Category Archives: MIT

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How Would You Design Crypto Backdoor Regulation? Ed Felten at CITP

Law enforcement sometimes argue that they need backdoors to encryption in order to carry out their mission, while cryptographers like Bruce Schneier describe the public cybersecurity risk from backdoors and say that the “technology just doesn’t work that way.”

I’m here at the Princeton University Center for Information Tech Policy, liveblogging the first public lunch of the semester, where Ed Felten shares work in progress to find a way through this argument. Ed is the director of CITP and a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University. He served at the White House as the Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer from June 2015 to January 2017. Ed was also the first chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission from January 2011 until September 2012.

Ed starts out by pointing out that his talk is work in progress, that he’s thinking about the U.S. policy context. His goal is to explore the encryption policy issue in relation to the details, understand the tradeoffs, and imagine effective policies– something he says is rare in debates over encryption backdoors.

Five Equities For Thinking about Encryption Backdoor Policies

People who debate encryption backdoors are often thinking about five “equities,” says Ed. Focus on public safety concerns the ability of law enforcement and intelligence community to protect the public from harm. Cybersecurity is the ability of law-abiding people to protect their systems. Personal privacy is the ability of users to control the data about them. Civil liberties and free expression concern the ability of people to exercise their rights and speak freely. Economic competitiveness is the ability of US companies to compete in international and domestic markets. Across all of these, we care about these things over time, not just immediately.

Ed notes that policy debates often come to loggerheads because people weight these equities differently. For example, people often contrast public safety with cybersecurity without considering other factors. They also come to loggerheads when people start with these equities without asking in detail what regulation can and cannot do. 

Understanding Policy Pipielines

When we think about policies, Ed encourages us to think about a three-part pipeline. Policymakers start by thinking about regulation, hope that the regulation creates changes in design and user behavior, and then ask the impact of those changes and behaviors on the equities that matter. In this conversation, Ed is working from an assumption of basic trust in the US rule of law, as well as realism about technology, economics, and policy.

The Nobody But Us Principle (NOBUS)
In the past, signals intelligence agencies have tended to have two goals: to undermine the security of adversaries’ technologies while strengthening the security of our own technologies. Lately, there’s been a problem, which is that US adversaries tend to use the same technologies: strengthening or weakening adversaries’ security also affects our own security.

The usual doctrine in these situations is to assume that it’s better to strengthen encryption, in hopes that one’s own country benefits from that strength. But there’s an exception: perhaps one could look for methods of access that the US can carry out but adversaries cannot; these methods are NOBUS (nobody but us). For example, zero-day exploits are an example of something that intelligence agencies might think of as NOBUS. Of course, as Ed points out, the NOBUS principle raises important questions about who the “us” are in any policy idea.

NOBUS Test in Crypto Policy

Based on the NOBUS principle, Ed proposes a principle that any mandated means of access to encrypted data must be NOBUS with high probability. Several rules fail this test, such as banning all encryption, or requiring that encryption be disabled by default.

Why Do People Need Crypto?

Ed offers some basics on cryptography, pointing out that cryptography is used to protect three things. It protects confidentiality, so unauthorized party can’t learn message contents. Crypto protects integrity, so unauthorized parties can’t forge or modify messages without detection. It also protects identity, protecting people from impersonation. Ed describes two main scenarios for uses of crypto: storage and communications.

In storage situations, device keys and passcodes are combined to create a storage key that can be used to encrypt and decrypt data from a computer or a phone. Once the key is no longer being used, the information is removed and the device is safe.

Encrypted communications are more complicated. Here is a typical situation: In a handshake phase, two people use long-term identity keys to confirm who they are and receive a session key. During the data transfer phase, the session key is used to encrypt and decrypt messages between them. They might change the session key from time to time, and when they are done with the key, they delete it. Once they have deleted a session key, an adversary will be unable to decrypt anything that was said during that session key. Systems like TLS for secure browsing and the Signal protocol fit within this framework.

Trends in the Uses of Crypto

When law enforcement make statements about how they’re losing access to communications, they’re making a claim about trends. We are seeing a move toward more encryption in storage and on devices, says Ed. To understand the actual impact on security, Ed argues, we should ask instead: who can recover the data? If only the user can recover the data, then law enforcement/intelligence (LE/IC) may lose access. But if the service provider can recover, then LE/IC can get access from the provider. To think through this, Ed asks us to imagine email services. Messages might be encrypted, but law enforcement can often still get companies to give the data to law enforcement.

Ed predicts that in situations where most users want data recovery as a feature, or where the nature of the service requires the provider to have access, the provider will have access, and law enforcement will be able to access it. This includes most email and file storage. Otherwise, users will have exclusive control, in areas such as private messages and ephemeral data.

Designing a Regulatory Requirement for Crypto Backdoors

Any regulatory requirement needs to work through a series of trade-offs, issues that have no relation to the technical questions, says Ed. He outlines a series of decisions that need to be made when designing a regulation on crypto backdoors.

The first question to ask is: should we regulate storage only, or storage and comunications? Communications are harder because keys change frequently and LE/IC can’t assume access to the device. Storage regulations typically assume that LE/IC has access to the device, so this is an important question. Storage-only approaches are simpler, so regulation writers should consider whether they should stretch for communications or not. In today’s conversation, Ed focuses on storage for simplicity.

The next decision is to ask which services are covered by the regulation. There are many kinds of products that use crypto, and regulators need to decide how much to cover. The broader the range, the more complicated the regulation is, and the greater the burden becomes across the equities. But simple regulations can put many of LE/IC requests beyond their reach. Ed urges us to stop thinking about the iphone, a vertically-integrated system run by a single company. Think instead about an android phone, which involves many different companies from many countries in one device: chip makers, device manufacturers, OS distributors, open source contributors, crypto library distributors, mobile carriers, retailers, and app developers. All of them put technology on the phone, and you have to decide which ones in this supply chain are covered by the regulation.

When deciding who to cover in the regulation, you also need to ask what they’re able to do. Chip makers can’t control the operating systems. Manufacturers are often foreign. App developers are small teams or individual contractors.

The next decision is to ask how robust encryption backdoors must be. If users attempt to prevent access, how strongly must the system resist? Ed outlines several options. The first option is not to resist user attempts. Another option is to make disabling the backdoor at least as hard as jailbreaking the device. A stronger option would be to require users to conduct non-trivial modifications to hardware to secure. If you require this, you will make it much less likely that adversaries and would-be targets would evade the public safety investigation, but it also probably requires hardware modifications. Legacy systems would be unable to comply, and depending on who you require to comply, they might not be able to comply; you couldn’t ask Google to require hardware backdoors on android phones, whose hardware they don’t control.

Next, regulators need to decide how to treat legacy products. Do you allow legacy systems? Do you ban them? If so, how can people tell if their system has a backdoor to comply with the ban, and do you want them to know?

Another decision is to work out what to do with travelers. If someone travels to the U.S. and brings a device that is compliant with their own country’s rules but not US policies, what do you do? Do you allow it, so long as the visit is time-limited? Do you prohibit it, detecting and taking away the device? Do you try to reconfigure the device at the border? Manually? Automatically? How would these requirements violate trade agreements?

All of these decisions, says Ed, are decisions you need to make even before discussing the technical details. Next, he talks through the most common technical proposal, key escrow, to show how regulators could reason through these policies.

Technical Example: Key Escrow

Under the key escrow approach, storage systems are required to keep a copy of the storage key, encrypting it so that a “recovery key” is needed to recover it. The storage system creates and stores an escrow package. Recovering takes a three-stage process: extract the escrow package from the device, decrypt the escrow package to get the storage key, and use the storage key to decrypt the data.

If you use key escrow, you have to decide if you’re going to require physical access. On option is to require that physical access is necessary, you could allow remote access to the escrow package, or you could leave it to the market. Requiring physical access limits the worst case from the leak of keys; even if the recovery key is compromised, users could protect themselves through physical control. In the US, law enforcement have said that they envision using key escrow systems only in cases of physical access and court orders. Relying on a requirement for physical access depends on a technical ability to do so, something that is theoretical so far and may be difficult to force hardware supply chains to comply with.

Next Ed shows us a matrix of four policy approaches:

  • The device must include a physical access port for law enforcement
  • The company must hold and provide the escrow package and give it to law enforcement if requested
  • The company must provide the storage key directly when requested from law enforcement
  • The company must provide the data

Lower on the list, the company does the work and has more design latitude about how to respond. But the bottom two policy approaches have a NOBUS problem, since they expose users to third party access. Requiring companies to provide the data and to store the key probably fails the NOBUS test as well. In the top two options, law enforcement needs knowledge about many devices, probably managed through industry standard.

Maybe there are more options. Ed talks about a number of other possibilities, including working on who holds the recovery keys. Giving all keys to the US government could harm competitiveness and be blocked by other governments. Giving keys to other countries fails the NOBUS test because it gives other governments a competitive advantage.

Another option is to split the keys, giving the keys to multiple parties and requiring them all to participate. Imagine for example that one key is held by the company and one by the FBI. This approach has some advantages. The approach is NOBUS if any one of the key holders is NOBUS, since any key holder can withhold participation. This approach is also more resilient against compromise of recovery keys. Disadvantages are that any key holder can block recovery, availability is harder to ensure, and every key holder learns which devices were accessed.

Another split-key model requires that some subset of all keys be used (K-of-N keys) to access the data. The advantages of the system are that the approach is NOBUS if at least N-K+1 of the key holders are NOBUS. It’s more resilient against compromise than a single key. Among disadvantages, any N-K+1 key holders can block recovery, K key holders learn which devices were accessed, and the system is much less resilient against compromise than a simple split key.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Ed wraps up by arguing that we can have a policy discussion beyond the impasse people in security policy have reached. He suggests that we think about the entire regulation pipeline, from regulation to response to impact. Next, regulators need to think about the full range of products, how they are designed, how they are used, and the impact on equities. The NOBUS test does help regulators narrow down choices. Yet each of the decisions has tradeoffs with pros and cons. Overall, Ed hopes that his talk shows how regulation debates should engage with details and unpack how to think about the policy by working through specific proposals.

Finally, Ed encourages us to take the final step that his talk leaves out: thinking through the impact of policy ideas on the equities in play and how to weigh them.

Data For Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice – Liveblog

This is a live blog account from the Data For Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice event.

 

Barbara Best, Executive Director, Center for Public Leadership, introduces the panel. The moderator is Yeshimabeit Milner, the Executive Director and Founder of Data for Black Lives which uses data science to create concrete measureable change in black lives.  The panel has been organized by Black Student Union and Black Policy Conference. People are tuning in via the livestream.

Yeshi introduces Data for Black Lives. They are building a movement for scientists, activists and organizers. We can use data and tech to make concrete change in the lives of black people and all people. Data and tech is changing the world so fast. We can look to the past to respond to the present moment. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin – separated seeds from cotton fiber. Cotton became king in US. By the 1850s, the Us produced the vast majority of cotton produced worldwide. The cotton gin was a gamechanging social invention. But it had extraordinary negative impact on transatlantic slave trade. For millions of enslaved people, cotton gin helped expand a cruel and violent system. No technology is neutral. For far too long data and tech have been weaponized against community. But we have examples of technology for positive social change. We are seeing advances now in civic analytics and data at all levels of government. Data plays a huge role in allocation of resources. These tools have a role to play in equity and to help elevate the voices that have been silenced.

 

This call to action is more urgent than ever before. How do we use data to expose inequity and hold governments accountable?

 

The four panelists here have used data in inspiring and different ways to promote justice. They include:

William Isaac, Fellow, Open Society Foundation; Research Advisor, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group
Kelly Jin, Director, Data-Driven Justice at the Arnold Foundation; former Citywide Analytics Manager, City of Boston
Carlos Rojas, Special Projects Consultant, Youth on Board; Founding Member, Boston Education Justice Alliance
Paola Villarreal, Harvard University Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; former Data Science Fellow, ACLU

Yeshi will use some of the questions submitted online prior to the event to guide the panel discussion. Each panelist will briefly introduce themselves.

 

William Isaac leads with an introduction of his work. He focuses on algorithms and their role in public decision making. There’s an assumption amongst policy-makers that data is good and objective. Through his research he wants to show that data is not objective and that algorithms in and of themselves do not solve those problems. His research tries to illuminate that and build towards something better.

 

Kelly Jin has worked in many organizations. She feels everyone should tackle one issue: every year we have millions of people cycling through local jails. This costs a lot of money. When you look closer many have mental health issues, substance abuse issues. They launched the data-driven justice program at the White House last year to try to address this at the local level. People keep ending up in jail. How to bring together ER doctors, sheriffs and local communities to hold government accountable? She previously built the data team at City Hall Boston.

Paola Villareal says she comes from a corrupt country and she thought it would be different here. But it happens that it’s not – it’s just a different kind of corruption called oppression. There are many pipelines that show that. Every state and city has a different type of oppressive pipeline that is biased against people of color. She is here because she started to work on data, analyze it and show disparities. It is super important to learn about these shocking biases and oppressive systems.

Carlos Rojas says he comes from a perceived corrupt country – Colombia – and moved here when he was five. They moved to Dudley Square. After 6 months here, he became undocumented because they had flown in with a tourist visa. He noted how black and brown kids interacted with police. He was told to never, ever approach or talk to a police officer. If you do, be very polite or you might get arrested. As he grew up, he became aware of the ways that these problems start within the school system. What does it look like to reform school-level policies. School-to-prison pipeline in this country is a real thing. It sends young black and brown people from school directly into prison. They believe that young people organizing and in partnerships with adults can make beautiful things happen. Data that corroborates that lived experience is also very important. He has examples of amazing advocacy efforts but they are also having struggles getting the state to hold agencies accountable.

 

Yeshi says this represents real breadth. One of the first questions from the audience – what have been the pro and con impacts of data-driven decision making in government over the past decade?

 

Kelly says she wouldn’t go that far back. The core of a of the work around open data has only blossomed in the last five or so years. Cities have done a lot of work to open up their data. It’s hard to unlock data, but fundamentally this is public data. That’s the first step – how do we unlock it. From that, the engagement of a much broader community is what matters. If you have 300 data sets it means nothing if no one is using them for policy change or research or recommendations. The policy changes that have happened as a result of people looking at the data are what matters. One question is what tech infrastructure can we build on top of open data to provide value back to citizens. For example, individual health data donated to researchers. Technology – why aren’t we using more open source? It’s amazing to see the turnout for this event – how can these people get involved?

 

Paola says that people are here because of openness – this has happened in the last 8-10 years. Open source, open government, open data. It’s not just a set of tools but a mission. Openness in general is one of the best things that have happened. But on the other hand, machine learning in the criminal justice system is one of the worst things that has happened. We need to solve that. In the meantime, I would call for an embargo on that.

 

Walter agrees that openness is the biggest thing he has seen. We have seen the big coastal cities who have embraced data. He has seen something different in the midwest. In Michigan, they faced the Flint water crisis. They had no digital records of the water pipe existing. It turns out that they actually did have records but they were on file cards and there was one person responsible for them. Loveland Technologies is a company that then took those cards and digitized them. Data does have a lot of good use when you are allowed to share, usually with partners not inside government. The cons of this movement – there have been some weird things coming out of machine learning.  Part of it is algorithm but part of it is the institutional decision making on top of that. Some people in government don’t want to use data at all. Others say data will solve all our problems and don’t like when you say bad things about data. There has to be some middle ground. It’s not just machine learning or algorithms. Some places have predictive policing but don’t even use the software. Even when they have the tools when the institutions don’t change as well then nothing changes. Particularly need to focus on accountability mechanisms.

 

Kelly adds that one thing they have talked about is TQ – what is the technology/data quotient within government and how do you improve that? Data and tech vendors come into government. What are you doing? What decisions making? Data ethics and algorithmic transparency – how do you ensure that? The algorithms should also possibly be public.

 

Carlos says that in the school systems it has been striking what data has been capable of both positively and negatively. No Child Left Behind put schools in frenzy of data collection around test scores and what amounted to a toxic culture of high stakes testing. The policy ended up doing exactly what it was not designed to do – closed schools, left many students behind. The biggest predictor of how well you do on a test is how much money your parents make. But on the other hand, youth organizers have been demanding that schools collect more data. In the case of dismantling the school to prison pipeline, the state wasn’t collecting data on school discipline. We didn’t see data on who was being suspended and expelled. For years, we had to rely on personal narrative and anecdotes to prove that young people of color were being suspended at egregiously disproportionate levels. We demanded that the state collect disaggregated data, school by school, so that we could see better the school to prison pipeline.

 

Yeshi asks the next question. Openness has made it possible for us to be here today. But one thing we are grappling with, once people get the data, what are they going to do with it? Not everyone can learn R. She got involved with data collection as a youth organizer. How do we scale data literacy and change how we teach about data to get more women and people of color to make the open data movement more lively and accessible to more people?

Paola says we need more ways to tell stories and show how data impacted communities. We need more community engagement and co-creation. Show communities the data and ask them what they think. Data scientists are not saviors. They collaborate with communities to define the problem.

Carlos states that he has seen the impact when data scientists align with community groups. And they have also seen data waste when researchers create data and then it just sits on a shelf and isn’t used by groups that could benefit from it. They are lucky to work in a city that is rich in data science. Lot of people in Boston are interested to take direction from people on the ground. They come to them and say “What research do you need done to make your work effective?” Then when young people are in a legislator’s office they have data to back their arguments. We have been very invested in those partnerships. On Oct 19th, they will be gathering with youth and parent groups to review at the Chapter 222 data, talk about what is happening on the ground, determine how to move forward.

Paola says the most impactful work she has done was in teams of lawyers, community members, advocates and activists.

 

Kelly says she wants to talk about the role of media in this. How do we continue to show that there are women and minorities working in this field? For example, the film Hidden Figures. And on “how do we engage” – not to have data for data’s sake but to determine what the questions are and then figure out what are the data sets to help make those easier to answer. What data are we not collecting? There are so many cases where no one is collecting that information. There is a huge piece of catching up.

 

Walter thinks a lot about how you teach these concepts. For undergrads and people in college they created InnovateGov program that teaches them data science and then places them in government agencies. They found that you need to have something that you are passionate about. A lot of the stuff is boring. But the coolest part is that when you possess the knowledge you can present it to someone to make a case that they should change things. For example, a student team collected surveys about how to reach people involved in foreclosures. For high school students – smaller toy data sets where you introduce concepts and giving them passion or interest in a topic.

Yeshi asks what are some good examples of cases where agencies and orgs have used data for justice? That will help us after the Q&A.

Carlos talks about Youth on Board. They created surveys with questions that would help paint picture of students of color as well as listening projects where they would go have quick conversations. To engage them, they needed two things: big signs and bags of candy. Their questions were like, “Do you have police in your school? How do they affect the environment? Have you been suspended? Do you think it was fair? Do you think your race had anything to do with it?” We didn’t find anything surprising. They passed the Chapter 222 legislation which said instead of districts just doing zero-tolerance, they had to try other methods before suspension and expulsion. But they had no way of holding schools accountable on this. They decided to develop an app that summarizes major changes and allows you to report an equity grievance and they developed the Boston Student Rights app. Incredible tool that collected 26,000 cases. Students are using it to educate themselves and their teachers. Sometimes they are using it to advocate for themselves and prevent themselves from being suspended. All the data goes to the department of equity which the community group has a good relation with.

However, but now the schools are doing things like dismissing students early, doing emergency removals, and providing an informal no-trespassing notice. These things fall under the radar but then are not held accountable from the state.

Paola discusses her work for the ACLU and its relationship with the City of Boston. Although the entities did not agree, there was an open and transparent process. Data & Society is a great research organization.

Kelly talks about Measures for Justice – they are doing the hard work to do data collection and make it open and available. How do philanthropists step up to do that work? Coding it forward class at HKS taught by Nick Sinai creates partnerships between undergrads and the city of Boston. Finally, Jen Palka runs Code for America, like Teach for America for technologists who are placed in local jurisdictions.

Walter says he has so many examples. Sam Singyawe is amazing and part of Black Lives Matter started Mapping Police Violence. Some smaller ones in Detroit – like Data-driven Detroit, Future City Detroit – projects that are building the public infrastructure for data. A lot of nonprofits are doing the heavy lifting.

 

Hiring a Media Cloud Contract UX Specialist

Online media is in a state of flux. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, so-called fake news – these are all recent developments that have radically altered the landscape of news and information online. We call this the “networked public sphere”, and the Media Cloud project was created to track and understand it. Come help us design easier-to-use data-centric web tools for academic internet researchers and human rights activists that let them investigate coverage and conversations online about topics they care about.

The Media Cloud project is seeking a contract user experience specialist to help assess our existing web-based tools, and design new ones, to support data-driven research about the role of online media in civic discourse. The specialist will begin by designing and leading a process to evaluate the usability of our current suite of web based tools (available at tools.mediacloud.org). They will collaborate with the technology team to understand the current and future features available, focused on how they could be used by media-makers like documentary film producers. They will assist in development of training guides for novice users in the non-profit space. The position will be a 6-month part-time contract position based at the Center for Civic Media (at the MIT Media Lab), but the UX specialist will work closely with members in other institutions as well. This is a grant-funded contract position that we hope to extend, or perhaps turn into a staff position.

Media Cloud is a joint project between the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. We are an open source project producing research about the networked public sphere, and helping others do their own research about online media. We make available to the public our existing archive of more than 550 million stories, adding more than 40,000 new stories daily. The project is funded by human rights foundations. We produce both the open platform and research that helps our funders make decisions about how best to influence online civic conversations about democracy, activism, and health.

We are a diverse project of researchers and technologists who love to wrestle with hard questions about online media by using a combination of social, computer, and data sciences. The ideal candidate will work well with all members of the team, from senior faculty to junior developers, and will thrive in an academic atmosphere that privileges constant questioning and validation at all levels of the platform and of our research products. Experience working on big data systems, or data-driven interfaces, as is experience working on projects investigating online media.

Minimum Qualifications

  • at least two years experience working as a UX designer on web-based products;
  • familiarity with user-centered design and research methodologies;
  • demonstrated ability to translate between technical and non-technical audiences;
  • demonstrated ability to iterate on design ideas quickly;
  • demonstrated ability to use data to validate decisions;
  • experience writing design documents and user guides;
  • interest in working on issues related to democracy, gender, race, health, and globalization.

Duties

  • design and lead a usability study with non-profit partners;
  • document key findings in a report;
  • create and assess mockups for existing and new features;
  • contribute to the ongoing identification of key features to add to the platform;
  • assist in the development of user guides for tools;
  • collaborate with undergraduate interns working on same project.

Helpful Skills

  • a strong portfolio showing user-centered design approaches applied to data-intensive products;
  • passion for solving difficult engineering and data problems;
  • experience designing data-driven interfaces;
  • experience working with design tools like Sketch, Photoshop and Illustrator;
  • knowledge and interest in social sciences;

Much of our substantive work focuses on issues of gender, race, and globalization. We strongly encourage women, people of color, people of all ages, and people of any sexual identity to apply.

The job is based in Cambridge, MA, but much of our team is distributed around the world. We are open to alternative working arrangements that include part time residence in Cambridge. We imagine this position as a 2- or 3-day a week engagement over 5 to 6 months, but are open to other approaches.

Apply by sending a cover letter, resume, and portfolio to jobs@mediacloud.org.

An Open Letter From Civic Hackers to Puerto Rico & USVI in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

I am working with a group of civic developers committed to supporting Hurricane victims for relief & recovery who have helped with the software development and data analysis of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma primarily in Texas and Florida. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, we want to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the same way. Devastation has already occurred in Puerto Rico and the USVI, and we’re here to help in the response and recovery pending from Maria.

But, we won’t jump in without your permission. These places have a long history of imperialism, and we refuse to add tech colonialism on top of that.

Here’s how we might be able to help:

Rescue

Sometimes emergency services are overloaded fielding calls and deploying assistance. Remote grassroots groups help take in additional requests through social media and apps like Zello and then help to dispatch local people who are offering to perform rescue services (like the Cajun Navy in Houston after Hurricane Harvey).

Shelter updates

As people seek shelter while communication infrastructure remains spotty, having a way to text or call to findt the nearest shelter accepting people becomes useful. We can remotely keep track of what shelters are open and accepting people by calling them and scraping websites, along with extra information such as if they accept pets and if they check identification.

Needs matching

As people settle into shelters or return to their homes, they start needing things like first aid supplies and building materials. Shelter managers or community leaders seek ways to pair those offering material support with those in need of the support. We help with the technology and data related to taking and fulfilling these requests, although we don’t fulfill the requests directly ourselves.

If you are interested in this, please let us know by emailing me (bl00 at mit) or finding us on Twitter at @irmaresponse or @sketchcityhou.

Here are other groups lending aid already (maintained by someone else).
If you’re looking to jump in an an existing task, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team already has a tasker active for helping to map the area for responders and coordination.

Digital Democracy: Participatory Mapping & Tool-building in the Amazon

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This is a liveblog of a talk by Emily Jacobi (@emjacobi) at the MIT Center for Civic Media, written by Erhardt Graeff, Rahul Bhargava, and Alexis Hope. All errors are our own.

 
Digital Democracy (DD) works in solidarity with groups around the world to empower marginalized communities to use technology to defend their rights. This means that they are different from other groups because they are not trying to pursue their own agenda through their work. Their mission is driven by the agenda of their partners.
 
DD was founded almost 10 years after being inspired by research they were doing in Burma. Emily noticed a correlation between internet access and political engagement. She had a realization that new technology was being leveraged to make new kinds of engagement possible, but that it also creates new risks and challenges. They started by doing workshops and trainings that were requested by local partners
Some of DD’s earliest work was with women in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Women in the camps were self-organizing to respond to violence. The organization learned a lot about what it means to be engaged in a long-term partnership, and about not coming in with preconceived notions of a solution.
 
They developed an SMS project that failed, but it led to a call center there that made positive impact. Emilie Reiser (from Civic Media) worked with this community on that project and the work informed a lot of what DD does now.
 
Their approach involves two interlinked components: (1) direct engagement with local partners and (2) building open-source tools that come from the lived experiences of their partners.
 
The core values underlying all their work are:
  • Self-determination & Autonomy

  • Accessibility

  • Collaboration

  • Social & Environmental Justice

 

These values are not just about the inherent injustices faced by the indigenous people they work with, but goes to the core of how people are included in design processes and decision making about their futures. Their accessibility work includes topics such as language, usability, support for offline work, and more.

 

Currently DD is working on longer-term projects in Ecuador and Guyana.

 

Guyana Case Study

See https://www.digital-democracy.org/ourwork/guyana/

 

Wapichana people were guaranteed full-autonomy before independence, but have had to fight for over 5 decades to try to win this independence.  DD has been working for the past 5 years on mapping projects there.

 

They’ve created a hyper-detailed map of their area. This includes everything from where they gather eggs, where rare birds are, churches, homesteads.

 

They right now only have rights to where the villages are. The map helps them document their use of other lands to then try and gain rights to them. The mountains around them have lots of illegal gold mining, which is creating environmental risks that affect them.

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Part of the mapping work has involved helping people use drones to take imagery of illegal gold mining. They’ve taken the images to the government, and the government has responded by stopping the illegal mining activities.  In addition, they have been able to use this imagery internally to drive community discussions about why these issues matter to their survival.

They have also been in talks with the government to determine whether they can have their full land rights recognized.

Ecuador Case Study

See http://www.digital-democracy.org/blog/update-from-the-ecuadorian-amazon/

 

In Wuorani territory of eastern Ecuador they are working with native people’s in a national forest. DD has been asked to accompany the Wuorani people to map their entire territory. This involves 12 current communities with the plan to bring in 10 more over the next year.

 

The process starts with paper maps (accessible to all). Some communities will separate men and women for different workshops to ensure that everyone has a voice during the session by minimizing the gender dynamics.

 

IMG_20170914_123212.jpg

 

The hand-drawn maps beautifully illustrate their connection and knowledge of the land.  The process lets them take the information in their heads and share it with government officials making decisions about things like mining rights. Then they go out and collect GPS points they record in paper booklets (for now). They also do media making to capture narratives from across the territory. This project has helped bridge the gap between young people (who are often driven to move to the city for work) and elders, who have a deep knowledge of the area.

 

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They have “Technicos” that get trained are elected by the community.  They take these walks to take GPS points to produce a formal map based on the collaborative hand-drawn one.

 

Mapeo

See http://www.digital-democracy.org/blog/mapeo-preview/

 

One big gap they find is that in offline environments there are very few tools that work.  The ones that do are very complex to learn (ie. ArcGIS). DD wanted a tool that would remove them from the equation, letting communities manage their own information.

 

A key goal of Mapeo is that all data and visualizations can be locally-owned and managed, the software is easy-to-use, works offline, and is collaborative. They’ve built on top of ID Editor, which is used with OpenStreetMaps (OSM). OSM has been helpful in creating maps of places that do not have them—for example, companies hadn’t mapped Haiti before the earthquake because there wasn’t commercial value in it, and OSM allowed people to build new maps.

 

They’ve changed ID Editor to be culturally appropriate for the Wuorani people. This includes more appropriate defaults, and picking iconography to represent things like nesting grounds, villages, etc. The Wuorani people have also used Mapeo to identify not just specific locations, but also larger areas. For example, designating an area where they won’t hunt again for a while. It’s been useful in helping address self-governance questions.

 

Once they’ve captured the GPS points, they print out a draft and have the community check and edit it in physical form.  Once those edits are done they print out big versions of the map.  They are designing and developing an interactive map that will also integrate stories and blogs about certain areas.

 

Seikopai digital participative mapping from Digital Democracy on Vimeo.

Discussion

  • My family is from Guyana — I can’t believe you’re working there. Why did you choose Guyana?

    • DD got a Knight News grant to work on what has become Mapeo. DD connected to the Guyana groups after they heard about DD’s previous work in Peru. Then they were invited in to collaborate.

  • I worked in an area on the coast and we were doing a tree inventory. This tool could be great for mapping the trees and how they use them.

    • The desktop version of Mapeo works well, but they are working on a mobile version that will work better for ongoing work.

  • Is there a fear that the information could be used by the wrong people?

    • DD has forked off of OSM, so everything is internal. The community can decide what is released to the world and when. Open data is important when discussing players in power. For small actors, opening data creates opportunities for exploitation. DD tries to help their partners are agency over that and navigate it.

  • How long does this take?

    • Sometimes groups really need to make a map. Other times the mapping is a way to build community awareness. With the Wuorani the first few villages took a long time, but now DD just provides tech support and bug fixing.

  • Do you have materials about how to be the sidekick and support well?

    • Right now neither side of DD’s work is ready to easily share. The idea is to have guides and manuals. The idea of being a “sidekick rather than a superhero” is a great way to say it. DD tries to fight the superhero narrative.

  • How do start to talk with our funders about this type of process – maybe building partnerships for 3 years before tools are designed built.

    • Can we do this as a coalition somehow.  Mapeo was funded by the Knight News Challenge, which they’ve managed to stretch for a long time. DD’s partners work with international groups to find funding to support roll-out. We now have a tool that is worthy of investment but a few years ago I would have been lying to make the pitch that we have a project that is ready to go.

  • Is the tool ready for implementation in other places—for instance there is a need for mapping biodiversity in Mexico?

    • If you know how to use GitHub, then yes! But we do not have a lot of the supportive resources put in place that a lot of people need to implement it. It’s also important to note that the tool is oriented toward a community working on it together rather than an individual. Also, it is important to note that the Wuorani people’s map icons are those people’s intellectual property but they are working on generic rainforest icons that anyone can use on their own maps.

  • Is there any effort to adapt Mapeo to coastal communities?

    • We are fortunate that their is a lot of the Amazon and lot of people working on that effort. But I think it’s possible to adapt to those geographies.

  • Would you be interested in bringing in additional drone mapping and machine learning processing to expand the mapping efforts?

    • One of the most valuable aspects of the current mapping process is the human element where everyone has a chance to have a voice in the process. There are some cases where a more rapid response might be warranted to address a specific need, but there is a lot of value in the slower process.

  • Some people think about mapping in terms of the switch from oral traditions to written or visual, and so how do you think about what is lost through the process?

    • The Wuorani was first contacted by Baptist missionaries a few decades ago, which led to disease and social problems. And for them mapping represented something that was imposed on them, telling them where their territory was and what they could or couldn’t do with it. Maps have been used to disempower people for centuries. The Mapeo process offers them an opportunity to claim some of this power back.

Organizing Christians to Protect Migrant Rights: Robert Chao Romero

As latino communities face increased pressure and risks from US immigrations and customs, how are latinos of faith organizing to protect the vulnerable while also including white Christians in migrant-led efforts for change?

Yesterday, I got to hear from professor Robert Chao Romero, a Chinese-Latinx American historian and immigration lawyer at UCLA. He’s the author of The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 , winner of the Latin American Studies Association’s Latina/o Studies Section Book Award. I got to hear Robert speak in Kingston, Rhode Island, at a retreat for university faculty who are Christians.

Robert opens up by talking about latino students who conclude that Christianity is a system of oppression and colonialism without having the chance to learn their own history of faith-inspired activism. As a historian, Robert has led a series of initiatives in LA that foreground latino religious histories of social justice. As one example, Robert tells us about an annual 4th of July Freedom Ride hosted by his church. The Freedom Ride shows people historic sites of injustice in the LA area, asking a local community leader or pastor to tell the story connected to each location. At every spot, the group holds a prayer for healing. Through tours like this, Robert and others in his community are able to keep community history alive and powerful. He’s now working on a book that covers 500 years of Christian latino social justice organizing.

Robert also tells us about student-hosted discussions at UCLA about immigration and faith, part of a project called Jesus for Revolutionaries (J4R). Recently, students have organized events that share the voices of undocumented students with the wider community at UCLA. Meeting in one of the Christian fraternities, their first event gathered 80 people to hear from their undocumented peers. For many of the people who pass through, Jesus for Revolutionaries offers a first step of a conversation between their faith, values, and identity, one that often leads to participation in other Christian groups for latino and black students.

J4R focuses on connecting activist students with Christian ministries that offer good bridges between students and underserved communities. In addition to giving students an opportunity to serve, J4R also gives students exposure to churches that have developed genuine collaborations with undocumented communities. Over the years, non-Christians have also led J4R initiatives, accessing resources to support their educational and financial needs. Through J4R, many of these non-Christians have connected and collaborated with Christians for the first time, or the first time in many years. J4R also participates in the annual UCLA immigrant youth empowerment conference. Last year, students held a workshop exploring what the Bible says about immigration, exploring how undocumented youth might think about faith in their own lives and question unwelcoming theological assumptions they hear from others.

In the past seven months, Robert and Erica have participated in the Matthew 25 Movement, a mostly-evangelical (but not limited to evangelical) movement that has come together to support vulnerable groups in the US. The bipartisan movement was convened in November before the election by Alexia Salvatierra, author of Faith Rooted Organizing, to imagine practical ways that the church could support communities affected by the upcoming election. After the election, they held another meeting in Union Church, a Japanese Christian church with a history rooted in the internment of Japanese people during the second world war. When 200 people showed up, the group decided to organize as the Matthew 25 Movement. In the initial gathering, people from Christian organizations including Biola University, Fuller Seminary, Asuza Pacific University, and a mix of other church groups and communities are now working together to defend the vulnerable. The movement takes its name from a passage in the book of Matthew where Jesus tells his followers that those who welcome people who are different from them are ultimately welcoming Jesus.

While the message of Matthew 25 is universal, the movement’s work on migrant rights is led by latino churches. Looking at the media create by the Matthew 25 movement after Robert’s talk, I was fascinated to see how they created messages and framings that implicitly include and appeal to non-latino Christians.

To participate, Christians and churches take a pledge “to stand with and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus.” In Southern California, many people in the Matthew 25 Movement have focused on immigration and community policing. When one church asked their community to take the pledge via phone during a church service, immigrants in the community wept to see their neighbors reach for their phones to commit love and support.

How can people get involved in the Matthew 25 movement aside from the pledge? The group has an educational task force that does trainings and seminars in churches, in parallel with groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table who have been working on these issues for years. The advocacy task force works with legislatures. The deportation defense and protection group works with lawyers and churches to help families plan for what to do if they get deported and access the resources they need when it happens. The Matthew 25 movement also matches immigrant and non-immigrant churches to come together in support of specific families that need protection. Even among churches that aren’t open to operating as sanctuary churches, they may be willing to offer other kinds of direct support to families, with the guidance of latino-led churches.

To illustrate the need for deportation defense, Robert and his wife Erica Shepler Romero tell us about the story of pastor Noe Nolberto Carias Mayorga, a south LA pastor who came to the US from Guatemala while a teenager. He’s now being detained by ICE, while his family (who are US citizens) and his church pray that he won’t be deported. The Matthew 25 movement is working to support pastor Noe.

Questions:

A Japanese-American professor whose family was part of the internment during the second world war asks is there are statistics about the racially-targeted nature of enforcement of immigration laws, much as it was racially motivated in WWII.

Robert answers that the United States has many white Canadian and European undocumented people, and that much of the enforcement of immigration laws is racially disparate. He points to the recent conviction of ex-sheriff Arpaio, who violated a court order requiring him to stop racial profiling.

Another person asks if conservatives and republican Christians are joining the Matthew 25 movement. Robert responds that Pastor Noe’s case is starting to get wide attention. High ranking conservatives have started to stand up for him. People with personal relationships to high ranking Republicans and to president Trump have sent letters.

Biohacking and the FBI: Ed You at the Defiance Conference

How is the FBI thinking about its relationship with bio hacking communities as they attempt to support innovation while also limit the risks from DIY biotech?

Here at the Defiance Conference, we’re joined by Ed You, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit. You is responsible for creating programs and activities to coordinate and improve FBI and interagency efforts to identify, assess, and respond to biological threats or incidents.

Investigations are inherently reactive, says Ed. After September 11th, the FBI decided to rethink their mission to focus on prevention. Ed is a molecular biologist by training, and now that the FBI has focused on prevention, they’re hiring more people like him. Next, he talks about “WMD Coordinators,” people like special agent Josh Cantor who work in the FBI’s field offices on biological weapons. They work to establish partnerships with hospitals, researchers, and others who understand the risks before something happens.

The 21st century will be the century of the life sciences, says Ed. As we look for the promise of bio in our lives, we also need to think about the security implications. Ed talks about recent research about genetically modifying animal viruses to spread to humans. After this result came out, scientists put a temporary 60 day moratorium on this kind of research. Ed shows us conspiracy websites that raise fears about government funded work on biological weapons. He argues that

As synthetic biology becomes more widespread, it’s possible to send information on DNA to synthetic bio companies and get a vial of smallpox or some other flu in the mail; a Guardian reporter actually did this in 2006. Since the report came out, the US has introduced regulations to carefully screen who makes these requests and what they ask for.

Yet it’s also important to keep biological research open to the public if we’re to gain the benefits of bio research in the 21st century, Ed tells us. Recent projects have made it possible to do CRISPR gene editing in the home. These are going to be genuine engines of innovation, just like the homebrew computer clubs that started in garages. At the same time, says Ed, governments are worried about genetically-engineered bio weapons and have cracked down on communities of innovation.

“How do you spur innovation while addressing innovation?” Ed asks. If you crack down on innovation, you could drive people underground and constrain important public benefits. Ed says that the FBI is trying to find ways to protect innovation. “Putting up walls is not the answer,” says Ed, who encourages the FBI and biohacking communities to join up. “Be guardians of science,” Ed encourages biohackers, inviting them to think about how best to protect public safety and mentor others to be responsible. Toward that end, the FBI became a sponsor of iGem, an international competition for bio hackers. Ed asks us to look at pictures of young people from China and other countries who participated in iGem. In the future, says Ed, these are people who will become leading citizens of science, and perhaps across the table in negotiations with the US. The FBI has also held meetups with DIY biohacking communities.

DIY bio is a good thing, says Ed. We need more of it, and we need to protect it, something that was emphasized in the 2009- 2017 US report on the study of bioethical issues. He argues that the FBI model can be an example for how other governments engage with creative communities. It pushes people’s comfort levels, and it can lead to public benefits says Ed: some biologists have now been applying to join the FBI: “What better act of defiance than that?”

Escaping The Conspiracy Trap: Masha Gessen at the Defiance Conference

Conspiracy thinking can take over our understanding of the world and immobilize our ability to create a better future. How does that work, and what can we do about it?

Here at the Defiance Conference, we’re joined by journalist and author Masha Gessen. As a journalist living in Moscow, Gessen experienced the rise of Vladimir Putin firsthand. In her 2012 bestselling book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, she gave the chilling account of how a low-level KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency. Her upcoming book looks at how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia.

Conspiracy thinking contaminates life under certain kinds of regime, says Gessen. She starts with “an unfunny joke” from a 1940s diary of an academic who kept a journal of the Hitler years: “Hitler has run into Moses. Hitler says to Moses, tell me the truth: you set the bush on fire yourself, didn’t you?” The joke illuminates, says Gessen, partly because it refers to the Reichstag fire, which many people believed was started by the Nazi party to justify their following actions. Conspiracy thinking is also infectious. In this story, Hitler believes in conspiracies, people believe conspiracies about Hitler, and Hitler thinks that Moses is behind a conspiracy too.

Conspiracies form around the promise of simplicity. Authoritarians get elected by couching their promises in an imaginary past, drawing from traditional values. Conspiracies also work this way, presenting something that already happened as something that is going to happen. She describes 9/11 truthers, pizzagate, and birthers. Russiagate is also a conspiracy: it explains how we got here and how we’re going to solve the problem: Russia got Trump elected, it is claimed, and when we prove it, we’ll be able to get rid of him.

But the possible existence of conspiracy is not an excuse for conspiracy-thinking, says Gessen. When we cling to this idea that there’s one thing that explains everything, we do grave damage to our own ability to think, our politics, and our ability to act.

Why is conspiracy thinking so terrible? It prevents us from looking at the complexity of a given situation. Sometimes things are just a mess. If you read yesterday’s New York Times interview with the president, says Gessen: here’s a man who can’t grasp the meaning of health insurance, federal employment, parades, handshakes, dinners. But somehow, people still believe that he can grasp the meaning and import of a conspiracy: for example that he can keep a secret for many months. What’s wrong with thinking that the president can do this? It’s not reality, says Gessen.

Becoming divorced from reality is a very dangerous thing in life, action, and politics, says Gessen. A focus on the Russian conspiracy theory interferes with our grasp on reality. The Russian part of the story is a different kind of mess. In the popular imagination, the Russian government is governed with an iron fist of one man who controls armies of trolls, spies, etc.. Yet we know that the DNC was hacked by two independent groups that weren’t aware of each other. That’s not an accident; it’s the kind of mess that the Russian state is in. The inroad to the Trump campaign was made by a low-level lawyer who was trying to advance the interests of her clients, says Gessen. She was probably in no position to dangle her offers. She was partly a con artist trying to con Don Jr. into taking that meeting, and she was successful. She may likely have been in competition with other Russians who also stood to benefit greatly by establishing relations with the Trump campaign.

Even if we accept the theory that the Russian government played a substantial role in the election, says Gessen, American voters are still the people who elected Trump. Some have argued that we need to take a closer look at the fabric of American society after the election, many people have focused instead on the Russia story, says Gessen. Newspapers don’t have infinite resources, and their focus on Russia draws attention away from other things. For example, journalists haven’t been asking many questions about US foreign policy toward Russia. Instead, they’re asking about Russiagate. Similarly, argues Gessen, focus on Russiagate has reduced journalists’ focus on the impact of the election on the state of US democratic institutions.

Conspiracies obscure the future. When we focus on conspiracies, we think about what happened. Conspiracy-thinking anchors our hopes about how discovery of the conspiracy will magically lead to change, rather than the things that create real change. The only way to counter a message of the imaginary past is to imagine a glorious future. People who resist authoritarian power often say that things were great before the authoritarian rose to power, and that we need to go back to how things were. Of course the resistance needs to focus on what to salvage, but someone needs to think about the future says Gessen. One of the reasons a complex world becomes so frightening is that people can no longer imagine the future. Citing Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom, Gessen talks about how rootless people become when they can no longer imagine their future.

To defy conspiracy thinking, we need to engage with reality, says Gessen. Accept new information as something that exists in context, and just what you’re learning today. Conspiracies pull us into our online universe of ever-spiraling conspiracy theorizing.

Lessons from Galileo on Science and Religion: Eric Salobir and Maria Zuber at the Defiance Conference

Today at the MIT Media Lab’s Defiance conference, Jonathan Zittrain facilitated a conversation about the story of Galileo and what it means for our understanding of research and activism that violates deeply-held boundaries. Joining the conversation were Father Eric Salobir and Professor Maria Zuber.

Father Eric Salobir is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Order of Preachers (known as Dominicans). As part of the General curia (government) of this religious order, he is in charge of media and technology. He is also the founder of the OPTIC network aimed to promote researches and innovation in the field of digital humanities.

Maria T. Zuber is Vice President for Research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at MIT, where she has responsibility for research administration and policy, overseeing MIT Lincoln Laboratory and over 60 research laboratories and centers at the Institute.

Jonathan opens up by asking Father Eric how he started on a career as a person of faith, especially after a career as a banker. Eric responds, “while I was a banker, I found myself loving my work to bring people joy and hope and engage around ideas. Over time, I realized I wanted to do this all the time. I discovered the dominicans.” Joining an order is like entering a bath time and time again. I met with many people inside and outside the church. I learned that one of the big problems in our time is a lack of hope. When you have two dominicans, you have three opinions: you don’t have to enter a box or deny anything of who you are, he says. Jonathan asks: is there a moment when you have to take an oath? Father Eric responds that the Dominicans have an oath: a vow of obedience to God. After you make that decision, Dominicans have to follow the decision they made on their own.

Jonathan asks Maria Zuber: “you’re a planetary scientist studying plate tectonics. Was there a moment when you felt: that’s my calling?” No, says Maria; it was genetically-encoded in me to become a scientist. There are stories in my family about me in my playpen, rockets taking off, and me pointing at the rockets. Maria started reading science textbooks in elementary school. She always wanted to do astronomical research and has never deviated from the plan.

Jonathan asks about the story of Galileo. When most people hear about him and his work, what’s the canonical story and the real one? Maria responds that Galileo was convicted of heresy for his support of the Copernican system, our understanding of the solar system where the sun is at the center. This system replaced the Ptolemaic system, which put the earth at the center. It is true that Galileo was accused of heresy by the Catholics. But Galileo didn’t help himself, she says. The church was open to the idea of Galileo exploring the Copernican idea. He took observations that showed things like the moons of Jupiter, showing that things went around other things than the Earth. The church was open to him publishing material that treated the idea as a theory, but he wanted it viewed as fact, and there were still things that were unexplained. Was the church more scientific about this than Galileo, asks Jonathan? Maria notes that Galileo went after passages in the Bible that were consistent with the Earth being fixed and claimed that it was incorrect, despite their being multiple possible interpretations. It wasn’t what Galileo said, says Maria, but rather how he said it.

In the latter part of his life, Galileo moved away from collecting data and dedicated himself to seeing that it be adopted. Perhaps if he had continued to collect data, things might have gone in another way, says Maria. Jonathan next asks Father Eric what the story of Galileo is within the Dominican order. Father Eric thinks there was an epistemological over-reach on both sides. Galileo wanted to think about the consequences of his theory for theology, but the theologians did the same. They were not able to be challenged and should have faced the evidence, says Father Eric. In the time of Galileo, people saw science as unifying–so changes in one area were seen as threats to others. In-between the scripture and the science is the interpretation of the scripture. In John Paul II’s statement on Galileo, he argued that the theologians were unable to reconsider their understandings, and they preferred to shut out Galileo.

In 1979 John Paul II wrote of Galileo that, he “had to suffer a great deal… I hope that theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply and, in frank recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come, dispel the mistrust that still opposes, in many minds, a fruitful concord between science and faith.” Why 1979, asks Jonathan. Maria points out that as early as the mid-1700s, pope Benedict allowed the publication of Galileo’s book. It had been on the banned list, and then it was given approval; people in the church thought the matter was settled then. But that wasn’t universally understood within the church or outside it.

What lessons might we draw from this history? asks Jonathan. Maria says that religion can help provide order to people who would otherwise fear their world. Science wasn’t seen as a full understanding of nature; it was viewed as a way of explaining the observations we saw. People were afraid of eclipses, but the Ptolemaic system could still predict eclipses, which people feared. We should always be open to data, and if it causes us to change our idea, we should change it. But we also have to think about the pace of change. Even within science, change can occur in a way that’s so quick that other scientists don’t accept it.

Father Eric points out that at Galileo’s time, the organization of all society was linked with religion. Galileo’s work shook the whole societal system in ways that people weren’t ready to face.

Jonathan notes that there had been a blurring between science and society at the time. Is it actually possible for people to de-conflict by keeping different conversations between science and religion. Father Eric says it’s important for people from the humanities including theology and philosophy to ask questions that scientists might not always be able to ask.

Jonathan asks, if you’re being spiritual, it’s a set of values that you’re reflecting upon and making the case for them. Do you think science has values as well, or is it a view from nowhere? We recently had a March for Science, where Joi spoke. Jonathan recalls some nervousness from scientists that it makes it just another player among many rather than an over-arching framework? Father Eric thinks that technology has taken the leadership; people expect a certain kind of help from technology. It brings a new set of questions. Science is about discovering what already exists, he says. It puts you in a situation of seeing reality as bigger than you. If you are a creator of technology, you don’t have the same mindset of humility. You can have the same superpower feeling. Jonathan asks: if there were a march for science next week, would you happily march and what would your sign say?

Science provides the knowledge that provides the framework for technology, says Maria. It tells us what we can do and it doesn’t tell us if we should do it, and it doesn’t tell us what the implications are. Jonathan asks Maria about her institutional role as VP of research for MIT, would you ever find yourself looking at a massive research project and saying to someone: you need to have a values analysis or person involved. Maria explains that at MIT, we like to think that we create and use technology to help the world. Our fundraising campaign is “the campaign for a better world.” Yet we hear about the negative outcomes as well, from things like automation.

Jonathan asks: is there knowledge better left undiscovered? Maria would say that more knowledge is better than less; the challenge is to choose a prudent pathway in order to progress. Father Eric agrees; what matters is how something is implemented. Is the technology mature enough, and is society ready for it? Jonathan asks: could you see a scientist making the judgment: humanity isn’t ready for this. “Why only the scientist?” asks Father Eric. Society needs to answer those questions together.

When the floor opened up for questions, I asked a question. I mentioned that it seemed odd for a conference celebrating defiance would include a panel advocating for sticking within one’s lane, especially with a prize that celebrates scientists who went into politics, citizens who do science, and people who create great art and ideas despite substantial resistance. I asked if maybe the story of Galileo locks us into an individual versus collective understandings of defiance, and where we might find inspiration for being defiant in productive ways.

Maria talked about evangelical groups that support Christians to better understand climate change, groups like the Evangelical Environment Network and climate scientists like Katharine Hayhoe.

Father Eric describes a Dominican in Brazil who works for farmers around land rights. he says, “There is only one thing you cannot disobey: it’s your conscience. If there’s something you see as fair and right, even if it’s dangerous: no worries, do it. Conscience doesn’t mean that you will never move. It’s not like a compass: if you’re in a boat, when the boat moves, the compass moves. Instead, it’s like GPS, many sources combine to tell you where you are.”

Jonathan responds, perhaps we have the Galilean model of the individual encircled by opposing forces, and the Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change, which is an institution using their power to challenge and overturn assumptions as well.

Hiring a Media Cloud Contract Software Engineer

Online media is in a state of flux. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, so-called fake news – these are all recent developments that have radically altered the landscape of news and information online.  We call this the “networked public sphere”, and the Media Cloud project was created to track and understand it.  Come help us build data-centric tools for academic internet researchers and human rights activists that let them investigate coverage and conversations online about topics they care about.

The Media Cloud project is seeking a contract software engineer to help us build tools that facilitate research about the role of online media in civic discourse.  We are an open source project producing research about the networked public sphere, and helping others do their own research about online media.  We make available to the public our existing archive of more than 550 million stories, adding more than 40,000 new stories daily.

 

The contract software engineer will work on our server architecture, which collects, processes, and makes these stories available via an API.  They will work under senior engineers to plan, design, build, maintain, and run all levels of the project’s platform. This includes back-end tools that collect and archive the data, researcher tools that enable analysis of that data, and occasional contributions to front end tools that expose the data and analysis to the public. Buzzwords – big data, quantitative text analysis, machine learning, etc.

 

Media Cloud is a joint project between the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The position will be a 6-month contract position based at the Center for Civic Media (at the MIT Media Lab), but the engineer will work closely with members of the team from both centers.  The project is funded by human rights foundations. We produce both the open platform and research that helps our funders make decisions about how best to influence online civic conversations about democracy, activism, and health. This is a grant-funded contract position that we hope to extend, or turn into a staff position.

 

We are a diverse project of researchers and technologists who love to wrestle with hard questions about online media by using a combination of social, computer, and data sciences.  The ideal candidate will work well with all members of the team, from senior faculty to junior developers, and will thrive in an academic atmosphere that privileges constant questioning and validation at all levels of the platform and of our research products.  Experience building text-based big data systems, or working as a data scientist, is helpful, as is experience working on projects investigating online media.

 

Minimum Qualifications:

  • B.A. degree, preferably in computer science or data science related field;
  • at least two years experience working as a software engineer;
  • programming fluency – Python required, Perl and Javascript are helpful;
  • demonstrated ability to design, build, test, and deploy robust code;
  • demonstrated ability to iterate quickly through prototypes;
  • demonstrated ability to use data to validate architectural decisions using data.
  • interest in working on issues related to democracy, gender, race, health, and globalization.

Helpful Skills:

  • passion for solving difficult engineering and data problems;
  • experience writing, maintaining, and optimizing SQL queries against large databases;
  • experience implementing and maintaining a production ETL pipeline;
  • experience scaling platforms to handle large data sets;
  • experience writing web crawlers;
  • experience working with PostgreSQL and Solr / Lucene in Ubuntu environments;
  • knowledge and interest in social sciences;

Duties:

  • work with senior engineers to establish technical vision for project;
  • contribute to, and follow, a technical roadmap to meet research needs and complete grant deliverables;
  • collaborate with other developers, designers, and system administrators in implementing technical roadmap;
  • communicate project status internally and externally to our community of users;
  • maintain, upgrade, and build systems within large, existing codebase to collect, archive, and analyze content from online media;
  • writing code to scale systems to handle ever expanding data requirements.

Much of our substantive work focuses on issues of gender, race, and globalization.  We strongly encourage women, people of color, and people of any sexual identity to apply.

 

The job is based in Cambridge, MA, but much of our team is distributed around the world.  We are open to alternative working arrangements that include part time residence in Cambridge.

 

Apply by sending a cover letter, resume, and link to your GitHub profile to jobs@mediacloud.org