Four MIT graduate students and an alumnus are among 30 new recipients nationwide of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.

The four current or incoming MIT graduate students who have won Soros Fellowships are Stephanie Speirs, whose mother emigrated from Korea, and who will pursue an MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management; Yakir Reshef, from Israel, and Andre Shomorony, from Brazil, both of whom are currently enrolled in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program; and Krzysztof Franaszek, from Poland, who will enroll in HST this spring.

In addition, alumnus Allen Lin ’11, MEng ’11, whose parents are Taiwanese immigrants, will use his Soros Fellowship to pursue a PhD in systems biology at Harvard University.

The Soros Fellowships, established in 1997, award $90,000 for immigrants and children of immigrants to complete graduate studies in the United States. Applicants may propose graduate work in any discipline, and are selected for their potential to make significant contributions to American society, culture, or their academic field.

This year’s 30 winners were selected from a pool of 1,200 applicants. Including this year’s winners, 18 MIT students and alumni have won Soros Fellowships since 2010.

Krzysztof Franaszek

Photo: Christopher Smith

Krzysztof Franaszek emigrated from Poland with his parents; his father, a theoretical physicist, and his mother, a neuropharmacologist, both now work at federal research institutions in Maryland. With an interest in biological science and technology, Franaszek completed his undergraduate degree in cell biology and economics at the University of Maryland; as an undergraduate, he was named as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Research Fellow.

Franaszek, who aspires to establish a biotechnology and medical research company to develop treatments for age-dependent diseases, is pursuing training as a physician-scientist. With a Gates-Cambridge Scholarship, he is currently completing a PhD in pathology at Cambridge University, focusing on how molecular genetics techniques can combat viral diseases; Franaszek’s Soros Fellowship will allow him to pursue an MD through the HST.

Allen Lin

Photo: Christopher Smith

Alumnus Allen Lin, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, grew up in New Jersey. He came to MIT with an interest in complex systems; as an undergraduate, he immersed himself in the study of synthetic biology, computer science, technology policy, and public health.

In 2011, Lin was named a Marshall Scholar; as an MIT undergraduate, he also received a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and a Department of Homeland Security Scholarship for his research.

Lin holds three degrees from MIT, all awarded in 2011: a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), and in biological-chemical engineering, and a master’s in EECS. Following his graduation, Lin’s Marshall Scholarship allowed him to complete an MPhil in technology policy at Cambridge University, followed by an MS in public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The Soros Fellowship will support Lin’s PhD studies in systems biology at Harvard. His research focuses on developing cost-effective vaccines and treatments for infections, particularly HIV, that disproportionally affect marginalized populations. 

Yakir Reshef

Photo: Christopher Smith

HST graduate student Yakir Reshef, whose father is Romanian and mother is Iraqi, was born in Israel and spent his early childhood in a suburb of Jerusalem. He then moved to Kenya with his parents, who work in the medical and public health fields, before the family settled in Maryland.

Passionate about math and computer science, Reshef majored in mathematics as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he developed a method to detect associations between pairs of variables in large data sets. This research resulted in a publication in the journal Science. After completing his undergraduate work, Reshef returned to Israel as a Fulbright Scholar, conducting research in mathematics and computer science at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Reshef, who aims to use his computational knowledge to analyze medical data and improve outcomes for patients, is now training as a physician-scientist. The Soros Fellowship will support his studies in HST, through which he plans to obtain an MD and a PhD in computer science.

Andre Shomorony

Photo: Christopher Smith

Andre Shomorony grew up in Rio de Janeiro, in a family with Jewish and European roots. When Shomorony was 15, his parents, who were engineers in Brazil, decided to move with their three sons to Florida. The transition was difficult: Shomorony had to learn English, and adapt to a new culture, while his parents struggled to find stable employment.

Despite these difficulties, Shomorony won a full scholarship to Yale University through QuestBridge, an organization that supports low-income, high-achieving students. When his father developed pancreatic cancer, Shomorony turned his interests toward biomedical research. At Yale, he studied the development of techniques to generate tissues for use in transplantation, stem-cell therapy, and reconstructive surgery — work that resulted in a paper in the journal Chemistry Letters on which he was first author. He has since worked at Boston Children’s Hospital, developing a technique for noninvasive, extracorporeal blood filtration to treat sepsis.

Driven by his interests in research, clinical work, and serving underrepresented patient populations, Shomorony enrolled in HST, pursuing an MD while conducting biomedical engineering research. Ultimately, he wants to use his background in biomedical engineering to improve surgical procedures. As an aspiring physician, he intends to work at the intersection of reconstructive plastic surgery, otolaryngology, and surgical oncology.

Stephanie Speirs

Photo: Christopher Smith

Born in Hawaii, Stephanie Speirs was raised by a single mother who emigrated from Korea. Growing up with two siblings, Speirs gained an appreciation for hard work at an early age, earning money to help her mother with expenses. Through these early experiences, she became committed to domestic and international social change.

Speirs received her bachelor’s degree from Yale, and then earned a master’s degree from Princeton University in public affairs and international development. Her interest in government led Speirs to work as a field organizer for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign; she then went on to work at the National Security Council (NSC), developing policy for the Middle East. In her work at the NSC, Speirs traveled to Yemen and Pakistan, where she focused on economic development.

Speirs’ passion for international development led her to become a fellow at Acumen, a nonprofit venture capital fund that works to reduce poverty in the developing world. In addition, Speirs co-founded Solstice Initiative, a nonprofit whose mission is to give low-income households access to solar energy.

The Soros Fellowship will allow Speirs to complete her MBA at MIT Sloan, giving her the business knowledge to continue developing Solstice Initiative, and furthering her work as an agent of social change.

By Nora Delaney | GECD: Global Education

How fast is online learning evolving? Are wind turbines a promising investment? And how long before a cheap hoverboard makes it to market?

Attempting to answer such questions requires knowing something about the rate at which a technology is improving. Now engineers at MIT have devised a formula for estimating how fast a technology is advancing, based on information gleaned from relevant patents.

The researchers determined the improvement rates of 28 different technologies, including solar photovoltaics, 3-D printing, fuel-cell technology, and genome sequencing. They searched through the U.S. Patent Office database for patents associated with each domain — more than 500,000 total — by developing a novel method to quickly and accurately select the patents that best represent each technology.

Once these were identified, the researchers analyzed certain metrics across patents in each domain, and found that some were more likely to predict a technology’s improvement rate than others. In particular, forward citations — the number of times a patent is cited by subsequent patents — is a good predictor, as is the date of a patent’s publication: Technologies with more recent patents are likely innovating at a faster rate than those with older patents.

The team devised an equation incorporating a patent set’s average forward citation and average publication date, and calculated the rate of improvement for each technology domain. Their results matched closely with the rates determined through the more labor-intensive approach of finding numerous historical performance data points for each technology.

Among the 28 domains analyzed, the researchers found the fastest-developing technologies include optical and wireless communications, 3-D printing, and MRI technology, while domains such as batteries, wind turbines, and combustion engines appear to be improving at slower rates.

Chris Benson, a former graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the new prediction tool may be of interest to venture capitalists, startups, and government and industry labs looking to explore new technology.

“There’s a lot of nuance to our method, and I don’t see it as something to hand out to the masses to play with,” says Benson, who helped developed the prediction tool. “I see it more as something where we work with somebody to help them understand what the future technological capabilities that they’re interested in are. We’re probably more like a real estate agent, and less like Zillow.”

Benson and Chris Magee, a professor of the practice of engineering systems at MIT, have published their results this week in the journal PLoS ONE. The paper contains the fundamental findings and equations relating technological improvement to a variety of patent characteristics.

Technological dynamism

In 2003, Magee began determining the improvement rates of various technologies. At the time, he was curious how technologies were developing relative to Moore’s Law — an observation pertaining originally to computers, in which transistors on a computer chip double every two years.

“There were a lot of things that weren’t going as fast as Moore’s Law, and I started trying to get measures of them,” Magee recalls.

Magee initially approached the problem on a case-by-case basis, determining which metrics best represent productivity for a given domain. He then compiled data for each metric, such as the price and speed of manufacturing a product, and used the data to calculate the overall rate of improvement. In 2010, he realized that one of the most comprehensive resources on technology lay in the U.S. patent record.

“We thought, ‘Maybe there’s enough information there that we can do something about linking it to the dynamism of technical change,’” Magee says.

For several years, he and his group identified the most relevant patents in a technological domain, by literally reading through thousands of patents — an incredibly time-intensive process. The approach was not very reliable, as two people may choose entirely different sets of patents to represent the same technology.

A “Standard & Poor’s” for technology

In 2012, Magee and Benson came up with a more efficient, repeatable method for identifying relevant patent sets, by looking at the overlap between the U.S. and international patent-classification systems.

For each patent accepted by the U.S. Patent Office, a patent reviewer will file the patent under several classes within both classification systems. For instance, a solar photovoltaics patent may be entered under the U.S. classes “batteries” and “active solid-state devices” and within the international system as “semiconductor devices.”

The team found that by looking for patent overlap between both classification systems, they could repeatedly identify the same set of patents that best represent a technology, within a matter of hours, rather than months.

Once they identified a relevant set of patents, the researchers looked for metrics within patents that they could use to calculate a technology’s rate of improvement. They found that a patent set’s average forward citations within the first three years after publication, and the average date of publication, were the best predictors of technological improvement. Benson says they were also able to weed out less-helpful patent information.

“If a technology has more patents in general, it should be moving faster, but that turns out not to be the case,” Benson says. “3-D printing only has 300 to 500 patents, and that’s improving at the same rate as semiconductors, which have about 150,000 patents. So there’s almost zero correlation.”

The team devised a simple equation incorporating forward citation and publication date, and used the method to predict improvement rates for 28 technologies. The researchers then compared the rates with those they previously obtained using their more time-intensive, historical data-based approach, and found the results from both methods matched closely.

They then used their more efficient approach to predict the improvement rates of 11 emerging technologies in the next 10 years. Among these, the fastest-growing domains appear to be online learning and digital representation, while slower technologies include food engineering and nuclear fusion.

Doyne Farmer, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, says that the notion that technological progress is predictable “is both intellectually fascinating and quite powerful in its practical implications.”

“[The group’s] methods should be useful to any organization that is considering investments in technology, in particular government funding agencies such as the [U.S. Department of Energy] that fund engineering applications; venture-capital firms; or firms that are actually in the technology business,” says Farmer, who was not involved in the research. “Making the right bets on technological progress is essential for solving problems such as climate change. Thus, we should all benefit from this work.”

Magee hopes the method may be used much like a rating system, similar to Standard & Poor’s and other stock-market indices. Such ratings could be useful for investors looking for the next big breakthrough, as well as scientific labs that are contemplating new research directions. Magee says knowing how various technologies may improve in the next decade could give innovators an idea of when “feeder technologies” may mature, and enable more pie-in-the-sky ideas, like mass-produced hoverboards and flying cars.

“We can help reduce the uncertainty of the capabilities of a technology in the future, not to zero, but to a more manageable number,” Benson says. “I believe that’s valuable in a lot of different ways.”

This research was funded in part by the SUTD/MIT International Design Center in Singapore.

By MIT News Office

How can sustainable consumption in U.S. cities be fostered? Can the ocean floor be mined in an ecologically benign way? What are the health risks associated with the mining of rare metals used in energy-efficient products like photovoltaic devices? And how can truly promising environmental solutions have a better chance of becoming real economic policies?

These are some of the complex questions that researchers at MIT will now be able to tackle, with support from the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). The initiative was established last May to inspire solutions to major environmental problems through collaborative partnership.

In response to a call for research proposals, the ESI received 59 submissions. In March, the initiative awarded seed grants of up to $200,000 to nine research groups over the next two years.

ESI director Susan Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says the seed grants have jumpstarted new collaborations among a variety of disciplines across campus.

“I was really pleased that so many people reached out to colleagues and looked at new collaborations, which was exactly what we were hoping would occur as a result of this process,” Solomon says. “There’s a lot of new thinking here. … I’m really pleased that people began those conversations. I think they’re just going to continue to grow and blossom as this initiative moves forward.”

The nine winning proposals fell into four main themes: sustainability; metals and mining; healthy cities; and climate/risk/mitigation.


According to the Environmental Protection Agency, humans have consumed more material and natural resources in the past 50 years than in the entire previous history of human existence. To curb consumption, the environmental community has encouraged the practice of sustainable consumption, using the mantra: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

But how are U.S. cities — hubs of materialism and consumption — actually practicing sustainable consumption? A group of urban planners, architects, and historians led by Judith Layzer, a professor of environmental policy in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, will carry out a survey of 285 municipalities to explore the degree to which sustainable consumption goals have been adopted by local governments. The group wrote in its proposal that it hopes the survey will serve as a “valuable resource for cities that aspire to move toward sustainable consumption.”

Finding solutions to major environmental problems often involves input from both technology and policy experts — but it can be frustrating for both parties when they find that reasonable solutions can be difficult to put into practice. A classic example is the shared resource, such as a groundwater aquifer, that is overused to the point where it fails to benefit all parties. A group of engineers and economists, led by Dennis McLaughlin, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Parag Pathak, an associate professor of economics, will examine the behaviors that drive competition for natural resources using game theory, a framework that has been used to analyze cooperative behavior in economics.

“There is a gap between the promise of game theory and the continuing difficulty of designing workable policy solutions to environmental issues,” the team wrote in its grant proposal. “The ESI seed grant program gives us a chance to narrow these gaps, so that the environmental solutions we propose as a community have a better chance of being implemented as real policies.”

Metals and mining

Metals and mining products are increasingly used to support development. For example, they are essential to building wind turbines, solar panels, photovoltaic devices, and lithium-ion batteries.

But as societies depend more on rare metals for products, what impact will rising demand have on the environment? A group of engineers, led by Antoine Allanore, the Thomas B. King Assistant Professor in Metallurgy, and Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering Practice, plans to launch a metals and mining initiative at MIT. As part of the project, the team will organize several symposia on campus that will connect industry stakeholders with MIT researchers to explore issues of sustainable mining.

Rare metals like indium and lanthanide are increasingly mined for use in high-efficiency photovoltaic devices, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and batteries for hybrid cars. The effects of these metals on the environment and human health are unknown. A team of engineers led by John Essigmann, the William R. and Betsy P. Leitch Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering; Bevin Engelward, a professor of biological engineering; and Harold Hemond, the William E. Leonhard Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will combine techniques in geochemistry and cell and molecular toxicology to assess the adverse effects of rare metals in the environment, and their potential impact on human health. Such an assessment, the team wrote in its proposal, should occur before new substances are introduced widely in the environment: “History provides numerous cautionary examples of the great economic and societal costs incurred when knowledge lags behind the deployment of new products.”

Deep below the ocean floor, there exist vast resources of gold, copper, platinum, and other rare metals — resources that are increasingly in demand for use in electronics and energy-efficient products. The world’s first deep-sea mining operation, scheduled to commence in 2017, will dig beneath the Bismarck Sea, off Papua New Guinea, for minerals. But scientists are concerned that mining operations may create currents that carry pollutants up from the deep sea, potentially poisoning marine species and the humans that consume them.

A team led by Thomas Peacock and Pierre Lermusiaux, both associate professors of mechanical engineering, and Glenn Flierl, a professor of oceanography, will develop a detailed ocean model to identify key circulation patterns in the region and determine the biological impacts of the mining operations. The team says the modeling tools developed through this effort “can be applied to any proposed location for the growing field of deep-sea mining.”

Healthy cities

China has some of the world’s worst air pollution, as well as half its mercury emissions, due to its rising use of coal. In the last few years, the country has adopted policies to curb coal use and reduce air pollution. It is unclear, however, whether these measures will be consistent with the air-quality improvements set by newer policies.

A team of economists, engineers, and atmospheric chemists led by Valerie Karplus, an assistant professor of global economics and management, and Noelle Selin, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor in the Engineering Systems Division and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, will examine how current efforts to reduce coal use in China affect toxic air pollution across Asia. The team will also estimate changes in coal demand throughout Asia, as China’s own demand for coal falls. The team’s proposal states: “Our systems approach enables us to fully evaluate and identify effective efforts to address regional air quality, taking into account both the complexity of economic interactions and atmospheric chemical behavior.”

Detailed measurements of air quality, particularly in urban environments, will ultimately help to reduce populations’ exposure to air pollutants. In recent years, advances in sensor technology have offered the promise of sensitive, distributed, urban air-quality networks, although few actually exist. A group of urban planners, atmospheric chemists, and civil engineers plans to address the need for air-quality networks, using “big data.” The team plans to examine air-quality measurements around the MIT campus and in Beijing, and apply advanced data-analysis techniques to gain “quantitative insight” into pollution sources.

This project, the team says, “would represent the first application of machine-learning tools to environmental sensors.” The work will be led by Marta Gonzalez, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Colette Heald, the Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor in Contemporary Technology; Jesse Kroll, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Jinhua Zhao, the Edward H. and Joyce Linde Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.


Tropical peatlands, swamp forests found mostly in Southeast Asia, are thought to be vast carbon sinks, containing up to 70 billion tons of carbon — about 3 percent of the world’s soil carbon. Over the last 25 years, peatland forests have been cut and drained so that the underlying peat acts not as a sink, but a source, emitting enormous stores of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

Policymakers and researchers suggest that controlling these emissions would be a cost-effective way to reduce the world’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. But there’s little knowledge about the physical and biological processes within peatlands that control carbon and methane fluxes. A group of engineers and atmospheric scientists will study soil processes in Brunei, on the island of Borneo, to characterize the flow of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere. The researchers ultimately hope to apply their results to strategies for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. The group includes Charles Harvey, Benjamin Kocar, and Martin Polz of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Shuhei Ono and Roger Summons of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

While two-thirds of greenhouse-gas-induced warming is due to carbon dioxide, other gases, such as methane and halogen-containing gases, contribute significantly to climate change. In the near future, these emissions may increase as a fraction of total greenhouse-gas emissions, as policies to reduce carbon dioxide bear results. As countries transition from coal to natural gas for electricity, more methane may escape into the atmosphere through leaks in natural-gas pipelines.

A team led by Jessika Trancik, the Atlantic Richfield Career Development Assistant Professor in Energy Studies, and Francis O’Sullivan, director of research and analytics at the MIT Energy Initiative, will develop metrics to compare climate impacts of non-carbon dioxide emissions, such as methane. The researchers will use the metrics to identify ways to reduce these emissions, particularly those of methane through the natural-gas supply chain. The team will use these results to inform current U.S. policy, including a new federal initiative to reduce methane. “Climate change mitigation is a multi-gas problem,” the researchers wrote in their grant proposal. “This work will inform important policy decisions that are slated to be made in the next few years.”

By Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office

What do data scientists and social scientists have in common? Not nearly enough — yet. But now, MIT is creating a new institute that will bring together researchers working in the mathematical, behavioral, and empirical sciences to capitalize on their shared interest in tackling complex societal problems.

As announced today by the deans of all five of the Institute’s schools, MIT will officially launch the new Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) on July 1. Offering a range of cross-disciplinary academic programs, including a new undergraduate minor in statistics, IDSS will be directed by Munther Dahleh, the William A. Coolidge Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

While providing a structure and incentives for new alliances among researchers from across MIT, IDSS will become a central “home” for faculty from the Engineering Systems Division and a number of existing units, including the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center. IDSS will also launch a new MIT center on statistics.

“The Institute for Data, Systems, and Society will be a platform for some of the most exciting research and educational activity in complex systems at MIT,” Provost Martin Schmidt says. “Its formation is the result of intensive consultations among more than three dozen faculty members over many months. Those consultations have helped define many of the challenges that need to be addressed. I am deeply grateful to Munther for his leadership throughout this process.”

“This new institute allows MIT to bring all of its strengths to bear in exciting new directions,” says Ian A. Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering. “The modern proliferation of data and networks means that every problem, solution, or idea can be modeled, tested, and analyzed in ways and on scales that were unheard of 20, or even 10, years ago. This is leading to unprecedented challenges in areas like cybersecurity, and to spectacular opportunities for innovation, as in global online learning.”

“Engineering and science are always embedded in social realities, from deeply felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions,” says Deborah Fitzgerald, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “IDSS will allow the deep, original thinking about the physical universe that is done by our scientists and engineers to come together with the rigorous work of MIT’s great social scientists and economists.”

Students and researchers working with IDSS have a “nearly infinite pool of societal challenges they can begin to address together,” Dahleh says. In fields such as energy, transportation, social networks, health care, and financial systems, the explosion of data sources and networks is redefining not only social systems and infrastructure, but many of the disciplines that investigate them.

“In order to understand things like power outages and bank failures, you still need electrical engineers and economists — but today you also need anthropologists and data scientists, too,” Dahleh says. “Our ability to collect and aggregate data is already well beyond our ability to understand what it could tell us — and no single discipline, on its own, holds the keys to solving this problem.”

New demand, new program

Dahleh is building out the IDSS leadership team, which already begun to lay the foundations of its academic and research activities. One committee created has already completed the design of an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in statistics.

A new PhD program anchored in both analytical tools and social sciences is also in the planning stages. The PhD will be problem-driven, requiring every student to gain in-depth expertise in a wide range of analytical tools; deep understanding of a coherent program in social science; and substantial knowledge in one application domain area.

“Bringing social-science dimensions to our strengths in science and engineering will have an enormous impact,” says Michael Sipser, dean of the School of Science. “Statistics has become the fastest growing college major in the country, and the IDSS will give us an opportunity to meet this demand in a distinctively MIT way.”

Also charged with hiring new faculty, the IDSS leadership has successfully recruited a top theoretical statistician to join MIT; they will continue to identify candidates in networked systems and connection science who have broad interests in engineering, economics, and social networks. They have also organized a statistics workshop, to be held May 14 and 15, to bring together thought leaders in statistics around exciting challenges created by the new era of data-rich applications. The speakers will offer technical presentations in mathematical statistics, machine learning, econometrics, and biostatistics.

By News Office

Celebrating Einstein

April 21, 2015

Wherever you may be on the space-time continuum, it’s time to celebrate!

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and to honor the occasion, MIT faculty have organized Celebrating Einstein, a series of panel discussions, performances, and other events that will take place this month as a special feature of the 2015 Cambridge Science Festival.

An extension of ongoing programs in the history of science and public engagement with science and technology led by MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), the Celebrating Einstein series is designed to demystify the man who has become an international icon of genius.

“Einstein did a kind of science that very few people understand. He’s the public symbol of the incomprehensibility of science for most ordinary folks,” says MIT Museum Director John Durant, a SHASS faculty member, executive director of the Cambridge Science Festival, and one of three principal organizers of the series. “If you want to say science can be something for you, too — there’s no better place to start than with Einstein.”

Einstein in your pocket

In fact, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the importance of Einstein’s theory — even if his earth-shaking physics formula, Rµv–½gµvR=(8πG/c4) Tµv, is daunting to many of us. Every day, Einstein’s work is employed by a huge percentage of the human population — including everyone who uses a global positioning system (GPS).

“It’s Einstein in your pocket,” says Scott Hughes, MIT physics professor and a co-organizer of Celebrating Einstein. “If the principles due to Einstein’s theory of relativity were not built into GPS, it would be useless.”

Einstein’s theory revealed that time runs more slowly near a strong source of gravity — an idea that revolutionized physics when first presented to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in November 1915, but would have no practical applications for decades, because the technologies that could make use of the theory did not yet exist. “There’s this mythology around Einstein now,” Hughes observes, “but for the first 50 years, the implications of his general relativity theory were diddly-squat.”

Today, Einstein’s discovery makes it possible to ensure GPS devices sync up properly with satellites far from the Earth’s center of gravity. “This is the benefit of fundamental research,” notes Durant, who teaches in the SHASS Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). “In the course of doing it, out come all sorts of implications that will have applications.”

Einstein on stage

Einstein’s thinking was profound and revolutionary, but the principles he laid out are actually quite accessible, according to the event organizers. “The principles are not that hard to understand,” Hughes says, encouragingly.

To underscore that point, Celebrating Einstein will bring more than 50 students from MIT and other area universities into about 30 classrooms this spring to teach elements of Einstein’s theory to 8th and 9th graders in Boston and Cambridge. The students will explain the curvature of space-time and conduct hands-on activities, giving the middle-schoolers the chance, for example, to measure the speed of light.

Officially, Celebrating Einstein kicks off on April 17, and will launch the Cambridge Science Festival with “Speaking of Einstein,” a panel discussion on how Einstein shaped our world, and where his influence will continue to push the frontiers of science. Featuring three noted physicists and a historian of science, the panel will be moderated by MIT’s David Kaiser, historian of science, physicist, and head of STS. “Our four guests span the cutting-edge of research going on today in relativity,” says Kaiser.

Celebrating Einstein will also feature eight other events, including “Shout Across Time,” a multimedia performance encompassing music, dance, and a film related to ideas inspired by general relativity; an interactive video-art experience, “Black (W)hole,” intended to engage visitors in the wonders of the universe; and “The Story Collider,” an evening of true, funny, and poignant personal stories about science and gravity.

“We’re living through an incredibly creative period of celebrating science. People are happy to mix going into the classroom with storytelling, dance, music,” Durant says, noting that the Einstein program will give the Cambridge Science Festival a fresh edge. “We want the festival each year to include surprises,” he says. “Celebrating Einstein is a big, special deal this year. We’ve never done anything like it before.”

Einstein in public

This year’s Einstein celebration has roots in a project developed by scientists, artists, and education specialists in Bozeman, Montana. In 2013, the Bozeman group created and premiered a series of events, under the banner “Celebrating Einstein.” Soon thereafter one of the leaders of that effort, Nicolas Yunes — former MIT postdoc, now assistant professor of physics at Montana State University — participated in an MIT workshop on science engagement. “We began our planning for the Cambridge 2015 program by saying, let’s look at what they did,” Hughes says, of the Montana team. “They get all the credit for planting the seed, growing this beautiful thing, and allowing the rest of us to take cuttings.”

Intended to draw not only MIT affiliates but the broader local population, Celebrating Einstein will take place at venues all around Cambridge — not just on campus. “The local community that MIT is a part of is extraordinarily rich, and that richness deserves to be shared as widely as possible,” Durant says.

The hope, organizers say, is that Celebrating Einstein will build on MIT’s substantial existing efforts to support public engagement with science — which range from the several MIT SHASS-based endeavors (Graduate Program in Science Writing; Program in Science, Technology and Society; and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships) to the Cambridge Science Festival itself, which was founded by MIT nine years ago and, in 2014, drew more than 55,000 attendees over its 10-day run.

“What seems so exciting to us is that Einstein’s body of work is the basis for further-flung ideas about where we came from and where we’re going,” Kaiser says. “You get to cover a lot of territory by thinking about Einstein.”

Celebrating Einstein is supported by the following MIT groups: SHASS Program in Science, Technology, and Society; Department of Physics; Office of the Dean of the School of Science; Provost’s Council for the Arts, and the Office of the Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

Story prepared by SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Senior Writer: Kathryn O’Neill

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

Computer-network security breaches are never out of the news for long, but lately, they’ve been hogging the headlines: the Sony hack, the Uber hack, and last month, the revelation that an international gang of cybercriminals had used malware to steal an estimated billion dollars from financial institutions over two years.

In this context, MIT yesterday announced plans to address the problem of cybersecurity from three angles: technology, public policy, and organizational management.

At an event at MIT’s Stata Center, the home of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), with more than 200 students, academics, and industry representatives in attendance, MIT faculty and administrators unveiled three new cybersecurity initiatives, to be housed at CSAIL and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Funded with a $15 million grant from the Hewlett Foundation, the MIT Cybersecurity Policy Initiative will pool the expertise of researchers at CSAIL, MIT Sloan, the MIT departments of political science and economics, and the Science, Technology, and Society program to better characterize the security dynamics of large networked systems, with the aim of guiding policymakers.

Cybersecurity@CSAIL will provide funding and coordination for the lab’s ongoing research into hardware- and software-based approaches to computer security, while MIT Sloan’s Interdisciplinary Consortium for Improving Critical Infrastructure in Cybersecurity, or (IC)3, will focus on the human element — how organizations can ensure that their employees or volunteers are not creating security vulnerabilities, whether intentionally or not.

The launch event was emceed by Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, and the speakers included representatives of each of the three initiatives and MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

In his opening remarks, Reif emphasized both the new initiatives’ partnerships with industry and the interdependence of their research programs. “New technologies will require new policies and incentives,” he said. “Emerging policies must adapt to future technologies. And none of that matters if they cannot make the present a safe place to do business.”

“Security by default”

Reif was followed by Daniela Rus, the Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of CSAIL. Rus began by emphasizing MIT’s long history of involvement in cybersecurity: as the home of one of the first computers to allow multiple simultaneous users, it was also the birthplace of the computer password.

But Rus also gave some sense of what the future of cybersecurity would look like. “Many of today’s cybersecurity issues stem from older, poorly designed systems that viewed security as an afterthought,” she said. “Organizations learned to ‘patch and pray,’ planning to manage attacks as they happened rather than fighting them systematically. But we can change that. Instead of looking for patches, we can move towards security by default.”

Rus then introduced Howard Shrobe, a principal research scientist at CSAIL, who will direct Cybersecurity@CSAIL. Shrobe elaborated on Rus’s historical observations, pointing out that the researchers who developed MIT’s multiuser computer, under the auspices of Project MAC, in fact wrote an operating system that had “security by default.” But the computers of the time simply weren’t powerful enough to execute its security protocols efficiently.

Today, however, “on every criterion that you can think of, machines are 50,000 times more powerful than when Project MAC started,” Shrobe said. “We can now start to use those resources to enforce security in a systematic way.”

Cybersecurity@CSAIL, Shrobe added, would focus on three themes: prevention, or designing systems that are harder to hack; resilience, or designing systems that can offer secure transactions even after they’ve been compromised; and regeneration, or designing systems that can repair themselves when breaches are detected.

The founding member companies of Cybersecurity@CSAIL are BAE Systems, BBVA, Boeing, BP and Raytheon.

Square one

Danny Weitzner, a CSAIL principal research scientist and director of the new Cybersecurity Policy Initiative, took the podium next. No one, Weitzner said — neither researchers nor policy makers — has a very good understanding of the dynamics of cybersecurity. But that doesn’t prevent policy makers from trying to control them.

“The United States government, in last year’s budget, is spending over $13 billion on cybersecurity efforts,” Weitzner said. “That’s 1 percent of discretionary spending.”

Weitzner then offered an example from his own two-year stint as the U.S. deputy chief technology officer for Internet policy. During that time, he said, the U.S. Congress was debating the Stop Online Piracy Act, which included what Weitzner called a “seemingly simple proposal to require Internet service providers to use some features of the domain name system to block access to [content pirates’] websites.”

Discussions of the proposal elicited a letter from 83 distinguished Internet engineers — including MIT’s David Clark, who was the Internet’s chief architect for most of the 1980s — who argued that tampering with the Internet’s domain name system, which translates human-readable URLs into machine-readable IP addresses, could have potentially disastrous consequences.

“Their intuition as really good Internet engineers was that it could cause some problems,” Weitzner said. “But really, there was no science presented, no formal model of the interaction between the domain name system and the rest of the Internet — certainly no understanding of how individuals would behave at large scales.” Generating that type of multidisciplinary model is one of the goals of the Cybersecurity Policy Initiative.

Human factors

S. P. Kothari, the Gordon Y. Billard Professor in Management and deputy dean at MIT Sloan, then introduced the final speaker, Stuart Madnick, the Maguire Professor of Information Technologies at MIT Sloan and a professor of engineering systems, who will lead (IC)3.

“It’s great to hear about the work being done to improve the technology by our colleagues at CSAIL and the regulatory considerations being studied by CPI,” Madnick said. “But various studies have shown that up to 80 percent of the incidents [of cybersecurity breaches] are aided or abetted by authorized users.”

“Understanding the organizational, managerial, and strategic issues about cybersecurity is of great importance to protecting our critical infrastructure,” he added, “and that is the focus of (IC)3.”

By Larry Hardesty | MIT News Office

Science journalism is the central way many of us learn how advances in science and technology are affecting and changing our lives — in everything from daily choices about food or health care, to issues that impact the planet as a whole.

But crafting great science journalism is a formidable challenge. Science journalists must be schooled deeply in complex scientific and technological practices, theories, and information. They must have superb skills in writing, video, and other media in order to convey the facts, import, and implications of new discoveries and data. They must be ace reporters, bringing critical thinking and hard questions to their investigations. They must have command of language that is both nuanced enough to communicate intricate ideas, and compelling enough to engage a broad public audience.

For the past 30 years, the Knight Science Journalism (KSJ) program at MIT, has been helping talented science journalists meet that challenge. Many fellows describe their year at MIT as one of the most productive of their lives, and as a source of eduring strength. As one of this year’s fellows commented, “The power of MIT-style, interdisciplinary teamwork — combining varied skillsets and problem-solving methods to accomplish something that none of us could have done on our own — is a lesson I will take back with me to my newsroom.”

A world leader

The MIT KSJ fellowship, the leading program of its kind in the world, admits 10 to 15 seasoned journalists each year to spend two terms at MIT exploring new fields, solidifying their understanding of a particular research area, and getting up to date on the latest developments. Over nine lively months, the selected science and technology journalists build expertise and community in a program structured around course work, seminars, field trips, and workshops. 

Hailing from all across the globe, the 2015 class of fellows pursue science journalism in a diverse array of media, from traditional newspapers to online video, as beat reporters, editors, and producers. They cover a broad range of scientific fields, including climate change, public health, and astrophysics.

“Working with this group of caring, curious, and committed Knight Fellows has made my year as acting director of the program a real joy,” says Wade Roush, a former editor-at-large for Xconomy who holds a PhD from MIT’s Science, Technology, and Society program. “When I think about the concrete things they’ve accomplished and the things I know they’ll do in the future, my worries about the journalism business fade away.”

SHASS Communications recently spoke with a number of the current Knight Fellows about their fellowship year at MIT, the science stories they think are most important, and their views about journalism. Click on the “Interview” links to read a short Q&A with each KSJ Fellow:

Rachael Buchanan
Medical producer, BBC News, United Kingdom

“The explosion of social media platforms and digital story telling tools has complicated questions of who is a journalist and what journalism is.”

Ian Cheney
Director/producer of Wicked Delicate Films, Massachusetts

“Human narratives not only hook viewers, but also provide context and grounding for otherwise complex or intangible ideas.”

Olga Dobrovidova
Science and environmental producer and head of desk for RIA Novosti, Russia

“Science journalism, when it’s accurate, balanced, and not overhyped, can have an incredible public impact.”

Gideon Gil
Health and science editor for The Boston Globe, Massachusetts

“The power of MIT-style, interdisciplinary teamwork — combining varied skillsets and problem-solving methods to accomplish something that none of us could have done on our own — is a lesson I will take back with me to my newsroom.”

Giovana Girardi
Reporter with O Estado de S. Paulo, Brazil

“We all will be affected on some level by climate change. But I am afraid that journalists have been losing relevance in this area, and we need new strategies to communicate the importance of this dramatic issue. One big step in that direction is to understand the science and the politics of climate change better.”

Scott Huler
Independent writer/producer, North Carolina

“The fundamental questions we learned to ask in philosophy, the basic understandings we glean from history, politics, economics — these all form the foundation on which you base your understanding of any science, research, or policy.”

Kathleen McLaughlin
Independent journalist, China

“It’s great to be away from China at MIT this year to recalibrate and think about how we frame important issues related to China and the rest of world.”

George Musser
Freelance journalist, New Jersey

“History and philosophy, especially, are essential to how I think about the fields I write about. We have math, we have the empirical scientific method, and we have philosophical analysis. To neglect any one of these would be like trying to sit on a two-legged stool.”

Bob Young
Staff reporter at The Seattle Times, Washington

“From neuroscience classes to medical-evidence workshops — and much more — the MIT fellowship has propelled me toward my goal of becoming the best-informed reporter on the beat.”

By School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

At this year’s Armory Show in New York City, Art Jameel and Edge of Arabia will present the latest iteration of “CULTURUNNERS” as part of the fair’s regional focus on MENAM (Middle East, North Africa, and Mediterranean). The Armory Show, March 5-8, is but one stop on “CULTURUNNERS’” nationwide tour. The project debuted in 2014 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, before traveling to Boston, where it stopped at MIT for a weeklong series of workshops and a symposium the first week of October 2014.

“CULTURUNNERS” is a Gulf Stream RV-cum-performance/exhibition/broadcast studio that hosts artistic journeys and exchanges between the United States and the Middle East. Azra Akšamija, the Class of 1922 Career Development Professor in the MIT Department of Architecture and an assistant professor in the MIT Art, Culture and Technology Program (ACT), and Stephen Stapleton, director of Edge of Arabia, created “CULTURUNNERS” in collaboration with artists who have spent a decade traveling between the U.S. and the Middle East — from the UK over Yemen to Saudi Arabia and Iran, and from the Balkans over Central Europe to the United States. Akšamija was working on a project called the Islamobile when ACT research affiliate Daanish Masood, a member of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, introduced her to Stephen Stapleton and the Edge of Arabia organization, and the project took its current shape as “CULTURUNNERS.”

The project is a platform for the production and sharing of a range of content, including performances, sound, and video installations, food production, rituals, social media, and adaptable wearables. By developing new “cultural technologies,” “CULTURUNNERS” imports personal narratives and unofficial histories from the MENAM region to audiences in the U.S. Akšamija points out, “Technology can help us create weird and unexpected encounters,” and help us cultivate “cultural empathy through dialogue.”

At the Armory Show, “CULTURUNNERS” will feature custom-built artistic technologies to map, archive, and broadcast voices and ideas from the FOCUS: MENAM section of the fair. The RV will be on site at Pier 92 and Pier 94, and will also take to the road to visit Middle Eastern neighborhoods throughout New York, such as 125th Street in Harlem, and “Little Syria” near Battery Park.

This iteration of “CULTURUNNERS” features projects by Akšamija, Dietmar Offenhuber, Nick Beauchamp, Chris Riedl, Darvish Fakhr, Madeleine Gallagher, John Steiner, and Orkan Telhan. Many of these artists have ties to the Institute. As Akšamija stresses, “this project and ACT facilitate involvement of creative individuals across MIT.” “CULTURUNNERS” at the Armory was curated by Akšamija and produced with assistant curator Jessica Varner, a PhD student in the MIT Program in History, Theory and Criticism of Art and Architecture.


Akšamija’s project, “Yarn-dez-vous,” a growing wearable quilt made of American and Middle Eastern textiles that can be transformed into letterman’s jackets, addresses ideas related to cultural fabric and social identity, or collectivity and individuality. The title “Yarn-dez-vous” plays upon the double meaning of the word yarn and the romance of a rendezvous, Akšamija explains. The jacket design and prototypes were developed with Andrea Boit, Lillian Harden, and Karina Silvester MArch ’14. The fabrication team includes Emily Tow, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT; Bjorn Eric Sparrman, a graduate student in ACT Program; and Emma Harden and Elliot McLaughlin. Gedney H. Barclay, a graduate student in the ACT Program, and Sooyoung Kwon MS ’14, an ACT Program alumna, produced the project videos, which feature participation of 20 MIT students and staff members.

Another iteration of “Yarn-dez-vous” will be developed in a new course for freshmen in the School of Architecture, 4.S10 (Exploring Design: Thinking Through Making). In this version, Akšamija will use raincoats to signify “shelter for the bigger community.”

“A Now for MENAM” 

Orkan Telhan, assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, holds a PhD in design and computation from MIT’s Department of Architecture. He was part of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Laboratory and the Mobile Experience Lab at the MIT Design Laboratory. His work, “A Now for MENAM,” integrates various historical and contemporary practices of time keeping across the cultural geography of Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, eschewing the idea of unifying the different time zones and calendar systems used within this vast geography. The calendar works as a mobile application that delivers images, videos, information, or text from different archives and online sources. The format refers to the calendars published in Turkey since 1900s known as the “educational calendar with time.”  “A Now for MENAM” offers a contemporary take on this format. The calendar also functions as a temporal navigator for the “CULTURUNNERS” RV and customizes its content based on the RV’s travel routes.

“MENAM Art Map”

Dietmar Offenhuber is an assistant professor at Northeastern University in the departments of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Art + Design, where he heads the MFA program in information design and visualization. He holds a PhD in urban studies from MIT, and degrees from the MIT Media Lab and the Vienna University of Technology. Together with Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor in political science at Northeastern, Christoph Riedl, assistant professor for information systems at Northeastern, and research assistants Armin Akhavan and Rohith Vallu, they created “MENAM Art Map.”

“MENAM Art Map” is an interactive visualization of the institutional connections, life trajectories, and centers of prominent members of the Middle Eastern art scene exhibiting in the West. The geo-spatial network representation is based on information extracted from a large corpus of artist biographies. It represents the first stage of a project dedicated to the analysis of text networks at the NU Lab for Texts, Maps and Networks at Northeastern University in Boston.


“Autoluminescence” is multimedia installation and performance series that uses geometric and mathematical patterns of traditional Islamic art and music as a structure to manipulate transmissions of media and sound surrounding the “CULTURUNNERS” RV as it travels on a cross-country road trip through United States. Through light and music, “Autoluminescence” transforms the “CULTURUNNERS” RV interior into a lounge space to relax, connect, reflect, possibly decode, and/or invent meaning from the floating world of media surrounding us.

Madeleine Gallagher, a media associate in ACT at MIT, is an interdisciplinary artist, technologist, and educator. John Steiner, a media assistant in MIT Program in ACT is a performer, songwriter, and visual artist working in audio, sculpture, electronic media, and design.

“RV Skin-NY” and more

Among the other projects hosted by “CULTURUNNERS” at the Armory are Darvish Fakhr’s “The Flying Carpet” and Edge of Arabia’s online broadcast platform, “FREEWAY.” “The Flying Carpet” is a customized, motorized longboard with a Persian carpet attached, on which Fakhr will travel through the MENAM communities of New York and perform. “FREEWAY” will explore connections between the Armory Focus and MENAM communities across New York.

“RV Skin-NY” is an interactive re-skinning of the exterior of the “CULTURUNNERS” RV linked to phase 2 of the “CULTURUNNERS” website (by One Darnley Road), which will be launched on the first day of the fair. Azra Akšamija and Stephen Stapleton lead this piece, which was designed by Kuba Rudzinski.

On Friday, March 6, the lead education partner for the Armory Symposium, Art Jameel, will host a special “CULTURUNNERS” panel discussion, moderated by Renata Papsch, general manager at Art Jameel. Featured panelists include Azra Akšamija; Husam Al Sayed of Telfaz 11; Matthew Mazzotta, artist and former lecturer in ACT; and Ava Ansari, Edge of Arabia associate curator.

The “CULTURUNNERS” RV will then take Route 2 from New York to Nebraska.

By Sharon Lacey | Arts at MIT

To see the impact of their investments, companies often use business intelligence tools — primarily data-analytics ­software — that analyze company data to link cash spent with outcomes.  

Now MIT spinout BrightBytes has developed similar data-analytics software for schools that links the implementation of classroom technologies, and other strategies, to student achievement. About one in seven U.S. schools now uses the software.

The software combines academic research with collected data on students, teachers, and schools to create school-by-school analyses and action plans for implementing technologies and strategies. This lets educators and administrators know where to direct their funding.

“It’s a business intelligence platform written for schools,” says BrightBytes CEO Rob Mancabelli MBA ’12, who worked in the education sector for 15 years before co-founding the startup. “Instead of a return-on-investment, though, it’s a ‘return-on-learning.’”

By giving educators these data-analytics tools, Mancabelli says, BrightBytes hopes to take the guessing game out of fund allocation. This is important, he says: The U.S. spends billions of dollars annually on classroom technologies — such as classroom tablets, interactive screens, and software — as well as targeted academic programs, yet it’s very difficult to measure whether any of these actually boost student success.   

“We think the best way to improve student learning is to give decision-makers who control the time, budget, and resources the best information to make decisions,” Mancabelli says. “If, along the way, it helps to eliminate financial missteps, then that’s fantastic.”

Mancabelli launched BrightBytes with entrepreneur Hisham Anwar MBA ’12, now chief technology officer, after the two met in the executive MBA program (EMBA) at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Over the course of the 20-month program, they turned BrightBytes from an abstract concept into a commercial product with more than 1,000 users.

There are six modules on BrightByte’s platform, called Clarity, that tackle different issues within schools. CASE is the module used to measure technology in the classroom. The startup’s most recent module, Early Warning, released last September, identifies at-risk students based on individual and school-specific factors. Five additional modules are due out this year.

Finding Clarity

Clarity works through a combination of human expertise and computation. Behind the platform is a team of researchers and data scientists who pore over academic papers, reports, and case studies to identify what works and what doesn’t in the classroom — for instance, finding technologies that have led to better student performance, or solutions that best curb the dropout rate.

Then, the platform takes information from surveys and questionnaires at the participating school, along with data from third-party sources — such as socioeconomic status and student performance — to report the school’s proficiency in certain areas.  

For example, a report from the CASE module will provide a numerical score for a school’s “proficiency” to implement classroom technologies based on factors such as student and teacher access to technology, overall online engagement among students, and professional development and support for teachers. Scores are given in five categories, ranging from 800 points or lower, to 1200.

If schools are deemed “proficient,” with a high number, they could be good to go. But if schools are lacking, the software suggests solutions. A certain school may want to use digital educational gaming, but it’ll first need to ensure that more students have access to mobile devices, and boost professional development for teachers, or the technology may have little to no impact on student success.

In its two years on the market, the software has shown some tangible results. In 2012, the Capital Area Independent Unit (CAIU) in Pennsylvania, which provides educational services to more than two dozen school districts, used CASE to gauge whether schools in its service area could successfully implement online and blended courses; results indicated significant gaps in technology access and professional development in some districts. Today, those districts have shown a 60 percent increase in student access to mobile devices, a 52 percent increase in teachers who post coursework online, and a 55 percent increase in online student collaboration.

The benefit of BrightBytes isn’t simply amassing data, but making sense of the data, Mancabelli says. With implementing classroom technologies, for example, administrators have had to spend a lot of time and money conducting their own research or hiring consultants.

“It’s rare anyone in schools, with as many things as they have on their plate, has time to do that,” Mancabelli says. “Instead, most use intuition to guess the problems and invest money and time into solutions and hope it turns out alright.”

This also happens when schools seek solutions for curbing the dropout rate, Mancabelli says. That’s why BrightBytes recently developed its Early Warning module, which has been adopted by the state of West Virginia. This module is powered by the same rigorous academic research as CASE, but instead analyzes 24 risk factors across schools — such as low attendance and grades, behavioral issues, and demographic factors — to flesh out the students in danger of dropping out.

The dashboard displays the total number of at-risk students, their likelihood to drop out, a list of the top at-risk students, and best practices to ensure that those students stay in school. It will also show which factors most likely lead to dropouts in the school’s district, so schools can choose which factors to focus on. “So you’re actually looking at research, and in the context of your own school,” Mancabelli says.

Scale meets mission

Today, BrightBytes is on its way to becoming an industry standard. But it began not too long ago at MIT Sloan as “ideas drawn on the back of napkins and on pieces of paper,” Anwar says.

In 2012, Mancabelli came to the EMBA program with aims of developing and scaling up technology that could help U.S. schools use hard data to find what works in the classroom. During the first week, he was grouped on a class project with Anwar, who had grown several successful tech startups in Silicon Valley — and was looking to put his entrepreneurship skills toward an altruistic cause. “I was in search of scale, and he was in search of a mission,” Mancabelli says. “It fit perfectly.”

Playing on each other’s strengths, they discussed a data-analytics platform that could link technology with student success. Within a couple of weeks, they’d built an early prototype of Clarity. Mancabelli pitched the platform to potential schools — and one jumped on the chance to purchase it.

Mancabelli recalls stepping out of class one day to answer a call from that school, which had offered $25,000 to build the platform. He then went back into his class, sat down next to Anwar, and texted him the information. “The look on his face and the way he raised his eyes when he got the text was priceless,” Mancabelli says.

In 45 days, they developed the CASE module and, a within a few months, had garnered 1,000 school clients across the nation.

Anwar attributes some of this early success to MIT Sloan’s rigorous EMBA program, which taught him how to bring ideas together, very quickly, into a tangible product. Another benefit was the program’s “very multidimensional” culture, he adds, where CEOs, novice and seasoned entrepreneurs, and senior executives, all with different skillsets and backgrounds, work together.

“There was a very diverse, unusual group of people who were the first-time collaborators with other people in other markets and industry,” he says. “That was a great learning experience.”

In fact, Mancabelli attributes BrightBytes’s rapid rise to this mixture of differing skillsets: his expertise on education, along with Anwar’s ability to produce technology at scale. “Hisham could translate my understanding of the pain points within schools, and solutions they needed, into a platform that would meet those needs,” Mancabelli says. “Having a grounding in what people in the market needed, as well as having grounding in what would scale to hundreds or millions of users, were two things that really accelerated our ability to grow.”

By Rob Matheson | MIT News Office

Social circles

April 21, 2015

If you live in a city, you know that a fair amount of your movement around town is social in nature. But how much, exactly? A new study co-authored by MIT researchers uses a novel method to infer that around one-fifth of urban movement is strictly social, a finding that holds up consistently in multiple cities.

The study used anonymized phone data that, unlike most data in the field, provides information that can be used to reconstruct both people’s locations and their social networks. By linking this information together, the researchers were able to build a picture indicating which networks were primarily social, as opposed to work-oriented, and then deduce how much city movement was due to social activity.

“Adding two data sources — one on the social side and one on the mobility side — and layering them one on top of each other gives you something that’s a little bit greater,” says Jameson Toole, a PhD student in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, and one of the authors of a newly published paper outlining the study’s results.

“It’s a way to look at the data that wasn’t done before,” says Marta Gonzalez, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and another co-author of the study.

By developing a new means of quantifying how much urban travel is based on social activity, the researchers believe they have started creating a new analytical tool that could be of use to planners and policymakers.

“There are a lot of people who need to have estimates of how people move around cities: transportation planners and other urban planners,” Toole says. “But a lot of data-driven models don’t take into account social behavior. What we found is that … if you are trying to estimate movement in a city and you don’t include the social component, your estimates are going to be off by about 20 percent.”

Going mobile

The paper, “Coupling human mobility and social ties,” is appearing this week in Interface, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Royal Society. The co-authors are Toole, who is the lead author; Carlos Herrer-Yaque, of the Technical University of Madrid; Gonzalez, who is the principal investigator on the study; and Christian Schneider, an MIT post-doctoral researcher during the course of the study.

The study’s anonymized mobile phone data comes from three major cities in Europe and South America. By examining the locations of calls, the networks of calls made, and the times of contact, the researchers found that most people have essentially three kinds of social networks in cities: social companions (who they are around a lot in the evenings and on weekends), work colleagues (who they tend to contact during weekdays), and more distant acquaintances with whom people have more sporadic contact.

After distinguishing these networks from each other, the researchers were able to quantify the extent to which social activity was the primary cause of an urban trip; their conclusion falls within the bounds of previous, broader estimates, which have ascribed 15 to 30 percent of urban movement to social activity.

“It’s pretty rare you would find these patterns showing up by themselves in multiple cities,” Toole says. “It lends credence to the universality of this [pattern].”

In the paper, the researchers also build a model of urban social movement, which they call the “GeoSim” model; it extends previous models of urban mobility by adding a layer relating to social-activity choices. The model better fits the data in this study, and could be tested against future data sets as well.

“Big data is amazing,” Toole says, “but this adds the context back into the social networks and movements.”

Scholars say the paper brings new insight to urban mobility studies. The study’s “novelty resides in the method used to study the relationship between mobility of different users and their social relationship,” explains Esteban Moro, a professor of mathematics at the Charles III University of Madrid, in Spain. “Using different mobility metrics, the authors are able to know the nature of the relationship between two people. … This allows a quantitative understanding of how people manage their time, tasks, [and] interactions in a geographical context like cities.”

Moro adds that the current research project opens the way for more detailed studies of the subject, noting, “It would be interesting to see if the socioeconomic status of people, their age, and/or gender have a role in the results found.”

The research was partly funded by the Accenture-MIT Alliance in Business Analytics, the Center for Complex Engineering Systems at MIT, and the National Science Foundation.

By Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office