ethical dilemma.

Image result for kate crawford fairness
From Kate Crawford’s “The Trouble with AI Bias” talk at NIPS 2017.

But what you might also note is that this kind of ethics discussion – one that centers around causal inference, statistical measures, impossibility theorems – feels very different from the design-oriented discussions we’ve been having in class. Furthermore, if you go talk to actual moral philosophers interested in AI (as I have had to do for my thesis), you’ll find that the discussion differs even more – and you’ll find yourself wondering if moral reasoning is useful, and if so, how useful (and can you prove it?).

My point here is this: lots of people are worried about the ethical dilemmas of AI (see my ecosystem map below), but we (those of us in different academic fields, industries, citizens, the government, news media) all seem to be speaking very different languages when it comes to identifying problems and solutions. And while some fields are making great efforts to talk to other fields (for example, FAT* has an entire workshop devoted to “translation” this year), I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve talked to influential machine learning researchers who have asked,  “What’s STS?” Or, if you read the literature on AI ethics education, almost all of the pedagogy is rooted in teaching “what is [insert your favorite ethical theory here] and how can you use it to justify your design choices?” It’s really hard to know what we don’t know, and I strongly believe these communities have more tools at their disposal than they think.

So, there are a few questions I’d like to explore in this space:

  • What does “ethics of AI” mean to different fields (such as AI/ML, STS, philosophy, anthropology, human computer interaction, psychology, etc)? What do these different fields believe the role of ethics should (or can) be?
  • What expectations do different fields have when we talk about “designing ethical AI?” What do they think is feasible?
  • Can we find ways to more easily translate these definitions, tools, and expectations between fields?
  • How do these concerns align with public concerns and expectations around AI? Can we translate from the communities who actively work in these areas to the public at large, and back?

Creating Food Oases to Wipe Out Nutrition Injustice

Why create more food oases to make food ubiquitous? Isn’t farming enough? Well, one in five people are food insecure and one in six children do not eat daily meals in the US. Hunger in the US has many faces: children, seniors, veterans, rural and marginalized communities are not immune. Many of the well-fed want to help and the hungry would prefer to help themselves. Also, as humanity is urbanizing rapidly, so too are urban food deserts expanding and/or densifying while experiencing nutrition injustice. For instance, Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, lacks sufficient infrastructure to provide sewage, water, electricity, or housing for residents, yet this dense community in the heart of India’s financial capital has a thriving informal economy with an annual economic output of up to $1 billion. Urban agriculture solutions can bring new life to food deserts and serve as a driving force for community development. Despite the increased presence of grassroots efforts to support our farmers with Farmers’ Markets and Community-Supported Agriculture, and to ensure we eat high quality food by leveraging rooftop and community gardens, and choosing restaurants that locally source their ingredients, these efforts alone are not viable alternative to the inefficiencies of our massive food system and prepare to feed our growing population.

Fortunately, one solution lies in our yards and neighborhoods through the use of edible gardens. In the 1940s through the success of the victory gardens to the success of the recent White House garden to current urban farms and vertical farms all over the East Coast, we empower our communities to take their health and well-being into their own hands when we make food production a local concern. Natalie, is a food insecure teacher who started a garden in the elementary school where she teaches. Her students tend to eat their daily hot meal at school. So she teaches the kids to garden, and they grow a lot of food. Natalie and her students grow so much food that she no longer needs to buy vegetables to feed herself. She also sends the students home with fresh produce. It’s a temporary win-win: Natalie and her students receive fresh fruits and veggies and nutrition injustice is somewhat addressed. How can we relate to food as an abundant resource such that we will feed everyone, including Natalie, and help move humanity forward?

We all need to be good stewards of our bodies, our communities, and our planet. And clean food ought to be a fundamental right just like the right to clean air. Growing your vegetables or purchasing them from less than a few miles away while sharing with your neighbor or donating what you cannot consume ought to be a civic duty. You will feel empowered by your contribution to your nutrition and to your community as you eat safer and more nutritious produce, save money, be food independent, and reduce your carbon footprint and local hunger. After all, food should be grown right where humans live.

Ecosystem Map

Gerrymandering should be a supreme court issue

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing boundaries to districts to give a party a better chance of getting more candidates elected. The practice is technically legal right now, since no supreme court ruling has outlawed it. The constitution does give the right to draw these boundaries to the elected officials in power, but it did not foresee that the level of partisan politics today would lead to such discriminatory practices. The end result is that the electorate that is unfavorable for the party in power is stuffed into fewer districts to stifle their voting power, effectively diluting the effect of their vote and violating our system for equal representation.

There are few aspects about our democracy as undemocratic as gerrymandering. The abuse of power by politicians on both sides of the political divide is harrowing, but not entirely surprising. We can’t provide a mechanism to give politicians the one thing they fight for every year (reelection), and then expect them to not use it. The founding fathers did not expect the drastic demographic shifts our country has undergone that has created discrete divides with enable partisan districting. The entire right for a politician in power to choose his/her electorate begs a larger discussion about the constitution needing an update (see Jefferson’s letter to Samuel Kercheval detailing this), but I think the more plausible short-term answer here lies in convincing the supreme court to rule on this matter at a federal level.

For some background, Justice Kennedy has now passed two verdicts on the question of whether the supreme court should take up the case of gerrymandering. In both 2004 (Vieth v. Jubelirer) and 2018 (Gill v. Whitford), he has asserted that unless we can agree on a clear metric that judges whether a district is drawn in an undemocratic manner, the matter should be left up to state courts. However, I believe the supreme court is exactly the body that should be ruling on this matter. The practice strips our right to freedom of expression, and that is worth ruling upon.


Beyond Recidivism

The U.S. Prison Industrial Complex has been highly debated over the years. With 25% of the world’s prison population residing in U.S. prisons, it is the most incarcerated country in the world. While the prison system has received substantial amount of press coverage, lesser attention has been given to the reentry process that formerly incarcerated experience as they return to life in society. The U.S. sees approximately 641,000 returning citizens each year where they face structural and societal challenges to assimilating back into society. On a structural level, returning citizens face legal restrictions that hinder them from becoming self-reliant i.e. securing housing, gaining employment, accessing education, seeking medical treatment. Beyond the structural barriers to reentry, more pressing still is the profound disorientation returning citizens experience in navigating everyday life. Viewed as “sub-citizens”, many struggle to overcome the social stigma attached to having spent time in prisons and to keep up with advances in technology.

Metrics assessing reentry remain limited. Policymakers default to recidivism however, it is a blanketed and binary indicator of reentry health. It does not account for differences in the definitions and measurements of recidivism in different states, the hyper-policing of communities of color, and focuses on failures rather than tracking improvements in behavior. More than semantics, the re-framing of metrics is important in directing governmental and community resources to programs that rebuild lives instead of imposing monitoring and punishment measures. Further, recidivism as a metric highlights the philosophical underpinnings of the justice system; one focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation. If a justice system seeks to provide correctional support to returning citizens and the incarcerated, it needs metrics to assess the impacts of its social programs.

My work will focus on:

  1. Destigmatizing and rehumanizing of returning citizens and their value in society
  2. Developing new metrics to assess re-entry
  3. Pushing for a shift from a punitive to rehabilitative justice system

The project might culminate in a video zine and/or development of a new set of metrics to assess the successes of reentry.


Identifying Actors to Elevate Gendered Work

Over the past few years, the term ‘emotional labor’ has become more and more common. It refers to a wide range of activities, both personal and professional, that often go unnoticed and almost always go unpaid, but are critical to maintaining the foundation and structure of professional and social environments and relationships. A range of things fall into the bucket of emotional labor- from smiling at strangers to checking-in on and emotionally supporting loved ones to managing domestic space (and on and on).

Perhaps we’ve come to a point that this single term is inadequate to describe all of the interactive work that falls into it, but two things that remain true of things identified as emotional labor are that they generally go unrecognized and that they are unequally done much less by men and much more by others (including women and non-binary or non-gendered people). As this work has historically gone uncompensated and largely unseen, the enforcement of gendered norms about work have served as a major barrier to those other than men participating in the labor force and having their contributions to society taken seriously. At the same time, without the expectation of having to do this type of work, men have long been pushing some personal responsibilities on others and therefore limiting their own emotional, social, and personal growth. Recently, we have seen this manifest in fragile relationships later on in life and contributed to the social isolation of men, among a range of other adverse and inequitable consequences.

There have been a several attempts at raising awareness around the unequal split of gendered labor, but even those have fallen short. Some nations have passed laws to mandate paternity leave, but social and professional stigma means such benefits are horribly under-utilized.  Different forms of media, even advertisements, have attempted to call out traditional gender norms and normalize a more equitable split of gendered work. However, even as we are becoming more aware of female empowerment in movies, there are far fewer movies and TV shows that portray men taking a greater share of emotional, domestic, clerical, or educational labor. We’ve also recently seen an increase in discussion and educational groups, from college campuses to living rooms, for men to begin to grapple with issues of toxic masculinity. We can hope that these groups meaningfully deconstruct gendered labor and set participants on a path towards actively correcting the imbalance.

I hope to find a more interactive, vulnerable, and personal way of elevating this issue (particularly among groups of male-identifying participants). In the ecosystem diagram below, I begin to pull apart the different stakeholders who are involved in upholding our current perceptions of gendered work (who will hopefully also be potential agents of change).


Ecosystem Map of Bullying

Bullying is a pervasive problem in the US. 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that about 20% of students in grades 9–12 report being bullied on school property. Bullying can result in decreased academic performance, physical harm, and mental health issues for those bullied, and increased violence and substance abuse for those bullying.

There are state laws and policies on bullying, as well as many federal and non-federal resources that provide training on bullying prevention and intervention and support for victims of bullying. Nevertheless, bullying remains frequent, and there needs to be a stronger change that uses current resources more effectively and can bring more fundamental change in addressing this issue.

(p.s. I added a photo of my ecosystem map below, which shows up fine in edit mode, but doesn’t appear on the uploaded post. Not sure if this is a problem with my browser setting.)

Climate Change discourse actor mapping

What’s in a name? “Climate Change” has become such a polarized phrase in the United States that even uttering it feels like a political nonstarter. The phrase evokes the paradox of Voldemort: say his name and you’re a pariah. But don’t say his name and you’ll never really be directly addressing the real problem at hand.

However we choose to name it, climate change is perhaps the single greatest problem facing current and future generations. To date, humans have failed to take adequate actions to stave off planetary collapse. A UN report issued this week describes a world of food shortages, floods, sea level rise, extreme weather events, wildfires, and massive coral reef die-offs as soon as 2040 if emissions continue at the current rate. The report concedes that while it is technically possible to change courses, it remains politically unlikely that we will do so. This is largely because climate change has become a deeply politicized topic.

So how do we talk about climate change? I am interested in work that restores/hacks/remixes personal narratives about the shared responsibility we have to each other and to the planet. My work seeks to understand how to hack the devices of environment, economy, security, stability, and health in creating a shared vision for the future of the planet. See my previous post on a possible gathering to facilitate this.

Most climate activists focus on economic, policy or technical “solutions” to global warming. However, these solutions are highly politicized; indeed, it seems the left and the right are telling completely different stories about the future of the planet and our role in it. Furthermore, most of these stories as reactionary and oppositional: liberals don’t want coal; conservatives don’t want a carbon tax. I’m interested in hacking these stories to create generative, affirmative, shared stories about the future of the planet. By creating spaces to lay bare current narratives, can we find the seeds of common ground required to generate a shared sense of planetary stewardship?

For example, entrepreneurs could see climate change as a huge business innovation opportunity while conservatives could support renewables as a strategy for energy independence; the military could focus on climate-induced political instability in foreign countries. Laying bare these stories will allow us to “hack” them and engineer connections where none might have previously existed.

There has been a lot of work evaluating how different frames could boost public support for climate policy. However, these efforts are experiments that simply test reactions to frames presented by researchers. The frames are not generated by those the researchers intend to study. In addition, there are some groups attempting to create new frames and unexpected alliances for climate policy, such as the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.  The Frameworks Institute works to frame public discourse around key issues by translating academic research into outreach programs. However, I’m interested in a process of co-designing climate discourse by identifying shared values, wishes, and needs among otherwise divergent stakeholders.


Why do people not deliberate in the public sphere?

The public sphere is (theoretically) supposed to be a rational and deliberative space where people who share a political community – a city, a region, a nation, … a world? – should come together and discuss issues of common nature. Numerous models of how this is done has been proposed, but what is the problem of non-deliberative public spheres? Do people not deliberate because they do not have to same or equal amounts of information, because they do not trust each other, because they are hostile towards each other, not playing fair? Is it because they only talk to people who agree with themselves or are of the same demographics? Is polarization – to take one example of what is normally perceived as an unhealthy opinion ecosystem – the effect of pure emotion, information deficits, attention deficits, or simply the nature of political conversation?

The problem has often been approached as the lack of information in terms of fixing the problem. But the problem, as the ecosystem map points to, is multifacetted, and many many more (cognition, information processing, psychology to name a few) may be added. Non-deliberative systems are so vast and many-layered that a one-fix design seem to be out of the question. The first step, however, is to map all the potential causes of the compound problem in order to grasp what to do in the first place.

Reverse-engineer the PredPol ‘black box’: An unpredictable hackathon

Reverse-engineer the PredPol ‘black box’: An unpredictable hackathon

Our Values:

1. We open the black box

Our objective is to open up and reverse engineer closed systems. This may involve both technical expertise to look at closed algorithms by reverse engineering their decisions, but also engaging in sociological analysis based on lived-experience of communities affected by these algorithms. What matters the most is taking the inescrutable black box of PredPol and picking it apart, in all sorts of ways.

2. We look at all the parts

If we are to analyze how a complex system such as PredPol works, we need to focus on different aspects of it. We need to have teams look into the: code (data, algorithms, automated decision making), norms (how do officers create data, how is the data used, what do citizens/affected communities know and think of it?), market (how can we track who is financing, how they get money, how governments spend it) and law (how can we think of better public policy, how could it be infringing current policy, what would be good actions in the judicial sphere?).

3. We don’t miss the big picture

Although we position ourselves critically towards predictive policing and all forms of algorithmic bias, we cannot miss the big picture of reducing violent crime and societal problems. Therefore, as we reverse-engineer the black box of PredPol, we not only work to deconstruct and problematize their design, but also think: how could we do it better? How could we fix predictive policing and think about a safer, community-based form of public safety?

4. We care about the small details

We value the small data too: looking at how individual people and communities are affected. Their lives, bodies and stories matter, and need to be taken seriously.  Here, there is a focus not only on ’Big Data’, but also on small data of all kinds.

5. We value the ethics of data

We value ethics, and adopt an ethics of care approach to personal data, and all that arises from our interactions with data. That way, we have a focus on data protection considered in its context, with special focus on responsibility and working alongside the affected people.


The Hackhaton would be organized in a city in the USA, where PredPol has been implemented and the community has been impacted by it. Cities like Los Angeles would be ideal, in this sense.

Who is there?

The Hackhaton invites people from different cities in the USA where PredPol is present (at least 4 different cities, plus the home city). Diversity of backgrounds is welcome and encouraged: a lot of the effort will be put into inviting people from different parts of society: designers, hackers, engineers; social scientists, anthropologists, economists; policymakers, lawyers, politicians; community leaders, citizens, activists; etc.