reparations, data, bail

Reparations

One issue I’m really interested in working on is reparations for slavery and colonization, particularly in the United States. This is a pretty big idea but I think reparations are an essential part of working towards reconciling a lot of unjust foundations that this world is built upon.

Law: Echoing the calls for reparations that Ta-Nehisi Coates made in his well-known article (The Case for Reparations), reparations policies could go through law and be made into policies that provide direct reparative resources, such as land, symbolic reparation, and financial stipends. For example, the conversation on land restitution in South Africa is an example of how the U.S. government could think about going about providing reparations for slavery and even Jim Crow-era policy.

Norm: Public information campaigns to normalize reparations and wealth redistribution on an everyday basis and make known the idea that reparations should be instituted in some form for slavery and colonization of indigenous land in the U.S.

Market: Institute some “micro-finance” type of program (but not loan-based, just giving money) which might incentivize well-resourced people and corporations to help provide the conditions for marginalized people to succeed and gain capital.

Code: Automate the transfer of some small portion of funds of payment systems to go towards reparations funds. For example, some portion of tuition payments could be pooled to pay for tuition for descendants of enslaved people as was demanded of Georgetown University due to its history of being built upon the foundation of the slave trade.

Data Transparency

I have background in social sciences, particularly ethnic studies, so another project I am interested in is “open data”-related work (e.g. Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences) especially in connection with police departments around the country.

Law: Update data transparency laws, with collaboration from current developers and data scientists so there are clear standards. In a similar vein to financial accountability laws, police departments should be required by law to make statistics on race, income, gender, sexuality, incarceration rate vs. offense, salaries, financial statements, etc. public.

Norm: Show people how lack of data can be leveraged against marginalized populations (e.g. lack of detailed Asian American data makes it so that the wealth disparities among Asian Americans can be glossed over without addressing South-East Asian and other Asian American populations that are not at all represented by the “Crazy Rich Asian” stats)

Market: The norm lever could be combined with the market one to have consumers and public funders to go against institutions with low data transparency, which is against the market interest of the actor.

Code: I think a lot of this problem has to do with the amount of resources people are even willing to put into data transparency, so the availability of code seems to not be the issue here (since the potential to collect detailed data or publish it already exists). One idea I had is that you could automatically log police officer actions somehow and push them to a publicly accessible database for accountability.

Bail

We talked about this a little in class when discussing mass incarceration, but the current cash bail system and the bail bond industry that’s been built upon it has huge potential for and realities of abuse which overwhelmingly targets poor people in a massively unfair way, and has been shown to be linked to higher actual incarceration rates when people actually do go to trial. Pre-trial detention based on how much you are able to pay is unjust, but current methods of dealing with it by using things like algorithms are also filled with potential to be wrong and prejudiced.

Law: Eliminiate cash bail, then figure out some legal standards for pre-trial detention (do we want it, when are we going to implement it, thorough standards for making sure whatever metric for using pre-trial detention is instituted are not biased if possible)

Norms: Talk about cash bail and how it’s unfair. Especially bail bonds — it seems to be pretty normalized in the U.S. which was weird coming from Canada, but when I talked to people I know here they seemed to just accept bail bonds as something that happens in life. Not great!

Market: Disincentivize bail bond companies and insurance companies that back them in some way. Implement huge taxes on bail bond income or something (although this is combined with law in a big way).

Code: Reduce the use of cash bail by overhauling the pre-trial detention system in the first place.

 

Information Accountability – Cost – Ownership

Those who control information tend to wield an outsized portion of power.

The prolific 20th century author, Tom Clancy, probably said it best.

“The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”

Yet, despite vast technological moves assumed to have democratized the dissemination of information, challenges to healthy democracy, to necessary civil discourse have never been greater. There is no doubt information moves more freely, through fewer gatekeepers, today than it did a decade ago, but those advancements also brought unforeseen manipulation that has drained public trust.

Turns out ease of access also meant ease of manipulation.

Average consumers of information struggle to vet the information that sways public opinion, particularly through social media platforms that have become ubiquitous in modern life. Meanwhile, the power over that flow of information has been consolidated to a small number of tech companies whose motives and values aren’t always clear. Worse, their relatively hands-off approach to information that appears on platforms allowed the proliferation of vast misinformation and disinformation.

Three key areas of our information infrastructure must improve to ensure the health of our civic discourse: accountability, cost and ownership.

Platform accountability:

Law-norms

The erosion of public trust in the information disseminated and consumed through modern platforms was swift and pronounced. Platform owners and operators — although they likely couldn’t have predicted the adverse uses for their technologies — must be held to account for how their tech is employed for nefarious deeds.

This is a difficult balance, because abrasive laws and norms likely would stifle innovation. 

A combination of legal reforms to allow platforms to be exposed to at least some liability for what is published on their platforms — similar to structures in place governing publishers — seems not only appropriate, but necessary at this juncture. The threat of potential litigation likely would compel more active and careful self-regulation by platform operators — a move that likely would trigger more robust efforts to verify content and ensure user accountability.

Further, the continued erosion of public trust in material published on social platforms already has begun a shift toward user distrust. Some platforms have launched efforts to counter the loss of trust in content published through their sites, but there likely will be a continued slide/revelations of manipulation before social norms build enough momentum to force more accountability.

Code-market

There is a substantial financial opportunity for a disruptor to enter the social platform/information dissemination space as existing operators continue to take hits in accountability scandals. Glancing efforts have been made to install bottom-up accountability by verifying users’ identity. A new platform (or innovation on an existing one) that verifies the identity of every user, disallowing manipulation of discourse through disinformation by bots and anonymous users and therefore generating credibility for the information published would have far-reaching positive social impacts. There are scenarios where the removal of anonymity could be damaging (namely in countries where governments or entities would retaliate against individuals who publish information that challenges authority) but there also are plenty of platforms that already address that type of threat.

Information cost

Norms-market-code

Social norms already are shifting in favor of financially supporting news gathering and information dissemination mechanisms, but there still are far too many news and information consumers in the U.S. who do not pay a share of the costs of collecting, vetting and disseminating that information. 

It is likely within the next few years many of the nation’s most prolific and trusted news organizations — if they haven’t already done so — will place paywalls in front of their articles in an effort to generate enough revenue to support their news gathering efforts. 

The shift will have a number of positive net effects on the sustainability of credible, professional information gathering and dissemination organizations. Prices for access and mechanisms for obtaining subscriptions no doubt will evolve as more readers become accustomed to viewing such information as carrying inherent value.

This evolution does, however, pose one substantial drawback. There likely will become a time when the cost of access to information will make it a luxury, therefore, diminishing its positive impacts on society.

In a paywalled digital world, there is no equivalent to bygone eras when several people could read a single copy of a purchased newspaper.

Ownership

Legal-code

For some time aggregation and unauthorized republication of copyrighted materials, particularly via social media platforms, has been a problem. The practice has allowed some platforms to siphon revenue away from original sources, creating a disincentive for investment in labor-intensive information gathering ventures.

A combination of revisions to copyright laws to address this modern problem and code innovations that could track and verify the ownership of materials seems like a viable solution. Similar to cartographers’ techniques of marking maps they create to protect their investment of expertise and time, a code solution could install simple tracking measures to ensure those using such information help foot the bill for its creation.

Norms

In addition to legal and code efforts, a campaign similar to ones undertaken by the music and film industries to call out information misappropriation likely would have important effects. Equating reading clearly aggregated articles to theft the same way the aforementioned industries did with digital piracy could help shift public opinions and diminish patronage to those who make their living appropriating, not producing valuable information.

Quality Education | Gender Equality | Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

The issues that I am interested in, are based on three of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how they are applicable in Kenya. The 3 SDGs are: Quality Education; Gender Equality; and Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

SDG 4: QUALITY EDUCATION

Target 4.1

By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes 

Norms

Education needs to be viewed as a rite of passage for children in Kenya. To achieve this would mean creating awareness about the importance of education and learning among families and in particular parents. In some households, school-aged children are tasked with chores and other domestic responsibilities because parents do not understand the need for their children to attend school regularly.

Market

Market can be equated to the number of employment opportunities. If there is a demand for skilled and educated youth, this may also influence the number of children in primary and secondary education. If youth are guaranteed jobs upon graduation, this may increase the number of children in school and reduce dropout rates.

Law

The solution for law is simple: to have governments enact compulsory education laws. These laws, will mandate that all children to attend school up to a certain level. Failure to comply would be unlawful.

Code

This can be achieved through promoting creative learning in various educational institutions. This would result in developing an enabling environment for young people and also teachers. Typical rote based learning is considered rigorous, boring and unchallenging. Through adopting Mitch Resnick’s 4Ps of creative learning: Projects, Passion, Peers and Play; we can ensure that kids are inspired and interested to learn.

SDG 5: GENDER EQUALITY

Target 5.5

Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

Norms

Unconscious biases are a key driver of gender inequality in the workplace. During the recruitment and selection processes, women are unjustly stereotyped despite having the same qualifications (or even better) than their male counterparts. To become aware of our biases and to take action to alleviate them, may help to promote gender equality.

Market

Majority of senior and leadership roles across many disciplines are held by men. There needs to be a deliberate push to increase the number of women in managerial positions. Both public and private sectors should urge women in junior levels to pursue professional development trainings. Furthermore, women in senior roles should also make effort to participate in mentorship programs to encourage and inspire young women to pursue their career ambitions.

Law

In 2010, Kenya enacted a new constitutional requirement that states that not more than two-thirds of the members of elective bodies can be of the same gender. This law has had a positive effect on the number of women in national and local public office. Although, the two thirds gender rule has not been 100% complied with, it creates future opportunities for women to vie for various available positions.

Code

For women, the workplace can be quite a hostile environment. With cases of sexual harassment and assault on the rise, this creates an extra hurdle for women in pursuit of professional growth and development. Companies and various institutions need to create environments where women feels safe and comfortable. There need to be proper channels that are developed to report complaints and misbehavior in the workplace and consequently, strict punishment for perpetrators.

SDG 9: INDUSTRY, INNOVATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE

Target 9.3

Increase the access of small-scale industrial and other enterprises, in particular in developing countries, to financial services, including affordable credit, and their integration into value chains and markets.

Norm

In Kenya, locally produced goods and services and perceived to be of low quality. People should support local businesses and enterprises to ensure the survival and sustainability of the small-scale industry.

Market / Law

Increase access to markets for small scale businesses by eliminating cartels that monopolies certain industries. This may be achieved through legislature that promotes a free market economy. The market lever would work in tandem with law.

Code

In Kenya, with accordance with the State Corporations Act (CAP. 446), Brand Kenya Board (BKB) corporation was established. Two of the key functions of the board are to promote local products and services and to encourage commitment to quality and innovation among businesses and people. The establishment of this corporation is an example of how code can be modified to assist small-scale businesses and enterprises.

Karoshi, Missing Worker, and Bankruptcy after Disaster

Issue 1.   Overwork Death “Karoshi”

Japan is the one of the highest suicidal mortality rate countries in the world. According to WHO, male suicidal mortality rate in Japan is 20.5 out of 100 million population in 2016, female 10.1, compared to 10.5 on average in the world. This male high mortality rate derives from pressure in their working environment. A quarter of Japanese have to work more than 80 hours overtime, and many of them are actually unpaid for their overtime service. I have sometimes worked an extra 200 hours per month, and also worked 60 hours straight without a break. Death by being overworked is called “Karoshi” in Japanese. Even though it is recognized that supervisors are exerting power harassment, Japanese refrain from raising their voices, such complaining or reporting as this runs a great risk for them, resulting in less work opportunities. This kind of negative impression tends to be critical for their career as most Japanese work for one company for life. Many Japanese people end up trapped in negative working environment as employers tend not to tire those who quit a previous job.

Law: Law should stipulate strict regulations on overtime work by capping hours, with a predetermined maximum allowed, and giving heavy penalties for those who do not respect this law.

Norm: Companies should cultivate a culture that allow employees to feel comfortable to leave work at a set time such as ensuring that supervisors leave earlier than their subordinates

Market: The government should impose “overtime work tax” on company products or service based on their employee overtime work hours.

Code: The government should require all companies to set a system in place to calcurate exact hours of each employee, including check-in and check-out times. To avoid abuse of this system, all PC hours should also be logged.

 

Issue 2.   Increasing “Missing Worker”

720,000 people in their 40’s and 50’s are unemployed in Japan. This number indicates unemployment; however, drastically understates the real situation, as it only accounted unemployed people actively seeking work. It is notable to also take into account the “missing worker”. “Missing worker” is those who are unemployed and not actively seeking a job. In Japan, “missing worker” at the age of 40-59 years old are estimated at 1,030,000. One of the main reasons this age group is unemployed, and not seeking employment is because they are caring for their elderly parents. The number of singles, unmarried, people in this group is increasing, and estimated to be at 6.5 million. To provide nursing homes for their elderly parents would be too costly and depend upon the paltry pension of their parents. Taking a break to care for their parents creates difficulty with getting back into the workforce as employers frown upon those who have taken a break.

Law: Law should protect people from discrimination for taking a break from work. When a hardship, such as caring for elderly parents is in the case, there should be programs to help reinstate employment.

Norm: Each community should create a support system to help neighbors with caring for the elderly and obtaining employment, at least on a part-time basis.

Market: Government should give financial support to afford nursing home for elderly people.

Code: Some companies should create systems for missing workers to work remotely or receive technical training through VR.

 

Issue 3.   Bankruptcy of Restored Companies after Tsunami Disaster

1,857 companies have gone to bankrupt since March in 2011 related to the Great East Japan Earthquake, Tsunami caused by which wiped away northeast regions. To restore companies’ facilities, the government invested US$ 265 billion in the first five years. However, 90.5% of companies have gone bankrupt not because of “direct” influences such as facility destructions but “indirect” influences such as such missing supply chains for former wholesalers making contract with other supplier during restoration, order cancellation due to negative images, lack of workforce, decreasing local consumers and so on. Still more companies are expected to go bankrupt.

Law: Law should be enacted that residents in the northeast Japan converge to central cities in each region to create compact cities in order to recover from decreasing population and decrease infrastructure costs.

Norm: Companies in the region should promote their positive image, for example, by featuring cool young workers in their fishery business which is common in the region, and by processing their raw materials and producing original stories on their products to sell directly to consumers without depending on wholesalers.

Market: Government should grant financial support wholesalers which make contracts with suppliers suffering from the disaster to reconnect supply chains.

Code: Government should produce an e-commerce platform where companies in the region provide their products or services.

Food waste, nature deficits, and the loneliness epidemic

Issue 1: How do we reduce food waste? 

According to latest research, the world produces 17% more food than it did 30 years ago, yet almost half of it never reaches our stomachs. In the US alone, 63 million tons of food are wasted each year, and currently accounts for around 21 percent of landfill volume.

Architecture/Code

Reduce barriers to composting by placing more composting bins in public places and businesses. In concert with education campaigns (below), this might increase rates of composting.
Standardize and simplify food expiration labels terminology. Current food labels use a range of terms form “sell by” “use by” “display until” and “best before.” These labels generate consumer confusion and unnecessary food waste. Selecting one or two common labels and a standardized date format could reduce confusion about when food is safe to eat and when it needs to be thrown out. However, some sort of policy/legal action would likely be required to ensure compliance by companies. 
Redesign kitchen appliances to discourage waste, for example, a fridge that automatically calculates time until expiry by scanning for type of food, expiration label, and monitoring for signs of spoilage (e.g., mold). The fridge would move soon-to-expire foods to the front of the fridge and send reminders to consumers about when their purchases will expire. It might also suggest recipes that utilize soon-to-spoil foods. This would increase the likelihood that foods are consumed before they go bad. 

Norms

Introduce educational programs in schools to raise awareness about food expiration and encourage composing. Launch public campaigns that stigmatize food waste (a la “Don’t Mess with Texas”).  

Law 

Loosen food quality requirements that focus on appearance, since these rules disqualify perfectly edible but unsightly produce from sales in supermarkets. 
Require companies streamline expiration date labels, as proposed above. 

Markets

Marketize “ugly food” by delivering disqualified produce at reduced rates. Though if legal food quality requirements were loosened, as proposed above, the supply of ugly produce would diminish. 

Issue 2: How do we fight the “epidemic of loneliness” in the US?

In a recent survey, nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. Besides being existentially torturous, loneliness kills. In fact, it cuts life expectancy by the same amount as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  It is also associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia. 

Architecture/Code

(I struggle to approach this issue as a code problem. After all, we are more connected than ever. Generation Z (18-22) reports the highest levels of loneliness, despite being heavy social media users. (And fwiw, social media use is neither strictly positively or negatively correlated with loneliness). Somehow, despite ambient and ubiquitous connection, we miss each other.) 
Design more mixed-use and open spaces in cities. Since living alone is correlated with rates of loneliness, cities could incentive co-living apartments, co-ops and inter-generational housing. Urban planners could encourage traffic-free streets, public squares, parks and other spaces to facilitate interaction. In addition, creation of recreation centers, community centers, and other non-commercial “third spaces” could increase meaningful interaction in cities.
Redesign social media platforms to incentivize getting off of them. (Of course, this is antithetical to their business model of more time -> more ads -> more profit). Provide prompts that encourage meeting up with, calling, or texting friends we interact with frequently on Facebook. Foreground nearby events and meetups on the home screen. Could designs with with rebranding/marketing (i.e. changing norms) promoting the use of social media to coordinate in-person activities. It’s worth noting that Facebook recently began a public campaign with the slogan “The best part of Facebook isn’t on Facebook. It’s when it helps us get together.”

Norms

Make long lunch breaks and volunteering cool again. Given that most adult individuals spend most of their waking hours in the workplace, workplace culture could be a target of intervention. For example, allowing longer lunch breaks could facilitate group outings or conversations. Encouraging regular volunteering activities during work hours could foster a sense of shared purpose and connection. 
Teach about the health risks of loneliness and share interpersonal skills that foster connection. Incorporate data on loneliness into school health curriculum, alongside educational programs to foster greater interpersonal skills, conflict resolution, active listening, and other forms of “social intelligence” in students. While this will not cure the loneliness problem, it might teach students to value social interactions and equip them to navigate healthy interpersonal relationships.   

Law

Fight overwork and economic oppression. We might overwork as a cause of loneliness in the US, where 85.8 percent of men and 66.5 percent of females work more than 40 hours per week. Americans often struggle to make ends meet – working long hours or multiple jobs – let alone to spend free time with family and friends. We might introduce a law setting the maximum length of the work week. (Fwiw, at least 134 countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week; the U.S. does not.) Let’s shorten the damn work week, raise minimum wage, and provide people a basic level of economic security so they can spend spare time and financial resources on shared connection.

 

Require doctor support. If we frame loneliness as a “health epidemic,” one can imagine medical interventions to identify and intervene when the problem of loneliness arises.  We could mandate that primary care physicians inquire not just about a patient’s physical health, but mental health, including loneliness. Federal government could mandate better coverage for mental health counseling, since therapists could help patients identify possible paths to overcoming loneliness. 

Markets

(As I complete this assignment, I realize more and more that market solutions to social problems is my blindspot…) 

Issue 3: How can US students spend more time outside? 

Exposure to nature benefits children in myriad ways. Studies indicate time in nature is correlated with better school performance, creativity, higher level of fitness, and less depression and hyperactivity. A controversial campaign claims that children now spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. 

Architecture/Code

Redesign routes to school. Redesign the routes to and from school to increase outdoor exposure outside of class hours. Teachers could lobby municipal officials and urban planners to build sidewalks and bike lanes along common routes to school to encourage greater walking and biking to and from school.
Monitor outdoor time. One can imagine a personal tracking device that measures how much time children spend outdoors (either through UV measurements, or GPS tracking that monitors activity outside known buildings.) This data could be transmitted to parents accompanied by clear metrics about if their children are meeting “outdoor time” targets. These parents will have been targets of educational and health campaigns (see below). These parents might then use this data to lobby schools to change policies around recess (see laws below). However, it is unclear if a “techno-nudge” approach would be effective (since, as we have learned, fitness trackers largely don’t work.) In addition, I could imagine several negative unintended consequences to what ultimately is a technology of juvenile surveillance (which, for brevity’s sake I will not elaborate here). 

Norms 

Target parents with campaigns about the benefits of nature and play. Perhaps pediatricians could be encouraged to enquire about time outside during children’s visits. These campaigns might encourage efforts to monitor time spent outside, and raise public concern about the issues and civic engagement with current laws that unintentionally threaten recess (see below).

Law 

Kill the Common Core. Despite research showing recess boosts academic performance, schools face pressure to reduce time outside in favor of more class time to prepare students for Common Core state exams.  To reduce the “time squeeze” on recess, policy makers could scrap Common Core standards altogether. Or, they could incorporate physical fitness and/or environmental subjects into the Common Core, thus creating incentives for learning to take place outside. Alternately, they could keep Common Core and lengthen the school year in order reduce time pressure and the risk of eliminating recess. 

Markets

Honestly, I don’t know. Past market-based efforts to reform schools are fraught with issues, the core of which being that they tend to exacerbate existing inequality in the US by preventing. I am a bit loathe to explore market mechanisms in this case. While several private schools have revolutionized outdoor education — such as the Mountain School, at $28k a semester — they remain inaccessible to the average American.

At the Intersection of Injustice

When thinking of what avenues I would like to create social change in, I often consider climate injustice, economic injustice and mobility injustice as the three biggest areas to pursue. These potential issues, when overlapped, tend to impact the same group of people the most regardless of community norms and geographic location: low-income people, people of color and people with disabilities. I’ve also recognized that I have felt the negative impacts of all three of these areas prior to coming to Harvard. I grew up in a low-income area of NYC; I live in a food dessert, in a public transportation desert and below multiple JFK air-paths — a situation that already promotes climate injustice and as a consequence negative health impacts, inhibits the movement of people from work and unable to afford and get to fresh fruits and vegetables. As a consequence, I am determined to make impacts in these three issues.

 

Climate Injustice

  • Law: We need to institute higher taxes on organizations with high CO2 emissions and/or that don’t participate in proper recycling and waste disposal habits. in addition, we need to implement stricter waste disposal laws. Given that the top two industries that create green house emissions are transportation and electricity. We should put into law that all companies need to remove fossil fuels from their procedures within the next 4 years. Change zoning laws within major urban pockets to make the cities environmentally friendly. Reduce food waste in supermarket and restaurants by mandating excess food be donated prior  to spoiling or tossing.
  • Market: Subsidize and/or make free technology items that utilizes clean energy source would be a good start.
  • Norms: The norms battle would have to be to get people to understand that climate change is real. I would start by highlighting that the “debate” on climate change is not coming from the scientific community documentaries, articles and social media campaigns. I would spend more time highlighting areas already seeing the effects through social media.
  • Code: Create a website or extension that monitors what individual green house gas emissions look like as well as highlight what individual company emissions look like. This is to help people, especially those in developed nations that emit the most amount of waste and green house gas but also highlight for people which companies are the worst perpetrators to put public pressure on them.

Mobility Injustice

  • Law: Laws would need to change to create a stronger infrastructure around America for accessibility purposes. Sidewalks should be a regulated width, smooth concrete (or a more sustainable material) and with ample cross walks. Increase the budget of infrastructure to maintain roads, bridges, tunnels and highways. Create a nation-wide high-speed train system to allow for cross-country travel with less emissions and at a cheaper cost.
  • Market: I am not sure how the market could exactly fit into this section aside from using sales from another place to subsidize these infrastructure sales. I would decreases pricing on assitive technology and public transportation in cities.
  • Norms: I think we need to highlight how many places are actually inaccessible such that people can work to understand the need of accessible spaces and inspired to create more. I would want to move conversations around technology from innovation to maintenance because maintenance is equally as important and something I think the U.S. forgets about. Creating a campaign to highlights its importance, thank those who do it could incentives communities to put more money into maintaining infrastructure.
  • Code: I’ve actually seen some really cool website and apps to help in this realm. One uses crow-sourcing to highlight where bus stops actually are on a street for the visually impaired. Another uses Google images and crowd sourcing to highlight what curbs don’t have accessible ramps. I think databases for accessibility purposes are great to show what spaces are accessible for different needs. I think a database for local governments to know what needs the most attention would be great but I don’t think they would do anything with that information.

Economic Injustice

  • Law: I firmly believe there should be no billionaires, more social programs to reallocate resources and we should remove system where one’s value is based on the economic value of the communities surrounding it. To start, school funding should not be tied to property value. All schools should get the same funding and we should probably mix schools such that attendance isn’t dependent on a zip code. There should be heavier taxes on the extremely wealthy people and business that should be directly put into social programs. We should have universal healthcare. Minimum wage should be increased to a livable wage for all. College should be free. Everyone should receive a basic income. Large conglomerate business should be broken up to provide more competition and potential variation of prices as well as a stronger possibility for small businesses to thrive. I recognize I am stating a lot of ideals but I think these all should be put into law.
  • Market: I stated this earlier and I feel like law and market would have to work together here but we should break up large conglomerate businesses to allow smaller businesses to thrive. I am not sure how you would use the market in this area to help with this issue but I think it could.
  • Norms: I think we need to push the boundaries of what is considered “really liberal” ideas around social programming considering America’s liberal are many European countries’ conservative. I think there should be a continued effort from boycotts, protest and social media to make these ideas heard including the idea that billionaires shouldn’t exist and schools deserve equal funding regardless on community value. We should push the norms of the country to believe that everyone deserves to live a healthy and fruitful life and as consequence deserve things like shelter and food. On a completely different note, I think people should actually talk to each other about wages and benefit packages. We should normalize these conversations so we can eliminate unfair pay discrepancies.
  • Code: When I think of using code for economic injustice, I tend to want it to have a more interpersonal impact. I really believe in financial literacy for everyone. I think code can do a great job of teaching financial literacy and money management to create healthy spending habits.

Gerrymandering, Net Neutrality, and Mass Shootings

Gerrymandering

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 groups that are against the party in power are stuffed into fewer districts to limit their voting power, violating our system for equal representation.

  • Law: This is the most obvious way to fix this change. The supreme court has not yet passed down an overarching ruling on gerrymandering, partly because sometimes the line between a politically motivated redrawing of district lines vs. a legitimate one is blurred. Alternatively, a ruling party could fall on the sword and pass laws to relinquish this power state by state, preventing gerrymandering in future generations.
  • Market: Speaking with your dollar could very well work in this case. Supporting or opposing incumbents based on what they’ve done with gerrymandering in their state is always a strong rebuke of the practice. In addition, boycotting businesses that support candidates with a history of gerrymandering can also help quell this tide.
  • Norms: Public perception is the greatest tool that’s been utilized thus far towards the issue. Over the past decade, the effects of gerrymandering especially in House elections have come to the forefront, as it becomes clear that the collective stance of the representatives from a gerrymandered state do not represent the collective stance of the people. Journalists and political activists have started publicizing the nonsensical district maps that have been created for political gain, and voters in those districts are taking notice that their voting power has been diminished. However, the “next step” from this is much tougher as people have to make the connection from the lack of local representation to the fact that the only way to change it is to vote against gerrymandering in senatorial and gubernatorial elections.
  • Code: Pushing out information to support the norms, market, and law discussions is critical here. Code can really help make it very clear what the effect of gerrymandering is on a voter’s power depending on where they live, and help push out that information in effective ways.

 

Net Neutrality

Companies have long been trying to control the internet for their own gain. Broadband providers want the ability to charge certain companies more for their traffic or use the capitalistic markets to take away all consumer surplus by having companies bid for how much they will pay for their traffic to be sped up (or just not slowed down). On the flip side, large companies are also open to this since they may want to pay extra to beat out that new entrant or the smaller company on the block. Either way, the American consumer loses. In June 2018, the FCC removed Obama-era regulations on prohibiting either of these scenarios to happen, opening the floodgates for Net Neutrality to be broken down over the coming years.

  • Law: Again, the most obvious of the potential paths were this is very much a governmental decision on whether to allow companies to do this. Congress could pass a law to supersede the FCC and make it iron-clad that net neutrality is here to stay.
  • Market: the one part of the original regulations that has stayed is that broadband companies are still required to disclose their business models and whether any of these practices are taking place. The market could easily make this a negative factor for the company, driving their dollars to broadband providers who provide an open internet.
  • Norms: Playing along with the Market piece, social norms could dictate moving away from providers that discriminate traffic based on how much the company pays or whether the consumer is willing to pay more for equal internet. As long as there is an option for a provider with free internet, public pressure to move to that provider can be a deterrent for providers to move in this direction.
  • Code: Although I don’t understand much of this on the technical side, some have discussed moving the underlying infrastructure of the internet over a period of time to something that can’t be controlled by a provider. While a provider may lay down the infrastructure, traffic could be hidden or encrypted in a way that they are unable to see and therefore stifle certain types of traffic.

 

Mass Shootings in the US

The US has more mass shootings than any other developed country in the world. While we may refuse to investigate the root causes of this further from an institutional level, it’s clear that this is a huge problem that we as a country must address.

  • Law: The second amendment guarantees the “right to keep and bear arms” to all Americans. However, when that amendment was written guns were long muskets that took up to 30 seconds to reload and had very limited accuracy. A long shot from today’s assault rifles, at a minimum passing laws to restrict how easy it is for someone dangerous to procure a gun should be in our pipeline.
  • Market: In many ways, the market is the problem here. The firearms and ammunition market in the US is tens of billions of dollars, and those companies have no reason to slow down their own growth. However, there’s an opportunity here for a company to emerge as a leader to promote changes to our society, both in norms and law, that help us move towards less shootings. The vast majority of the US supports initiatives like this, and I imagine it would help the company’s image and actually increase sales for them.
  • Norms: The vast majority of gun owners in the US say that their reasoning for owning a gun is either self defense or sport. There is no reason that automatic weapons should be this prevalent in the civilian space of our society, and pushing this as a norm is critical. If nobody is buying these guns, stores and gun shows will be less inclined to stock them and make them much tougher to procure.
  • Code: I’m not sure if this is actually possible, but with today’s technology we could integrate additional safety mechanisms into the guns itself. For example, Geolocation in the gun that locks them if they’re within a radius of major public areas (schools, malls, etc.).

A Change Is Gonna Come

This assignment is particularly difficult for me, as I feel that there are so many issues that need to be addressed. How does one choose just three? Then I think about what we’ve learned in class thus far and feel like maybe it’s not my place to even solve any of these issues. Regardless, in the words of Sam Cooke, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come”. I know that I would like to be part of that change, and at this point, here are three things I’ve been thinking about working on to do so.

  1. The housing crisis, in particular the cycle of evictions for low income people. This is inspired by a book I’ve been reading, called Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. As with any major issue, there are of course multiple sub issues that make up the problem. Simply, however, I want to work towards ensuring that all Americans (not in terms of citizenship but in terms of people living here) actually have a safe place to live.
    • Laws: I think there are a lot of ways that laws could help to solve this crisis. Apartment buildings could be required to include a certain percentage of low-income units, and cities could be required to do the same. In addition, there could be legal requirements around a certain number of rent-controlled units or even a maximum amount that rent could be across the city. Furthermore, there can be stricter laws regarding building codes – every apartment should have clean, running water and access to heat and electricity. I also think that there could be anti-discrimination laws for applicants who have previously faced eviction, as many people have trouble finding a new place to live once they have been evicted before.
    • Norms: A lot of the issues around the housing crisis are centered about race, and thus having some sort of campaign to push the benefits of diversity and inclusion within a community could help to temper worries about having buildings and communities include low-income residents. In addition, I think there is a huge learning opportunity for landlords to get training on seeing residents as more than just a cash grab.
    • Code: I think that software could be used to help set market prices for rent based on income levels. In addition, there could be a social-media type app that pairs up tenants to landlords and buildings. The app could show information that may help persuade landlords to give them an apartment (such as number of children, lack of prior convictions, etc.)
    • Market: Cities, buildings, and even landlords could get tax breaks for accommodating a certain number of low-income and previously evicted tenants.
  2. Food. I feel that there are a lot of issues with food in our country, but for now I’ll focus on just the idea of food deserts – areas where there is no access to fresh, high-quality food.
    • Laws: This one seems simple (though I’m sure it’s not). There should be a law mandating that there be a supermarket, with produce, for every x amount of people. In high-density areas there should be one within every square mile. On the flip side, there could be a limit to the number of fast food restaurants allowed in such an area. I also think that there could be stricter laws around food advertising – I know that some states now require the number of calories to be displayed but perhaps there could be more information that must be shared with consumers, such as ingredients and fruit/veggie servings.
    • Norms: I think one of the toughest to solve, as there are a lot of social norms around quick food. In addition, a lot of people don’t have a good sense of how to cook or what healthy food is. I think that things like local cooking classes or organized shopping trips could help to fix that. In addition, in thinking about norms, I think about a friend of mine who works for a social impact company in LA where they work with celebrities and TV/movie media to share positive messaging. Including things such as food shopping and cooking in popular TV shows may help to (perhaps subliminally) spread the message of better eating. I think another major norm that has to get addressed here is that people in certain areas wouldn’t appreciate having access to high-quality food in their neighborhood.
    • Code: Besides using coding techniques to help implement some of the laws and norms, I think there is also opportunity for a sort of traveling grocery store that could be tracked via an app. This may be easier for a short term solution in giving people access to high-quality food before grocery stores could be built.
    • Market: I think that tax breaks could be given to grocery stores that are built in food desert areas. In addition, farmers who travel to these areas to sell produce could also be given tax breaks.
  3. The Environment: of course the environment is another giant issue with many sub-issues that can be tackled. In particular, I’d like to focus on waste and recycling management.
    • Laws: Something that shocks me is that many states still do not seem to recycle. I think it should be a federal law that each state has to have its own recycling program. In addition, large corporations that manufacture things with plastic should be required to use at least some percentage of recycled materials. Also, I think that the plastic bag and styrofoam ban should be expanded nationally, and there should be a law requiring that all take out containers (at least for individuals) and disposable silverware is compostable.
    • Norms: I think that many people are unaware of the long-term environmental impact of things such as plastic and styrofoam. Finding ways through social media and education to show people these effects may help to change the norms.
    • Code: something I’ve seen in the local news lately is the issue of dirty recycling – people try to recycle but mistakenly put in things that cannot be recycled. I think software could be used to create smart recycling cans that separate out dirty recycling. This could even be extended to include smart trash cans that separate out recycling from trash. In addition, code has to be used to help create better compostable straws and spoons that don’t break down so quickly. I think another interesting angle for code here is to help figure out how we can handle the large amount of e-waste that is being generated from our electronic devices.
    • Market: I think tax breaks could be given to cities that generate less than a certain amount of trash per person. In addition, companies could be given tax breaks for using a certain amount of recycled materials in their production. They could also be given tax breaks for generating small amounts of trash.

3 Topics & their Levers

Fake News Crisis

Obviously this is a huge topic (but aren’t they all?). I’m from Kentucky; I remember even in middle school how divisive the topic of climate change was; I remember some of the brightest students in my class arguing with the science teacher against the facts. What can we do to help people trust experts again?

LAW

Laws already do a lot of work to prevent the spread of fake information. Laws regulate drug advertising (although perhaps a better law would ban it). Slander and libel laws allegedly protect individuals from false rumors. Laws can change a lot more. They can require information sources to publicize more clearly their agendas, so that the American College of Pediatricians is not so easily confused with the the American Academy of Pediatrics when cited in news articles (or even to force a change of name).

MARKET

I wonder if there is a way to use the market to decrease the strength of small organizations like the ACP. This seems like an extremely dangerous path, though, because such market regulations could silence minority voices. Any kind of taxation on information also seems extremely dangerous, because free information has always been considered so fundamental to the US democracy. But maybe, when newspapers have to put up paywalls and academic sources are often only available with a university email address on hand, we have already already changed and need to recognize a new society of paid information in order to address the issue effectively at all. It’s hard to say.

NORMS

Norms affect Kentucky; so many people are so set in their beliefs, because beliefs reinforce their lifestyles and incorporating new facts (news) would tip that balance. While the importance of norms is overwhelmingly apparent, how to address the issue is not. Any campaign runs the risk of engaging those who already agree with it, since those it aims to convince are so quick to recognize the manipulation and turn off the TV. How can this possibly be addressed from a bi-partisan platform?

CODE

So much of the blame for fake news falls on Facebook (and it’s algorithms) that code (like norms) seems absolutely central to the topic. This problem is currently engaging experts, and I feel that these experts might find a means to address the problems (at least of isolated bubbles of like-minded information) in social media. What is at risk at this point is that these measures won’t be integrated into a larger plan that addresses the other levers, and will be destroyed when people simply turn to different websites for their news.

#metoo

This has hit the architecture community as much as any other; just last year a list of “Shitty Men in Architecture” was released as an attempt to catalog the names and offenses of important individuals after the news on Richard Meier was published. I could narrow this topic, too, and talk solely about offenses in architecture (primarily in offices, without the protections of university regulations and resources), but I’m not sure.

LAW

To my knowledge, companies are not required to have any sort of personnel to deal with misconduct in the workplace. Larger companies often have HR departments, but these tend to cater to the needs of the company rather than those of the individual. Smaller companies often have no one to turn to if the boss is the perpetrator. How can companies be required to provide resources without (see markets) the laws being prohibitive to starting a business at all?

MARKET

In addition to the above question, markets remind of a fear of reporting abuses–making oneself less marketable. I hear of this often in architecture; a firm can threaten to withhold reference letters, or even worse (and often threatened more often) to influence the hiring of other firms (because it is a small discipline with many mutual friends). How can the job market make these concerns less important? I actually have no idea, but I think it’s an interesting question.

NORMS

#metoo was so successful because it addressed norms, but now the question would be how to sustain that momentum when the trending hashtag seems to have passed. Maybe workshops in schools and companies can help this, or maybe also making support groups more frequent, accessible, and confidential could help.

CODE

I’m not sure how code can discourage workplace abuse, but maybe it could even be through something as simple as protections of anonymity to something as complex (and potentially authoritarian) as a program that monitors human interactions for signs of potential abuses.

Suburban Housing

Also maybe–urban sprawl. Perhaps this topic is already becoming less “hot” as cities become, once again, more “hip,” but I don’t think that leaving the issue to resolve itself will mend the underlying problems that cause Americans (a case example, but one I am certainly most familiar with) to idealize the single-family home.

LAW

Architecture in the US is already restricted by certain code requirements that ensure the safety and well-being of people in the home–from fire codes to ADA considerations, to even requiring certain amounts of natural light and fresh air. These same codes can be expanding to concern also the well-being of the environment. Already LEED certifications (flawed as they are) provide standards for measuring the impact of buildings on their environments, and the Living Building Challenge holds even higher standards. These regulations encourage house types different from the regular American suburban home simply by the practical solutions to the problems the codes present.

MARKET

Marketing, in this case, is not simply about subsidizing solar panels to fit on top of existing homes. Rather, it must aim to make multi-family housing desirable. Home ownership is extremely desirable in the US, and most often associated with with single-family homes (rather than condominiums). On top of that, multi-family housing is often in cities, and cities continue to be a generally expensive place to live. How can subsidies encourage city living, or how can markets find new models that make investments on single units in multi-family residences more valuable?

NORMS

I remember reading somewhere that my millennial generation is already more inclined to live in cities than generations before–I’m not certain of the source so I won’t claim that statement is necessarily true, but it does suggest (and I think it is true) that cities are currently cool. This is great, however, sustaining this trend will require making cities not just cool for young adults, but for families as those adults marry and have children, and for seniors as those same parents grow old.

CODE

My ideas for the potential impacts of code all seem a little too simple right now–such as the monitoring of house performance that encourages a switch to more sustainable models, or existing technologies that already make city living easier (like app-based food delivery and transportation services). I think there is much more potential in code, but I am not yet sure of what that might be.

Livability, deliberation and disabling architecture

The side-effects of livable cities

Any direction leaves somebody behind. In architecture, one of the tasks are to design spaces with certain functionalities that induce certain atmospheres through its spatial frame and social life. Choosing the infrastructure of a space is to embody the space with ideas of what that space should be. It is equivalent to pointing the kind of social life, which is to be lived there, in a certain direction.

It is clear that certain functions fit some demographic groups better than others: Public spaces equipped with basketball courts summon young men as they typically find such spaces attractive – there, they can easily convene, socialize and spend their time joyfully. It does not, however, attract older populations. In Copenhagen especially, we have seen an architectural as well as policy-based bias towards to the young, cool and certainly lively population (and mostly towards sports where men are over-represented). Why?

Cities are competing with each other to have a high ’livability’ score – that is, being attractive to investments and tourists – which may guide investments in the direction of building cities that are ’lively’ in a specific way. It is not a problem that public spaces have outdoor fitness spots, ping pong tables or basketball courts, but whenever a public space is transformed into a fitness-scape, then older people, people with disabilities or people who simply enjoy tranquility have the risk of being pushed out of their public spaces and into their private ones. ‘Livable’ public spaces in cities then become unlivable for some.

Is there a way to think about public spaces that is not in the risk of losing their hip functionality while still being inclusive? Three of the four levers of change could work together in solving this problem. At the policy-level, policy-makers could force architects to think about their implicit biases towards certain populations. Architects could design their spaces as in order to create certain norms of inclusion: changing spaces also changes the norms that are created within it, as well as thinking differently about the population who feels invited to that space. Code is a hard one in this regard, because the older population is excluded by code in the first place – so reaching them or changing their behavior or others’ behavior in relation to them by the means of code seem very difficult. At the market level, spaces are transformed by the commercial clientele that is attracted. In public spaces, commercial enterprises like cafés invite people to dwell in those places. Establishing enterprises that invite other populations than offered by the social space in the first place may be a way to transform the general activities and life of that space.

 

If not deliberation, then what?

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 it a compound? Conversely, if anyone agrees, do we then have a public sphere at all? Does the public sphere need disagreement or, last but not least, mistrust, as Pierre Rosanvallon argues in Counter-Democracy? In other words, are 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 via the levers of change: By code, software has been created to track one’s ‘filter bubble’, to break it and hence to be exposed to other forms of news, other political agendas than one’s own. By markets: As the rise of pay-per-read becomes standard in media, apps like inkl (discussed in class) could deliver news from various sources and thus cut across polarized news environments. Customers of such apps could be from all political orientations, so inkl, for example, would be incentivized to provide pieces from various news sources. Given the recent years’ debates about fake news and polarization I think that norms have been instituted throughout society that leads people to check their own bias to a slightly greater degree than before. At least, it was normal before to read one type of newspaper. Now, norms may have changed stating that one must check other news sources in order to escape being polarized or contributing to polarization. By law, in France for example, every voter for the presidential election receives a short magazine-like piece of all the candidates, eligible for election, in order for everyone to have a minimal amount of information. I call this the epistemological reading of the deliberation problem.

Bad news: That experts ever did agree is a longstanding myth, to paraphrase philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in his Foams. If true, the problem of the public sphere does not seem to be the lack of expertise. So, if education, policies, markets or norms – or code! – of becoming more informed does not work at an expert level, then what works? How do we get publics that function in the way we want them to? In a way, the question is how we get political communities to work well.

Perhaps one of the solutions is to diagnose the problem differently and think about the remedies in another way: Is the problem lack of trust in each other? When one is certain that the other party is obstinate, what are the changes for having a political discussion? I think the lack of trust might be related to the epistemological reading in the sense that being exposed to other ways of thinking, to other lives and experiences and to see them as legitimate – that will engender a political conversation in which one trust – without agreeing with – one another.

Thus, the levers of change that were available for the epistemological reading of the problem may also work for the “fiduciary” reading. The idea of diverse information would not be focused on consensus, but rather trust as default when having political discussions. Although far-fetched, another lever of change that may be available for inducing trust across a highly polarized society is to, by law, change the mediascape. When the media is polarized, then its readers/viewers/listeners become that too, and moving towards a strong(er) national broadcast could be an idea. Hannah Arendt pointed out that society is weaved from the narratives and the things, which are in-between us – not from having equal amounts of information. They, not information or knowledge, lead to political action and community. This is backed-up by literature that suggests that the US has an affective rather than an informational polarization. Therefore, projects or infrastructures that reaches across a polarized society may succeed in generating depolarizing norms and induce trust across partisan groups. As trust-expert and professor Kevin Vallier writes, “When different types of people interact more, there tend to be higher levels of trust among them.”

 

Disabling architecture

One problem within architecture is the consideration for people with disabilities. There are two ways of accommodating people with disabilities: Either one attaches an add-on vehicle (a lift to a staircase, for example) or one integrates the vehicle’s function into the architectural design/space. Special restrooms in a restroom area is another case of such accommodation were the vehicle is integrated into the spatial carvings instead on being an add-on. Vehicles come in different spatial alterations but common to them is that they deviate from “normal” spaces.

The deeper problem is that people with disabilities are already hugely excluded from society, and encountering shared spaces were architectural forms enunciates a special need does not minimize the effects of exclusion (use the back door, use a ramp). Architectural exclusion becomes social exclusion. (It is true and even worse, of course, without vehicles that immediately accommodate certain disabilities leading to a complete exclusion of people with disabilities.)

In order to deal with this problem, architects should strive for joining “special needs” with architectural features that are fully (or nearly) integrated with “common needs”. To paraphrase the Norwegian educationalist and criminologist Nils Christie: If you change the system such that a disability isn’t a disability, then it disappears in that context. The entrance of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from Fenway is an example where the accessibility of persons using wheelchairs is architecturally designed to be almost invisible.

The levers of change that could be used to make a social change for people with disabilities to be welcome would be to – from the perspective of law – have regulations that ensures a seamless integration of multiple functions that accommodate multiple needs regarding entrances, restrooms etc. By code, maps could offer routes that would be sensitive to specific need. As such, one could code different routes with different levels of accessibility, steering outside less cumbersome routes. By changing the overall structure, norms would also change, making what was regarded as a disability beforehand now becomes an (however invisible) ability. Making architects and city-planners aware of design problems on this issue would install norms about thinking more inclusively. I do not think that the market is a lever of change here because there is no market influence, as far as I can see, in this problem.

Nutrition Injustice + Freedoms + Astrofactories

Unfortunately, as humanity is urbanizing rapidly, so too are urban slums expanding and/or densifying. And they’re substantially all food deserts experiencing nutrition injustice. 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. It would be an even stronger driver of development if government leaders treated them as a population to be serviced, providing access to reliable land titles, security, paved roads, water and sewer lines, schools, and clinics. Rather than treating slums as a problem to be ignored, corporations could see slums as an opportunity to provide (not exploit) infrastructure and services needed, such as urban agriculture, while seeking government incentives, if needed, to make up margins. The local and global communities could also cease to see slum dwellers as characters worthy of pity. Urban centers, both in India and around the world, offer economic opportunities that rural areas do not. For this reason, some migrants voluntarily move to slums in hopes of learning new skills, setting up businesses, and sending their children to school. Therefore, encoding their dignity into the social consciousness – through social campaigns – can bring new life to deteriorating slums and serve as a driving force for community development.

Despite improvements in diversity of thought, and the celebration of individualism in our era, there still exists the unfortunate “danger of a single story”. Some examples include: male engineers stereotyped as being ‘on the spectrum’, while female engineers are anything but feminine; Every man on Wall Street is a Type-A alpha male, and all Wall Street women ‘wear the pants’; All housewives are certainly not intellectual, while all men want to work outside the home and become the breadwinner; Immigrants are poor, lazy and ‘the other’ while “we” are not. To free us to live out the purest version of who we are, we need a culture of radical acceptance. Corporations could set examples through their advertising such as the marketing of a vending machine, which responds to multiple languages, encourages the celebration of different nationalities within a community. The government could incentivize judges, law enforcement, and corporations through reduced tax incentives to obtain high acceptance scores from the communities they serve and employees they employ. All forms of media ought to refrain from characterizing groups of people or perpetuating stereotypes to avoid FCC penalties, although I am unsure of how this metric can be objectively measured.

Lastly, as the cost of satellite launches decline, the next generation of satellites may need to be manufactured on-orbit to reduce the cost of and thereby, a critical barrier to entry in space exploration. This will require the development of manufacturing factories for space and the refinement of our current robotic assembly platforms. The government would need to enact a law to refrain from 4- to 8-year visions for our space agency, in order to prevent a change in vision and subsequently, the redirection of resources, with every new political administration. A comprehensive 12-year plan supported by taxpayers through a referendum vote and supported by the government would also normalize aerospace contractor costs. The transparency and consistency of the space program would certainly eliminate the ill-suited contractors interested in hedging bets, while rallying the nation (and the world) – through social media, of course – behind an inspiring vision to lead humanity to the next frontier.

3 Issues I’m Thinking About

High Tuition in the US (and ensuing Student Debt)

LAW + MARKET

The government can regulate tuition by setting a maximum tuition limit, and then have each school find out how to meet the limit. This approach is a bit dangerous and could be either effective or have unexpected toll on certain groups depending on how each school deals with it. Schools may identify unnecessary portions in administration that can be streamlined, cut down on staff, or find external funding sources.

There can also be a policy for certifying alternative educational institute (e.g. online courses, studying abroad), so that they are acknowledged and given the same benefits as having a degree from a traditional institute (e.g. in job opportunities). If change in policy gives cheaper alternatives similar competitiveness, this will affect education market and tuition may come down.

NORMS + CODE

As slightly mentioned above, alternative educational institutes such as online educational platforms could be built and publicized to gain social acknowledgement.

There can also be platforms to help people understand the issue and status quo better. For example, one platform might gather data from enrolling students how much they are actually paying for tuition (after special discounts, school aid, etc.). If data reveals that a university practically collects and operates on only 70% of stated tuition, there will be a greater understanding of financial status quo and a stronger urge to tackle the issue (This can also provide a guideline for setting legal limit above). Another platform can list tuition for international and domestic universities and opportunities to apply to institutes abroad to broaden people’s perspective and education market.

 

Bullying

LAW

Two complementary set of law can be set that when a bullying incident happen, 1) if a student bullying is in need of help (e.g. domestic violence), s/he is connected to appropriate resources in hope of solving the underlying cause of bullying and prevent recurrence of bullying but also 2) bullying (especially repeated bullying) is met with harsh punishment. Such policy will be implemented at both school level and state/federal level.

MARKET

In addition to school resources, there can also be private companies with 24/7 hotline or resources for those who don’t feel comfortable seeking help within school or in case the school resources have low capacity.

NORMS

To reduce bullying in school, norms of both children and adults (namely parents & teachers) need to be affected. In addition to factual workshops on how to identify bullying and how to seek/respond to help, an emotional workshop that shows stories from children who’ve been bullied can be more effective in bringing out empathy and conveying graveness of the issue.

Furthermore, accepting diversity and differences should be incorporated into everyday life not just in special workshops. A reading class featuring books with diverse main characters or a cultural show and tell can help shape how children react to differences, although not directly targeted at solving bullying.

CODE

Code can help with specific type of bullying: cyberbullying. Automatic detection of bullying pattern and verifying accounts, combined with real life consequences (e.g. subject to same punishment by law instead of simple account suspended limited to cyber space) can be effective.

 

Student Mental Health/Depression

LAW + MARKET

Law can mandate schools to maintain a certain student to counselor ratio so that students can receive timely and extensive help. Law can further manipulate the market to increase insurance coverage regarding mental health or lower the price of treatment for mental illness to make it more accessible.

NORMS + CODE

Attitude towards mental illness or treatment can be improved through multiple methods. There can be a newsletter or a blog where people (e.g. mix of high-profile and local people) share their stories regarding mental illness. There can also be a peer-to-peer support platform that can be searched by location, school, subject, etc. to share thoughts and resources and build help system outside of formal institutes.

Critical studies of technology // Designing critical technology

First, let me introduce myself. My name is Gabriel Pereira, and I am from Brazil. I am currently a visiting PhD student here at Comparative Media Studies – MIT, and a PhD fellow at Aarhus University (Denmark). My main research interests are critical studies of data infrastructures. I am particularly interested in understanding how these pervasive data infrastructures constrain and enable how we think and experience memory and archives today.

My research methods are experimental and collaborative, involving both arts-based inquiry and ethnographic work. Most recently, I have been developing the Museum of Random Memory with a large network of researchers, activists and artists. It is a series of arts-based public interventions and experiments designed to spark reflection about the underlying complexities of everyday digital media usage. We explore questions such as: How can we retake control of the Big Data we produce in our everyday lives, especially now that digital platforms continually track us and create memories on our behalf?

Other work I’ve done focuses, for example, on APIs as elements of infrastructures that enable and shape the networking of urban data; rethorical analysis of young people’s experiences of their social media usage; and more artistic approaches to Artificial Intelligence in the archives of museums. In my research, so far, I have been drawing on critical infrastructure studies (from STS), new materialism, platform studies, critical code/algorithm studies and other related feminist/critical perspectives on technology.

A lot of my research projects stem from different collaborations. To mention a few: the Digital Living Research Commons at Aarhus University, which is home to diverse projects on datafication and digitalisation (where Annette Markham, my supervisor, is co-director); and the Center for Arts, Design, and Social Research, which is a global network of collaboration and experimentation in arts and research.

Now: What am I doing here? I became interested in this class because it relates directly to my research practice in critical studies of technology. That being said, it offers new perspectives to me, specially related with values-driven/community-driven design. Often I have used research and arts perspectives without necessarily thinking in design terms, so it would certainly be a useful tool. Also, I feel that, specially today, when our world becomes saturated in digital tech, we need to approach it from many different perspectives and tools. Learning how to think about technology from a social change perspective and the design elements of this is part not only of studying technology, but of thinking about how to create better technology and research for the world.

Week 3 (Issues: Disaster Relief, Sustainable Design Initiatives, Student Debt)

POST DISASTER RELIEF (how do we do it well?)

 

I’m currently taking a design studio that’s is working to propose design solutions in Puerto Rico. Our projects will propose designs for high schools, that anticipate their re-use as evacuation shelters in times of natural hazard. We’ve learned that most often, schools are utilized as evacuation shelters, especially in places where construction practices may be executed informally, or less than the established building code. This is because often times, civic buildings, and schools in particularly are the best built structures. It’s easy to understand why this is the case. So far, we’ve had several specialists come and lecture, including representatives from the World Bank, and Urban Planning, and Structures specialist here from MIT. What I’ve quickly learned is the degree to which many external forces influence the design and implementation of post disaster relief efforts, whether its evacuation, housing efforts, or resource distribution. We are currently being loaded with information, priming the studio before we travel to Puerto Rico to learn more about the current situation on the ground. In short, there is a degree of systematic complexity that is beyond the scope of the architect/designer, but that has to nevertheless be negotiated when beginning to consider how design can act as a type of “technology” to help keep things moving forward positively in a post disaster scenario.

 

CODE:

I’m starting with code because I’m less inclined to know how it can be implemented, but can imagine it can help with the logistics of the very complex problem. I can see how code can be used to address distribution efforts, as well as a means to quantify need and resource requirements to meet need in a disaster scenario. In my studio we have begun to look at GIS as a tool to better understand the dynamism of topographic territory. I consider this data to work as a type of code, in particular when you begin to address hazard preparedness through simulations of hazard scenarios.

 

NORMS/LAWS:

There are many systems in place, that are set into motion to respond to disasters. In the U.S we have FEMA, which responds to hazard scenarios, both in regards to distribution of necessary resources and aid, as well as with financial responses to contribute to rebuilding efforts. I think Puerto Rico, and the recent tragedies that have befallen the island, as well as our governments responses to this specific tragedy, clearly demonstrate a need for change. In law, and in norm. Take the Jones Act for example, “The Jones Act is a federal law that regulates maritime commerce in the United States. The Jones Act requires goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported on ships that are built, owned and operated by United States citizens or permanent residents. It is also known as The Merchant Marine Act of 1920.” In the case of Puerto Rico, this law has made the transport of necessary supplies that much harder, and this is just this first example I thought of off the top of my head.

 

MARKET:

Market forces are something I am not as well versed in. But I can see how market forces can relate to material acquisition and distribution. In cases of disaster, food, water, supplies, have to be acquired and distributed, and although I am unclear about the specifics, can imagine how these forces can influence the types of good that are able to be acquired and utilized.

 

SUSTAINABLE DESIGN (we need to minimize our impact)

 

The notion of “sustainable” design is a topic that I consider to be of the moment, and wouldn’t be surprised if every architecture school in the country had at least a small portion of its curriculum dedicated to “sustainable” design. I use quotations a bit cynically because often, certain decisions are rendered as visible manifestations of green, or sustainable design, but are nothing more that eye candy. A solar panel put on the roof of a poorly designed building doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sustainable project…

 

CODE:

I think code in the case of sustainable design is very much of the same vein as the simulation algorithms/modeling I considered in the post disaster case. Simulations have often quantified potential gains in alternative energy, and allowed for the design of systems that can maximize potential gains as they relate to site, climate etc. In fact, here at MIT in my first semester, I’ve had to take course in which I’ve had to simulate how much energy a single family home can produce with ‘x’ number of solar panels.

 

NORMS:

I think norms can be particularly interesting for this topic. Especially when considering certain norms that are categorically superficial or visually accessible as a means to exude “greenness.” That’s not to say these are inherently bad, but many of the norms in place today that reward sustainable design, are founded on a checklist system that is often not the ideal.

 

 

LAWS:

I’m not an expert on laws/policy related to building specifically, but know there are efforts at government and global scales to reduce carbon emissions, the Paris agreement as an example. I do know that the built environment contributes a large part of global emissions, ball park 30 percent of global emissions from the built environment. As such I think law can play a powerful role in influencing how “sustainable” future design and construction can be.

 

MARKET:

Market forces are particular influential in the field of design and construction. You need money to build and lots of it. Sadly, the design, and time spent on a “good” design is often limited by these market forces. Project are always trying to save money. For large commercial/developer projects, design (architecture) often consists of 5% or less of total costs. Unless the architect gets a really good deal! Imagine the potential saving over the lifetime of a building (decades!) if a bit more time and money was placed into the thoughtfulness of the design to begin with.

 

 

 

STUDENT DEBT (how do we make it go away?)

 

I know very little about the ins and outs of this particular issue, but thought of it because it’s something I’ll have to deal with pretty soon. How can we address the growing student debt crisis? I honestly have no idea.

 

CODE:

I can see how code could potentially help us better understand our current situation. Maybe an algorithm or a few, could help us to understand the specifics of the crisis (apart from the rise in tuition, which is its own concern.) Maybe there is a way of quantifying the cost of changing majors several times etc.

 

NORMS:

I think one of the biggest norms may be the thought that “everyone needs to go to college” or that alternative is not as socially accepted. I can also see the push for STEM to be problematic. There may be someone who was supposed to be a great teacher, who goes through school to be an engineer or something else, perhaps for an even longer period of time.

 

LAWS:

I think affordable education will be heavily reliant on law in the future. Its perhaps unfortunate for it to become such a political issue. Private vs universal education.  Recently in Chile student protest were mobilized to make university education free. The use of student protest as a mechanism for change is much more common in Chile, than here though, maybe that is more of a norm, but it’s very tied to changes in law in most cases.

 

MARKET:

Perhaps part of the issue is that as it currently stands, educations I too strongly tied to the market. It is very much an investment for many who decide to pursue higher education, and their needs to be a degree of faith that a particular academic path, will align with the demands of the market once you reach the end and join the workforce. I’d be curious to learn more about the relationship between the market and university in country where there is free education vs the relationship here in the US.

 

 

 

Problems I am Thinking About

 

#1) Mental Health and Gen Z

Research has demonstrated that Gen Z struggles with mental health. NPR calls this the “silent epidemic” in their report. The following statistics are directly from the NPR report:

There are more than 50 million public school students in the U.S. and as many as 1 in 5 shows signs of a mental health disorder. Most of the nearly 5 million affected students — nearly 80 percent — won’t receive counseling. Or therapy. Or medication. They won’t get any treatment at all. Npr pointed out that children who struggle with mental are uniquely positioned in the public school system in such a way that will make it difficult for them to get treatment. Their teachers are overburdened and are not trained to help with mental health issues. School counselors can help, but there are not enough of them: the average counselor has about 500 students assigned to them. School nurses could help too, but they face great demands: the average number of students per nurse is 1,515 students. School psychologists can be the best people to step in. They have the specialized training — if a school is lucky enough to have one to itself. Similarly to the nurses, the average number of students per child psychologist is 1,400.

 

CODE:

Bringing technology into the picture may be difficult to justify. In fact, many have noticed that the technology may in fact be the root of Gen Z’s mental health issues. PHD Jean Twenge has researched Gen Z who were raised with smartphones and has crafted a compelling argument that their relationship to technology is the cause of Gen Z’s anxiety problems. If technology is already Gen Z’s Pharmakon, solving this issue with more tech has a bit of an irony baked into it. Studying how technologies might be negatively affecting Gen Z might be a good place to have inspiration for how Code can help.

 

LAW:

It seems like changing the policies for how schools address mental health should be the easiest site for change… however, as we know that schools are already complaining of underfunding. According to the Mackinac Center for public policy, almost 30 % of taxes already go to funding schools; they trace the issue here to being poor money management, which might suggest with more research that there is an opportunity to require certain amounts of money be spent on this issue by schools. But spending more money may still make the resources out of reach for most and also may not mean an improvement in resources… only more spending on them.

 

NORMS:
Parent interest groups and documentary filmmakers have started campaigns to help educate the public about Gen Z and mental health. A particularly successful one of these was called “angst”. The Resiliency project at Stanford also shows promise. However popular these programs are while they run, it’s not clear if they have created lasting change. It helps certainly to remove the stigma with getting help, but in the long run, do they statistically drive more people to get the quality support that they need?

 

Markets:

This is actually a really interesting area for new solutions. Right now, several apps have launched that provide on-demand therapy through the smartphone. Before chatting with a professional, a lot of them even offer to chat with an AI bot for free. I know a few social workers at Kaiser Permanente who are disappointed to be migrating to iPhone appointments because they feel less of a personal connection to their clients.  This is an interesting model to explore that may allow for greater access to therapy by lowering the price point and obstacles to “consumption” of a therapy appointment… but making this a sustainable option for all parties involved might take some thought… How might changing the model of the therapy appointment make mental health help available to more people?

 

 

#2) Rape Crisis

(trigger warning: I will talk in a straightforward manner about this issue.)

The modern rates of gender-based violence are shocking. Even more shocking is that the top three countries with the highest amounts of problems are 3) the US, 2) Sweden, and 1) South Africa. There are already high rates of this crime in all three countries… never mind that there is a huge problem with underreporting these crimes.

 

CODE:

Many have tried to find a code-based solution to this problem. For example, the brand new non-profit, better brave, was started by a friend of mine to give women resources outside of their company’s HR department to report sexual assault or discrimination. Other groups have tried to create online versions of rape crisis support. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really stop the crime from happening, but it does help by providing victims with the things they need. Companies are also starting to build in support systems for these kinds of crime into their services. Thinking of how uber has added a button to report issues like these.

 

LAW:

Obviously, a huge area for change. Title 9 was a huge step forward in fighting sexual assault on college campuses, but this was one of the first things that Trump overturned when he got into office. The amount of stigma and the intensity of what one has to go through in order to report these crimes also may be a factor that prohibits individuals from reporting.

 

MARKET:

Can we incentivize men to look out for women and be allies? What about preventing the bystander problem by somehow rewarding unsung heroes? It’s a bit of a bleak thing to propose, so I’d love to think more about how we can use this lever to create change. I am also thinking about how the reverse thing has occurred: in getting negative publicity about toxic male figures in companies during the #metoo movement, we may have seen some unconscious (or very conscious) boycotting going on. I’d like to see a study done on whether that is effective or not.

 

NORMS:

In the market one, I noted how male allies might be a solution to this issue. This seems like the most important place to create change. Of course, we should teach men not to rape. And we should also help them teach each other not to rape and not to support rape culture. This is, of course, a massive systemic cultural issue so it would also really take some thought to think about smart interventions that could be made here.

 

#3) Fashion & Pollution   

Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world… or so sustainable clothing companies say.  We intuitively know that “Fast Fashion” (the same phenomenon of “fast food” but with clothing) has become a huge industry with fast-fashion chains like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Topshop —but it is hard to get data on how environmentally unsound these services are. Not to mention that there are issues with human rights. It’s been a long open secret that the cheap clothing made by these brands are produced in factories that jeopardize workers health.

Market:

Due to market incentives and the very understandably ‘human’ desire to be trendy and ‘cool,’ the fashions keep changing, meaning more and more production of low quality, high waste clothing that is bought, worn a few times, then thrown away. H&M have tried to initiate better ways to recycle their clothing and donate it, but this works with less than .1% of the clothing sold at these stories. The inexpensive clothing is poor quality, with low resale value, and there’s just too much of it.

This is a very interesting site because it’s actually hard to separate out earnest attempts to be ecofriendly from the ploys that prey on consumer guilt for an excuse to jack up clothing prices. For example, on many sustainable clothing sites you’ll see the claim that fashion is the #2 most polluting industry in the world… but no one seems to be able to back up that claim. How might we actually get tastemakers to shift to more sustainable business practices? And what about the huge overhead costs of investing in ecofriendly production methods that mire companies in their ways?

Law:

There’s already a lot of laws in place around pollution due to fashion and human rights… but they don’t seem to be effective. What about if we taxed trash fashion? Who would that hurt? Who would that help?

Code:

Online stores are finding eco-friendly ways to produce, distribute, market and resell their clothing. For example, Reformation, an eco-friendly brand, allows customers to resell clothes they don’t like through their platform to other customers.

Norms:
the norms right now are often just marketing ploys that harness insecurity and the human desire to belong in order to drive consumption. I think of Gwenyth Paltrow’s site, Goop, which has demonstrated that beautiful, highly adored people can sell anything they want to people provided that they market it as the ‘secret to their beauty’. For example, A 55-year-old woman in Spain died after receiving bee sting therapy; a service which was promoted heavily by goop and Gwenyth Paltrow.  What would happen if the whole industry (including tastemakers) shifted its marketing norms along side its cost-structure in order to incentivize a different kind of fashion consumption that would be based on long-term sustainable and ecofriendly use? What if consumers expected their clothes to last longer and be of higher quality so that they could actually be recycled?

 

 

 

 

 

Air-Conditioning

We hopped out of the air-conditioned Landcruiser into the naked noontime sun, the unrelenting heat hitting us hard and with a quickness. The farm was about an acre and the farmers, Yonas and Amadi, slowly led a donkey in a circular pattern on top of their harvest, which was spread out over a burlap tarp in a small clearing. The crop was teff, a tiny wheat-like grain that is the principal ingredient in injera, the spongy flatbread that accompanies almost every meal in Ethiopia. My friend Muktar translated and I learned that after of the threshing (taking the edible part off the plant) was done, Yonas and Amadi thought they would collect about three-quarters of the grain they had spent three months cultivating. I had seen and heard the same thing on eight other farms in the Ethiopian countryside.

When I stopped in the Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters in Addis Ababa a few hours later to chat about what I had seen and heard, I wasn’t surprised to learn that post-harvest loss is a major problem. By some estimates, smallholder farmers, who make up about 70% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty, can lose anywhere from 25%-30% of their harvests during threshing and another 20%-30% due to poor storage. Not only were traditional methods inefficient, they often exposed the yield to dirt, small stones, and even animal feces. I met with the British director and the technical lead who was from Ethiopia; they both validated my observations and spoke passionately about the need for a low-cost, efficient and sanitary technology that could thresh multiple types of crops (teff, rice, corn, barley, sorghum). They believed that this would not only minimize post-harvest losses but also attract the next generation of farmers to stay in agriculture, perhaps as entrepreneurial service providers instead of as the same backbreaking field laborers their ancestors had been for generations. Thinking of that brutal sun, I nodded.

“You are from MIT,” they said, “can’t you and some of your students figure out a technology? If you do,” they continued, “we have the ability to procure and then distribute tens of thousands of that kind of a machine.” Immediately, some designs came to mind based on some of the other technologies I had seen over the years. Some of those technologies were able to be affordable, locally repairable, and environmentally responsible because they were pedal-powered, so most of the ideas I had immediately invoked that type of a machine. By the time the meeting wrapped up and I had gotten back in the air-conditioned vehicle, I had 3 sketches. As we drove to the airport I thought to myself, “I wish I had more time to talk to more farmers and to show them these ideas.” I pushed the thought out of my mind—I had spoken to several farmers and the two professionals I just met, both with decades more experience than me, had also validated this direction and guaranteed a market. What could go wrong?

Looking back, I’m embarrassed to say that I did return to MIT, put the project directly into a class, and mentored a group of students over the next year before realizing through field trials that farmers didn’t want a human-powered thresher. In that hot sun, they much preferred something faster that had an engine, and they also didn’t want their own threshers because they only needed them for roughly 15 days a year. The envisioned agricultural service provider? They definitely didn’t want something pedal- or treadle-powered; they wanted something fast and much cooler. Here, my students and I learned hard lessons about the dangers of assuming that affordability is the highest priority when designing technologies for low-income markets—that somehow the values of performance, durability and human aspiration don’t apply like they do in every other market. Did we fully understand the scope of the problem and who would be affected by a “solution.” Not in the least. Were we—in our air-conditioned vehicles and classrooms—the best positioned to address this problem? Not in the uninformed and self-assured way we were working. Did we predict that 5 years later the human-powered multi-crop thresher project would evolve into a company that uses a motorcycle to carry a diesel-powered machine into fields across Tanzania? Not at all.

 

Participation by Design

In my previous life I was a policy researcher, working with communities to measure the impact of federal and local policy in their neighborhoods. An essential part of that work was community surveys, something that often our partner organizations would see as important but laborious and expensive tasks. On one particular project, we decided to invest in tablet computers to complete our community surveys, making a previously arduous job a more streamlined endeavor that could better incorporate community members in the process of data collection.

In theory, survey administrators would go door-to-door throughout the neighborhood in pairs with a community member, tablet in hand. After gaining entrance to someone’s home with help of the community member, they would read the survey aloud as prompted by the tablet, which was dynamically programmed to respond to a person’s survey answers. As a result, the survey could be anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the type of survey respondent. Instead of carrying around pads of paper, leaving sensitive information more vulnerable to loss, the data was uploaded to a remote server which was now password protected. This level of protection allowed us to get much deeper than we would otherwise, asking folks to disclose their feelings of safety, detailed information about their children, and the private details of their life in the neighborhood.

In practice, it did just that. It was extremely successful in that got the organization the information they needed, and community members were able to take part in the larger survey effort, which took about six weeks to complete. However, with some distance I feel discomfort in the work we did for a few reasons, only a few of them having to do with the technology.

As a researcher, our interactions with the community were primarily extractive exercises. Though we were intending to cultivate community in our survey effort, showing that this was a way for everyone to have a hand in the reimagination of this neighborhood, what instead we did was pass this detailed information on to higher powers, who then made decisions without continued input. Having completed a few of those surveys myself, many of these interactions were bolstered by trust that giving up this information would be for a greater, distant good. As a result, folks would discuss this sensitive, personal information, receive $50 in return, yet in some cases, were never heard from again. We listened to stories of disenfranchisement, heard tales of repeated efforts for neighborhood revitalization, all of which were hard to capture in the survey we provided, and harder still to continually act upon as the project went on.

Recently the project itself was sunsetted due to limited grant funding, leaving all of that detailed survey information locked on a server in my old office, where no one in the community has access to it despite all of that effort. It’s since left me thinking a lot about the use of technology for social change as one discrete moment in the timeline of a project. As a one-off community exercise, our survey was very successful. For those six weeks, folks felt as though they were really contributing to something and were generally thrilled to be a part of it. We got the change we hoped to see, but only for that particular moment.

In retrospect, I regret that there were not more pathways for this to be more democratic, more participatory the entire way through. Nobody in the community has access to this treasure trove that we made together, and that stops all future use of this resource by anyone else who wants to take it up and enact change with it themselves.

As I know now, the nature of research creates power dynamics that are hard to overcome by the sheer will to be better. With some distance, maybe there is a place for this kind of research in an ecosystem of discussions about social change. However, they are distinct from efforts to truly push social change—for those we all need to make better efforts to embed that by design.

The Business of Measuring Non-Profit Impact

Prior to coming to MIT, I used to work with non-profits in the greater Washington, DC area to measure their outcomes and evaluate their impact. I was doing this as a research associate at a research organization, a non-profit itself. Entering into the project, I had no idea of the concepts of logic modeling, performance measurement, and theories of change. But I was in for a steep learning curve.

The project was funded by a large development organization that primarily worked internationally. However, in this case, the funder was interested in building the capacity of local non-profits to connect their efforts to data-driven outcomes, set up integrated data systems, and analyze and communicate their outcomes. Rather than flying in the dark, we were helping these non-profits better see their efforts and improve the work they did to serve their target populations. We were responsible for setting up a community of practice for data practitioners at non-profits in the region, as well as for providing one-on-one technical assistance to a few of them.

In my first few meetings advising non-profits on how to better understand their outcomes, I felt in over my head. I had read a few papers on the value of measurement and evaluation and had a beginner’s understanding of the general topics, but felt totally unready to give advice. I did my best to listen to the issues that the data staff at the non-profits we were assisting were running into. At first, I felt content being their therapist- helping them manage power dynamics and work through office conflicts. But quickly, I was asked to help them with issues like building integrated data systems, vetting survey procedures, and managing organizational culture change.

In my work I realized two things- we were far enough removed that I couldn’t feel our impact on the city residents who were being served by these non-profits, and that a lot of the workshops and advising sessions I was conducting leaned towards one-size-fits-all approaches. This was especially try at the community of practice sessions, where we would encourage data practitioners to share their successes at work with one another, despite the fact that we were pulling together people who worked in sectors as broad as health care, homeless and housing services, education and job training, and legal services. This meant that they were measuring different populations with different cultures and vulnerabilities, across different dimensions, using different tools and under different reporting requirements. Due to the small staff sizes for most of the data departments, these constraints meant that most practitioners were battling uphill just to meet compliance goals. Our suggestions and trainings geared towards greater long-run capacity were out-of-reach to a number of the members of our community.

Ultimately, though, I found one solution that I was very well-positioned to handle: connecting practitioners to each other to collaborate on shared challenges and aspirations. I was responsible for intake before any organization was allowed to join our community of practice (to ensure they were far enough along in their thinking and institutional commitment to data collection to benefit from such a peer group), and I knew the struggles and some successes that they each had. I was tasked with regularly communicating with the community of practice, and I became familiar and trusted by most of the members. During the meetings, I would often get updates from them on their work, and would be able to suggest a group (within their sphere or outside of it) who would be better suited to talk through their problem than I was. In focusing on building this community of socially-minded data nerds, I hope that we were able to help them help each other.

Universal Language

Nowadays, English has become a universal language. It goes over borderlines between countries. We, Japanese are studying English to catch up with this trend with knowing that we are behind other countries. On the other hand, not much attention is paid to the fact that we are leaving behind deaf people, one of them is my father.

My father Takashi was a reticent engineer. He was diligent and devoted to his work. At the age of 55, he broke down with exhaustion and was hospitalized. He was diagnosed as sudden hearing loss with stress, and has lost a sound for good. A while after he left the hospital, he tried to learn sigh language. Soon, however, he gave up because he is not only old but also lack of tool to learn sign language.

We have Japanese-English dictionary and English-Japanese dictionary. We also have Japanese to Japanese sign language dictionary but not Japanese sign language to Japanese dictionary. Neither does American sign language to English, even though sign language is the fourth largest language in the U.S. For instance, when we need to find a sign for the word “dog”, we can do a search with keywords like “sign language, dog,” which will give pictures or video clips providing the sign for the word. On the other hand, if we would like to know the meaning from a sign, there’s no easy way to look it up. We have to ask a sign language speaker with describing the sign; “the sign where you hold your right thumb up and touch the left ring finger…”. This kind of process gives a lot of workload to deaf people, especially my father as he is unsociable.

Meanwhile, I found a startup addressing some communication problems among deaf people and produce a TV program featuring the entrepreneur. His main business is a remote call center which translates deaf people’s sign language to spoken language and vice versa, so that they can communicate with shop staffs, city hole officials and so on. Now, it is developing a new service named SLinto, which is the world’s first crowd-sourced online dictionary for sign language. It has “sign language keyboard”, which consists of four main components for a sign; location, handshape, orientation, and movement. Marking each component results in narrowing down a few videos which can correspond, and user can find the exact one. This system helps deaf people to find a meaning from a word.

SLinto may play another big role to help deaf people communicate with others from different countries with producing one universal sign language. In general, each country has their own sign languages stemming from cultural background, with ending up with more than 100 sign languages in the world. In the U.S., the sign for cheating comes from “spy” describing a person hiding behind a wall. On the other hand, Japanese sign language uses “fox” as it is a typical animal which cheats people in Japanese old stories. Technically, anyone can create their own signs, and a sign more people use become a standard sign. Thus, crowd-sourced online dictionary scheme works to produce one universal sign language. Anyone can upload sign language video to SLinto, and users all over the world can rate the signs so that useful expressions will be listed higher in the search result converging into one universal sign language.

This crowd-sourced online dictionary contributes to inclusive society with facilitating communication between deaf people and the others including people living in different countries.

 

 

Mapping Airbnbs

New Orleans is a tourist town, and for decades hotels and bed-and-breakfasts have been conscious of potential competition from residents. So for decades it was illegal to rent a home in the city for less than a 30-day stretch, and 60 days in the French Quarter.

But it wasn’t hard to get around the law (using Craigslist, among other tools) and the city rarely, if ever, enforced the law. Until Airbnb came along. City leaders heard complaints that the city was becoming overrun with Airbnbs.

The problem was no one knew how many there were, or where they were. Everything was anecdotal. This was important both for policymakers, who had to figure out whether they would try to limit the number of Airbnbs, and if so, by what measurement, as well as neighbors, renters, investors, long-term landlords, and tourists. The city did a study to estimate the number, and an Airbnb watchdog scraped the company’s listings to estimate how many there were. Both were limited.

That changed after the city decided to legalize and regulate Airbnbs. Those licenses, and the applications to get them, were public records, like a business license or a parade permit. And they were available on the city’s website, which was a measure of openness. The city would seem to be best positioned to tell people how many Airbnbs there were and where, because it had all the information.

But bureaucrats aren’t journalists. Their system easily allowed searching for permits by address, which is typically what code enforcement employees needed to see if, for instance, you had permission to renovate your home. It didn’t make it easy to search for all types of a certain type of license, and to get a sense of where they all were.

So one of the reporters for my news organization figured out how to use the city’s online search to show all short-term rental applications. He cleaned the data to remove stuff like applications that had been started but not submitted. Then he mapped them and matched them to photos of the properties that he obtained through another agency. (Unfortunately errors and inconsistencies in the records didn’t allow this to be completely automated.)

It immediately became one of our most popular features, as people checked to see if the places in the neighborhood they suspected were Airbnbs actually were. That’s pretty much what we expected them to do. We also expected people to use the map to gauge where Airbnbs were most concentrated. That happened too. This data guided our reporting as we knew what neighborhoods to focus on. We wanted this debate to be informed by facts rather than anecdotes, and I believe we accomplished that.

But we knew that opening up this data would be somewhat controversial. These are legally public records, so applicants had no reasonable expectation of privacy. But there’s a difference between allowing people to search a government database and putting it all on an easy-to-use map.

So before we published our map, we thought about what to include. The data was based on what applicants or city employees had entered. Government forms aren’t always easy to understand and clerks make mistakes. If you hadn’t looked closely at the data, you would’ve wondered why there were so many Airbnbs downtown. Turns out they were all at City Hall, and they were registered to Mickey Mouse – test data, presumably. Our reporter also noticed inconsistencies in who was named as the applicant. Because of that, and because the name of the applicant isn’t as important to the public policy question as the location of the Airbnb, we decided not to include that information.

That decision turned out to be the right one. At some point, we got a call from a woman who was angry that we had published her name as being the operator of a bunch of Airbnbs. She or her boyfriend had apparently been confronted in a bar about it. That woman actually was just the person who cleaned the Airbnbs, and her name had been entered as a contact person on the applications. We had not published her name, but another news outlet that did its own map had.