With the attack on Colonial Pipeline by a ransomware group causing panic buying and shortages of gasoline on the US East Coast, many are left with more questions than answers to what exactly is going on. We have provided a short FAQ to the most common technical questions that are being raised, in an effort to shine light on some of what we already know.
- What is Ransomware?
- What is the Ransomware Industry?
- What is DarkSide?
- What exactly happened last Friday?
- Why did they target Colonial Pipeline?
- What can I do to defend myself against ransomware?
Ransomware is a combination word of “ransom”—holding stolen property to extort money for its return or release; and “malware”—malicious software installed on a machine. The principle is simple: the malware encrypts the victim’s files so that they can no longer use them and demands payment from the victim before decrypting them.
Most often, ransomware uses a vulnerability to infect a system or network and encrypt files to deny the owner access to those files. The key to decrypt the files is possessed by a third party—the extortionist—who then (usually through a piece of text left on the desktop or other obvious means) communicates instructions to the victim on how to pay them in exchange for the decryption key or program.
Most modern ransomware uses a combination of public-key encryption and symmetric encryption in order to lock out the victim from their files. Since the decryption and encryption key are separate in public-key encryption, the extortionist can guarantee that the decryption key is never (not even briefly, during the execution of the ransomware code) transmitted to the victim before payment.
Extortionists in ransomware attacks are mainly motivated by the prospects of payment. Other forms of cyberattack are most often used by hackers motivated by political or personal factors.What is the Ransomware Industry?
Although ransomware has existed since the late 1980s, its use has expanded exponentially in recent years. This is partly due to the effectiveness of cryptocurrencies in facilitating payments to anonymous, remote recipients. An extortionist can demand payment in the form of bitcoin in exchange for decryption keys, rather than relying on older, much more regulated financial exchanges. This has driven the growth of a $1.4 billion ransomware industry in the US, based solely on locking out users and companies from their files. Average payments to extortionists are increasing as well. A report by Coveware shows a 31% growth in the average payment between Q2 and Q3 of 2020.
The WannaCry attack in 2017 was one of the largest ransomware incidents to date. Using a leaked NSA exploit dubbed “EternalBlue,” WannaCry spread to more than 200,000 machines across the world, demanding payment from operators of unpatched Windows systems. Displaying a message with a bitcoin address to send payment to, the attack cost hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. An investigation of WannaCry code by a number of information security firms and the FBI pointed to the hacking group behind the attack having connections to the North Korean state apparatus.What is DarkSide?
The FBI revealed on Monday that the hacking group DarkSide is behind the latest ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline. DarkSide is a relatively new ransomware group, only appearing on the scene in August 2020 in Russian-language hacking forums. They have poised themselves as a new type of ransomware-as-a-service business, attempting to inculcate “trust” and a sense of reliability between themselves and their victims. In order to ensure payment, DarkSide has found it useful to establish a reputation which ensures that when the victims deliver the ransom, they are guaranteed to receive a decryption key for their files. In this vein, the group has established a modern, polished website called DarkSide Leaks, aimed at reaching out to journalists and establishing a public face. They say that they solely target well-funded individuals and corporations which are able to pay the ransom asked for, and have a code of conduct claiming not to target hospitals, schools, or non-profits. They have also attempted to burnish their image with token donations to charity. Darkside, who reportedly typically asks for ransoms that range between $200,000 to $2,000,000, produced receipts showing a total of $20,000 in donations to charities Children International and The Water Project. The charities refused to accept the money.
DarkSide claims that they are not affiliated with any government, and that their motives are purely financial gain—a claim that has been assessed most likely to be true by cybersecurity firm Flashpoint. However, DarkSide code analyzed by the firm Cyberreason has been shown to check the systems language settings as a very first step, and halt the attack if the result is a language “associated with former Soviet Bloc nations.” This has fuelled speculation in the US that Russia may be affording the group special protection, or at least turning a blind eye to their misdeeds.
The result has been profitable for the cyber-extortion group. In mid-April, the group obtained $11 million from a high-profile victim. Bloomberg reports that Colonial Pipeline paid $5 million to the group.What exactly happened last Friday?
Colonial Pipeline has operated continuously since the early 1960s, supplying 45% of the US East Coast gasoline supply, in addition to diesel and jet fuel. On Friday, May 8th, it shut down 5,500 miles of its pipeline infrastructure in response to a cyber-extortion attempt. The pipeline restarted on May 12th. Though the incident is still under investigation, the FBI confirmed on Monday what was already speculated: DarkSide was behind the attack.
In an apparent response to—though not an admission of involvement in—the attack, DarkSide released a statement on their website stating that they would introduce “moderation” to “avoid social consequences in the future.”Why did they target Colonial Pipeline?
If patterns are any indication, DarkSide chose Colonial as a “big game” target due to the deep pockets of the firm, worth about $8 billion. Still, many suspect that DarkSide is now feeling a dawning sense of dread as the lateral effects of their attack are playing out: panic buying, gas shortages, and involvement by federal investigators as well as an executive order by President Biden intending to bolster America’s cyberdefenses as a response. Escalated to the level of an international incident, DarkSide may see the independence and latitude they are reported to enjoy dissipate under geopolitical pressure.What can I do to defend myself against ransomware?
Frequently backing up your data to an external hard drive or cloud storage provider will ensure you are able to retrieve it later. If you already have a backup, do not plug the external hard drive into your computer after it is infected: the ransomware will likely target any new device that is recognized. You may need to reinstall your operating system, replace your hard drive, or bring it to a specialist to ensure complete removal of any infection.
You can also follow our guide to keeping your data safe. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has also provided a detailed guide on protecting yourself from ransomware. Note that it’s much easier to defend yourself against malware than to remove it once you’re infected, so it is always advisable to take proactive steps to defend yourself.
Partnering with the ACLU and numerous other public interest advocates, businesses and educators, EFF has filed an amicus brief urging the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a district court’s decision not to block enforcement of SB 822, a law that ensures that that all Californians have fair access to all internet content and services.
For those who haven’t been following this issue: after the Federal Communications Commission rolled back net neutrality protections in 2017, California stepped up and passed a bill that does what the FCC wouldn’t: bar ISPs from blocking and throttling internet content and imposing paid prioritization schemes. The major ISPs promptly ran to court, claiming that California’s law is preempted– meaning, the FCC’s choice to abdicate binds everyone else – and asking the court to halt enforcement until the question was resolved. On February 23, 2021, Judge John Mendez said no, making it pretty clear that he did not think the ISP's challenge would succeed on the merits. As expected, the parties then headed to the Ninth Circuit.
Our brief supporting the district court’s decision explains some of the stakes of SB 822, particularly for communities that are already as a disadvantage. Without legal protections, low-income Californians who rely on mobile devices for internet access and can’t pay for more expensive content may face limits on that access which is critical for distance learning, maintaining small businesses, and staying connected. Schools and libraries are also justifiably concerned that without net neutrality protections, paid prioritization schemes will degrade access to material that students and public need in order to learn. SB 822 addresses that by ensuring that large ISPs do not take advantage of their stranglehold on Californians’ internet access to slow or otherwise manipulate internet traffic.
The large ISPs also have a vested interest in shaping internet use to favor their own subsidiaries and business partners, at the expense of diverse voices and innovation. Absent meaningful competition, ISPs can leverage their last-mile monopolies to customers’ homes and bypass competition for a range of online services. That would mean less choice, lower quality, and higher prices for users—and new barriers to entry for innovators.
We hope the court recognizes how important SB 822 is, and upholds Judge Mendez’s ruling.
Nature Climate Change, Published online: 13 May 2021; doi:10.1038/s41558-021-01045-2Using mechanistic models that incorporate visual foraging and temperature-driven physiology for two fish types, the authors reveal how latitudinal light gradients, which are not affected by climate change, can constrain warming-related shifts to high latitudes.
Nature Climate Change, Published online: 13 May 2021; doi:10.1038/s41558-021-01039-0Marine low clouds cool the planet, but their response to warming is uncertain and dominates the spread in model-based climate sensitivities. Observational constraints suggest smaller cloud feedbacks than previously reported and imply a more moderate climate sensitivity.
Over the last two years, Multiply Labs has helped pharmaceutical companies produce biologic drugs with its robotic manufacturing platform. The robots can work around the clock, precisely formulating small batches of drugs to help companies run clinical trials more quickly.
Now Multiply Labs, which was founded by Fred Parietti PhD ’16 and former visiting PhD at MIT Alice Melocchi, is hoping to bring the speed and precision of its robots to a new type of advanced treatment.
In a recently announced project, Multiply Labs is developing a new robotic manufacturing platform to ease bottlenecks in the creation of cell therapies. These therapies have proven to be a powerful tool in the fight against cancer, but their production is incredibly labor intensive, contributing to their high cost. CAR-T cell therapy, for example, requires scientists to extract blood from a patient, isolate immune cells, genetically engineer those cells, grow the new cells, and inject them back into the patient. In many cases, each of those steps must be repeated for each patient.
Multiply Labs is attempting to automate many processes that can currently only be done by highly trained scientists, reducing the potential for human error. The platform will also perform some of the most time-consuming tasks of cell therapy production in parallel. For instance, the company’s system will contain multiple bioreactors, which are used to grow the genetically modified cells that will be injected back into the patient. Some labs today only use one bioreactor in each clean room because of the specific environmental conditions that have to be met to optimize cell growth. By running multiple reactors simultaneously in a space about a quarter of the size of a basketball court, the company believes it can multiply the throughput of cell therapy production.
Multiply Labs has partnered with global life sciences company Cytiva, which provides cell therapy equipment and services, as well as researchers at the University of California San Francisco to bring the platform to market.
Multiply Labs’ efforts come at a time when demand for cell therapy treatment is expected to explode: There are currently more than 1,000 clinical trials underway to explore the treatment’s potential in a range of diseases. In the few areas where cell therapies are already approved, they have helped cancer patients when other treatment options had failed.
“These [cell therapy] treatments are needed by millions of people, but only dozens of them can be administered by many centers,” Parietti says. “The real potential we see is enabling pharmaceutical companies to get these treatments approved and manufactured quicker so they can scale to hundreds of thousands — or millions — of patients.”
A force multiplier
Multiply Labs’ move into cell therapy is just the latest pivot for the company. The original idea for the startup came from Melocchi, who was a visiting PhD candidate in MIT’s chemical engineering department in 2013 and 2014. Melocchi had been creating drugs by hand in the MIT-Novartis Center for Continuous Manufacturing when she toured Parietti’s space at MIT. Parietti was building robotic limbs for factory workers and people with disabilities at the time, and his workspace was littered with robotic appendages and 3-D printers. Melocchi saw the machines as a way to make personalized drug capsules.
Parietti developed the first robotic prototype in the kitchen of his Cambridge apartment, and the founders received early funding from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program.
After going through the Y Combinator startup accelerator, the founders realized their biggest market would be pharmaceutical companies running clinical trials. Early trials often involve testing drugs of different potencies.
“Every clinical trial is essentially personalized, because drug developers don’t know the right dosage,” Parietti says.
Today Multiply Labs’ robotic clusters are being deployed on the production floors of leading pharmaceutical companies. The cloud-based platforms can produce 30,000 drug capsules a day and are modular, so companies can purchase as many systems as they need and run them together. Each system is contained in 15 square feet.
“Our goal is to be the gold standard for the manufacturing of individualized drugs,” Parietti says. “We believe the future of medicine is going to be individualized drugs made on demand for single patients, and the only way to make those is with robots.”
Roboticists enter cell therapy
The move to cell therapy comes after Parietti’s small team of mostly MIT-trained roboticists and engineers spent the last two years learning about cell therapy production separately from its drug capsule work. Earlier this month, the company raised $20 million and is expecting to triple its team.
Multiply labs is already working with Cytiva to incorporate the company’s bioreactors into its platform.
“[Multiply Labs’] automation has broad implications for the industry that include expanding patient access to existing treatments and accelerating the next generation of treatments,” says Cytiva’s Parker Donner, the company’s head of business development for cell and gene therapy.
Multiply Labs aims to ship a demo to a cell therapy manufacturing facility at UCSF for clinical validation in the next nine months.
“It really is a great adventure for someone like me, a physician-scientist, to interact with mechanical engineers and see how they think and solve problems,” says Jonathan Esensten, an assistant adjunct professor at UCSF whose research group is being sponsored by Multiply Labs for the project. “I think they have complementary ways of approaching problems compared to my team, and I think it’s going to lead to great things. I’m hopeful we’ll build technologies that push this field forward and bend the cost curve to allow us to do things better, faster, and cheaper. That’s what we need if these really exciting therapies are going to be made widely available.”
Esensten, whose workspace is also an FDA-compliant cell therapy manufacturing facility, says his research group struggles to produce more than approximately six cell therapies per month.
“The beauty of the Multiply Labs concept is that it’s modular,” Esensten said. “You could imagine a robot where there are no bottlenecks: You have as much capacity as you need at every step, no matter how long it takes. Of course, there are theoretical limits, but for a given footprint the robot will be able to manufacture many more products than we could do using manual processes in our clean rooms.”
Parietti thinks Esensten’s lab is a great partner to prove robots can be a game changer for a nascent field with a lot of promise.
“Cell therapies are amazing in terms of efficacy,” Parietti says. “But right now, they’re made by hand. Scientists are being used for manufacturing; it’s essentially artisanal. That’s not the way to scale. The way we think about it, the more successful we are, the more patients we help.”
Acclaimed finance expert Robert C. Merton PhD ’70 has been named the recipient of MIT’s 2021-2022 James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award, the highest honor the Institute faculty can confer upon one of its members.
The Killian Award citation hails Merton, the School of Management Distinguished Professor of Finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management, as “one of the founding architects of modern finance theory,” whose work has “become an integral part of the global financial system.”
The citation also notes Merton’s “profound commitment to innovation through scientific research and to advancing pedagogy in financial economics, as well as to serving as a highly valued mentor to graduate students and junior colleagues.” The award was announced at today’s Institute faculty meeting.
“I am deeply honored to have my work recognized by my remarkable and marvelously accomplished faculty colleagues who make MIT so special,” Merton said, upon receiving the award.
The Killian Award is the latest honor for Merton in a career full of distinctions. Merton won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1997 (an honor shared with Myron Scholes) for his work in the 1970s developing an innovative model for pricing options in markets. Options are contracts used to buy or sell assets at set prices, and are often used to diversify or hedge a portfolio’s holdings.
The Black-Scholes-Merton theory of options pricing — also developed with economist Fischer Black — was recognized as a breakthrough at the time and became applied widely in finance. It remains heavily used today as a basic approach for determining valuations and risks around a wide array of financial instruments, including corporate debt and other liabilities, mortgages, and deposit, pension, and other financial insurance.
Beyond options pricing, Merton has examined a wide range of issues during his career, including retirement finance, optimal lifetime consumption and portfolio selection for investors, intertemporal asset pricing, credit risk, and loan guarantees. In recent years, his research has looked in depth at retirement finance solutions; tracking large-scale, systemic financial risks; and financial innovation and the dynamics of change in financial institutions.
“He is also adept at developing scientific, non-partisan, and apolitical frameworks in which to apply theory to address critical challenges at the intersection of financial economics and public policy pertaining to sovereign risk management, financial regulation of systemic risk, personal retirement planning, and university endowment management,” the Killian Award citation states.
Merton received his BS in engineering mathematics from Columbia University, an MS in mathematics from Caltech, and his PhD from MIT’s Department of Economics in 1970, where his principal adviser was the distinguished economist Paul A. Samuelson.
After receiving his doctorate, Merton joined the finance faculty at MIT Sloan, where he became a full professor and served until 1988 as the J.C. Penney Professor of Management. Merton taught at the Harvard Business School from 1988 through 2010, when he returned to MIT.
Among other distinctions and honors in his career, Merton is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a past president of the American Finance Association. He holds honorary degrees from numerous U.S. and foreign universities.
“I take great pride in this Institute-wide recognition for the field of financial economics and our finance group in the Sloan School,” Merton said while receiving the award. “Every day, the environment at MIT created by its extraordinary community is another day of a continuous renaissance in science, engineering, humanities, management and the arts.”
MIT has released an ambitious new plan for action to address the world’s accelerating climate crisis. The plan, titled “Fast Forward: MIT’s Climate Action Plan for the Decade,” includes a broad array of new initiatives and significant expansions of existing programs, to address the needs for new technologies, new policies, and new kinds of outreach to bring the Institute’s expertise to bear on this critical global issue.
As MIT President L. Rafael Reif and other senior leaders have written in a letter to the MIT community announcing the new plan, “Humanity must find affordable, equitable ways to bring every sector of the global economy to net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050.” And in order to do that, “we must go as far as we can, as fast as we can, with the tools and methods we have now.” But that alone, they stress, will not be enough to meet that essential goal. Significant investments will also be needed to invent and deploy new tools, including technological breakthroughs, policy initiatives, and effective strategies for education and communication about this epochal challenge.
“Our approach is to build on what the MIT community does best — and then aspire for still more. Harnessing MIT’s long record as a leader in innovation, the plan’s driving force is a series of initiatives to ignite research on, and accelerate the deployment of, the technologies and policies that will produce the greatest impact on limiting global climate change,” says Vice President for Research Maria Zuber, who led the creation and implementation of MIT’s first climate action plan and oversaw the development of the new plan alongside Associate Provost Richard Lester and School of Engineering Dean Anantha Chandrakasan.
The new plan includes a commitment to investigate the essential dynamics of global warming and its impacts, increasing efforts toward more precise predictions, and advocating for science-based climate policies and increased funding for climate research. It also aims to foster innovation through new research grants, faculty hiring policies, and student fellowship opportunities.
Decarbonizing the world’s economy in time will require “new ideas, transformed into practical solutions, in record time,” the plan states, and so it includes a push for research focused on key areas such as cement and steel production, heavy transportation, and ways to remove carbon from the air. The plan affirms the imperative for decarbonization efforts to emphasize the need for equity and fairness, and for broad outreach to all segments of society.
Charting a shared course for the future
Having made substantial progress in implementing the Institute’s original five-year Plan for Action on Climate Change, MIT’s new plan outlines measures to build upon and expand that progress over the next decade. The plan consists of five broad areas of action: sparking innovation, educating future generations, informing and leveraging government action, reducing MIT’s own climate impact, and uniting and coordinating all of MIT’s climate efforts.
MIT is already well on its way to reaching the initial target, set in 2015, to reduce the Institute’s net carbon emissions by at least 32 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. That goal is being met through a combination of innovative off-campus power purchase agreements that enable the construction of large-scale solar and wind farms, and an array of renewable energy and building efficiency measures on campus. In the new plan, MIT commits to net-zero direct carbon emissions by 2026.
The initial plan focused largely on intensifying efforts to find breakthrough solutions for addressing climate change, through a series of actions including the creation of new low-carbon energy centers for research, and the convening of researchers, industry leaders, and policymakers to facilitate the sharing of best practices and successful measures. The new plan expands upon these actions and incorporates new measures, such as climate-focused faculty positions and student work opportunities to help tackle climate issues from a variety of disciplines and perspectives.
A long-running series of symposia, community forums, and other events and discussions helped shape a set of underlying principles that apply to all of the plan’s many component parts. These themes are:
- The centrality of science, to build on MIT’s pioneering work in understanding the dynamics of global warming and its effects;
- The need to innovate and scale, requiring new ideas to be made into practical solutions quickly;
- The imperative of justice, since many of those who will be most affected by climate change are among those with the least resources to adapt;
- The need for engagement, dealing with government, industry, and society as a whole, reflecting the fact that decarbonizing the world’s economy will require working with leaders in all sectors; and
- The power of coordination, emphasizing the need for the many different parts of the Institute’s climate research, education, and outreach to have clear structures for decision making, action, and accountability.
Bolstering research and innovation
The new plan features a wide array of action items to encourage innovation in critical areas, including new programs as well as the expansions of existing programs. This includes the Climate Grand Challenges, announced last year, which focus on game-changing research advances across disciplines spanning MIT.
“We must, and we do, call for critical self-examination of our own footprint, and aspire to substantial reductions. We also must, and we do, renew and bolster our commitment to the kind of paradigm-shifting research and innovation, across every sector and in every field of human endeavor, that the world expects from MIT,” notes Professor Lester. “An existential challenge like climate change calls for both immediate action and extraordinary long shots. I believe the people of MIT are capable of both.”
The plan also calls for expanding the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, created earlier this year, to foster collaborations among companies and researchers to work for solutions to climate problems. The aim is to greatly accelerate the adoption of large-scale, real-world climate solutions, across different industries around the world, by working with large companies as they work to find ways to meet new net-zero climate targets, in areas ranging from aerospace to packaged food.
Another planned action is to establish a Future Energy Systems Center, which will coalesce the work that has been fostered through MIT’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers, created under the previous climate action plan. The Institute is also committing to devoting at least 20 upcoming faculty positions to climate-focused talent. And, there will be new midcareer ignition grants for faculty to spur work related to climate change and clean energy.
For students, the plan will provide up to 100 new Climate and Sustainability Energy Fellowships, spanning the Institute’s five schools and one college. These will enable work on current or new projects related to climate change. There will also be a new Climate Education Task Force to evaluate current offerings and make recommendations for strengthening research on climate-related topics. And, in-depth climate or clean-energy-related research opportunities will be offered to every undergraduate who wants one. Climate and sustainability topics and examples will be introduced into courses throughout the Institute, especially in the General Institute Requirements that all undergraduates must take.
This emphasis on MIT’s students is reflected in the plan’s introductory cover letter from Reif, Zuber, Lester, Chandrakasan, and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Glen Shor. They write: “In facing this challenge, we have very high expectations for our students; we expect them to help make the impossible possible. And we owe it to them to face this crisis by coming together in a whole-of-MIT effort — deliberately, wholeheartedly, and as fast as we can.”
The plan’s educational components provide “the opportunity to fundamentally change how we have our graduates think in terms of a sustainable future,” Chandrakasan says. “I think the opportunity to embed this notion of sustainability into every class, to think about design for sustainability, is a very important aspect of what we’re doing. And, this plan could significantly increase the faculty focused on this critical area in the next several years. The potential impact of that is tremendous.”
The plan calls for creating a new Sustainability Policy Hub for undergraduates and graduate students to foster interactions with sustainability policymakers and faculty, including facilitating climate policy internships in Washington. There will be an expansion of the Council on the Uncertain Human Future, which started last year to bring together various groups to consider the climate crisis and its impacts on how people might live now and in the future.
“The proposed new Sustainability Policy Hub, coordinated by the Technology and Policy Program, will help MIT students and researchers engage with decision makers on topics that directly affect people and their well-being today and in the future,” says Noelle Selin, an associate professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. “Ensuring sustainability in a changed climate is a collaborative effort, and working with policymakers and communities will be critical to ensure our research leads to action.”
A new series of Climate Action Symposia, similar to a successful series held in 2019-2020, will be convened. These events may include a focus on climate challenges for the developing world. In addition, MIT will develop a science- and fact-based curriculum on climate issues for high school students. These will be aimed at underserved populations and at countering sources of misinformation.
Building on its ongoing efforts to provide reliable, evidence-based information on climate science, technology, and policy solutions to policymakers at all levels of government, MIT is establishing a faculty-led Climate Policy Working Group, which will work with the Institute’s Washington office to help connect faculty members doing relevant research with officials working in those areas.
In the financial arena, MIT will lead more research and discussions aimed at strengthening the financial disclosures relating to climate that corporations need to make, thus making the markets more sensitive to the true risks to investors posed by climate change. In addition, MIT will develop a series of case studies of companies that have made a conversion to decarbonized energy and to sustainable practices, in order to provide useful models for others.
MIT will also expand the reach of its tools for modeling the impacts of various policy decisions on climate outcomes, economics, and energy systems. And, it will continue to send delegations to the major climate policy forums such as the UN’s Conference of the Parties, and to find new audiences for its Climate Portal, web-based Climate Primer, and TILclimate podcast.
“This plan reaffirms MIT’s commitment to developing climate change solutions,” says Christopher Knittel, the George P. Shultz Professor of Applied Economics. “It understands that solving climate change will require not only new technologies but also new climate leaders and new policy. The plan leverages MIT’s strength across all three of these, as well as its most prized resources: its students. I look forward to working with our students and policymakers in using the tools of economics to provide the research needed for evidence-based policymaking.”
Recognizing that the impacts of climate change fall most heavily on some populations that have contributed little to the problem but have limited means to make the needed changes, the plan emphasizes the importance of addressing the socioeconomic challenges posed by major transitions in energy systems, and will focus on job creation and community support in these regions, both domestically and in the developing world. These programs include the Environmental Solutions Initiative’s Natural Climate Solutions Program, and the Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network, which aims to provide fine-grained climate predictions.
“I’m extraordinarily excited about the plan,” says Professor John Fernández, director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative and a professor of building technology. “These are exactly the right things for MIT to be doing, and they align well with an increasing appetite across our community. We have extensive expertise at MIT to contribute to diverse solutions, but our reach should be expanded and I think this plan will help us do that.”
“It’s so encouraging to see environmental justice issues and community collaborations centered in the new climate action plan,” says Amy Moran-Thomas, the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Anthropology. “This is a vital step forward. MIT’s policy responses and climate technology design can be so much more significant in their reach with these engagements done in a meaningful way.”
MIT’s first climate action plan produced mechanisms and actions that have led to significant reductions in net emissions. For example, through an innovative collaborative power purchase agreement, MIT enabled the construction of a large solar farm and the early retirement of a coal plant, and also provided a model that others have since adopted. Because of the existing agreement, MIT has already reduced its net emissions by 24 percent despite a boom in construction of new buildings on campus. This model will be extended moving forward, as MIT explores a variety of possible large-scale collaborative agreements to enable solar energy, wind energy, energy storage, and other emissions-curbing facilities.
Using the campus as a living testbed, the Institute has studied every aspect of its operations to assess their climate impacts, including heating and cooling, electricity, lighting, materials, and transportation. The studies confirm the difficulties inherent in transforming large existing infrastructure, but all feasible reductions in emissions are being pursued. Among them: All new purchases of light vehicles will be zero-emissions if available. The amount of solar generation on campus will increase fivefold, from 100 to 500 kilowatts. Shuttle buses will begin converting to electric power no later than 2026, and the number of car-charging stations will triple, to 360.
Meanwhile, a new working group will study possibilities for further reductions of on-campus emissions, including indirect emissions encompassed in the UN’s Scope 3 category, such as embedded energy in construction materials, as well as possible measures to offset off-campus Institute-sponsored travel. The group will also study goals relating to food, water, and waste systems; develop a campus climate resilience plan; and expand the accounting of greenhouse gas emissions to include MIT’s facilities outside the campus. It will encourage all labs, departments, and centers to develop plans for sustainability and reductions in emissions.
“This is a broad and appropriately ambitious plan that reflects the headway we’ve made building up capacity over the last five years,” says Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative. “To succeed we’ll need to continually integrate new understanding of climate science, science and technology innovations, and societal engagement from the many elements of this plan, and to be agile in adapting ongoing work accordingly.”
To help bring MIT’s investments in line with these climate goals, MIT has already begun the process of decarbonizing its portfolio, but aims to go further.
Beyond merely declaring an aspirational goal for such reductions, the Institute will take this on as a serious research question, by undertaking an intensive analysis of what it would mean to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050 in a broad investment portfolio.
“I am grateful to MITIMCO for their seriousness in affirming this step,” Zuber says. “We hope the outcome of this analysis will help not just our institution but possibly other institutional managers with a broad portfolio who aspire to a net-zero carbon goal.”
MIT’s investment management company will also review its environmental, social, and governance investment framework and post it online. And, as a member of Climate Action 100+, MIT will be actively engaging with major companies about their climate-change planning. For the planned development of the Volpe site in Kendall square, MIT will offset the entire carbon footprint and raise the site above the projected 2070 100-year flood level.
A centerpiece of the new plan is the creation of two high-level committees representing all parts of the MIT community. The MIT Climate Steering Committee, a council of faculty and administrative leaders, will oversee and coordinate MIT’s strategies on climate change, from technology to policy. The steering committee will serve as an “orchestra conductor,” coordinating with the heads of the various climate-related departments, labs, and centers, as well as issue-focused working groups, seeking input from across the Institute, setting priorities, committing resources, and communicating regularly on the progress of the climate plan’s implementation.
The second committee, called the Climate Nucleus, will include representatives of climate- and energy-focused departments, labs, and centers that have significant responsibilities under the climate plan, as well as the MIT Washington Office. It will have broad responsibility for overseeing the management and implementation of all elements of the plan, including program planning, budgeting and staffing, fundraising, external and internal engagement, and program-level accountability. The Nucleus will make recommendations to the Climate Steering Committee on a regular basis and report annually to the steering committee on progress under the plan.
“We heard loud and clear that MIT needed both a representative voice for all those pursuing research, education, and innovation to achieve our climate and sustainability goals, but also a body that’s nimble enough to move quickly and imbued with enough budgetary oversight and leadership authority to act decisively. With the Climate Steering Committee and Climate Nucleus together, we hope to do both,” Lester says.
The new plan also calls for the creation of three working groups to address specific aspects of climate action. The working groups will include faculty, staff, students, and alumni and give these groups direct input into the ongoing implementation of MIT’s plans. The three groups will focus on climate education, climate policy, and MIT’s own carbon footprint. They will track progress under the plan and make recommendations to the Nucleus on ways of increasing MIT’s effectiveness and impact.
“MIT is in an extraordinary position to make a difference and to set a standard of climate leadership,” the plan’s cover letter says. “With this plan, we commit to a coordinated set of leadership actions to spur innovation, accelerate action, and deliver practical impact.”
“Successfully addressing the challenges posed by climate change will require breakthrough science, daring innovation, and practical solutions, the very trifecta that defines MIT research,” says Raffaele Ferrari, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography. “The MIT climate action plan lays out a comprehensive vision to bring the whole Institute together and address these challenges head on. “Last century, MIT helped put humans on the moon. This century, it is committing to help save humanity and the environment from climate change here on Earth.”
Technology users around the world are increasingly concerned, and rightly so, about protecting their data. But many are unaware of exactly how their data is being collected and would be shocked to learn of the scope and implications of mass consumer data collection by technology companies. For example, many vendors use tracking technologies including cookies—a small piece of text that is stored in your browser that lets websites recognize your browser, see your browsing activity or IP address but not your name or address—to build expansive profiles about user behavior over time and across apps and sites. Such data can be used to infer, predict, or evaluate information about a user or group. User profiles may or may not be accurate, fair, or discriminatory, but can still be used to inform life-altering decisions about them.
A recent data privacy scandal in Japan involving Rikunabi—a major job-seeking platform that calculated and sold companies algorithmic scores which predicted how likely individual job applicants would decline a job offer—has underscored how users’ behavioral data can be used against their best interests. Most importantly, the scandal showcases how companies design workarounds or “data-laundry” schemes to circumvent data protection obligations under Japan”s data protection law (Act on the Protection of Personal Information (APPI)). This case also highlights the dangers of badly-written data protection laws and their loopholes. Japanese Parliament adopted amendments to the APPI, expected to be implemented by early 2022, intended to close some of these loopholes, but the changes still fall short.The Rikunabi Scandal
Rikunabi is operated by Recruit Career (at the time of the scandal. It’s now Recruit Co., Ltd.), a subsidiary of a media conglomerate Recruit Group, which also owns Indeed and Glassdoor. Rikunabi allows job-seekers to search for job opportunities and mostly caters to college students and others just beginning their careers. It hosts job listings for thousands of companies. Like many Internet platforms, Rikunabi used cookies to collect data about how its users search, browse, and interact with its job listings. Between March 2018 and February 2019, using Rikunabi’s data, Recruit Career—without users’ consent—was calculating and selling companies algorithmic scores that predicted how likely an individual job applicant would decline a job offer or withdraw their application.
Thirty-five companies, including Toyota Motor Corporation, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, and other Japanese corporate giants, purchased the scores. In response to a public outcry, Recruit Career tried to excuse itself by saying that the companies who purchased the job-declining scores agreed not to use them for the selection of candidates. The company claimed the scores were intended only for clients to have better communication with their candidates, but, there was no such guarantee that’s how they would be used. Because of Japan’s dominant lifetime employment system, students feared such scores could limit their job opportunities and career choices, potentially affecting their whole professional life.APPI: Japanese Data Protection Law
Under the stronger, stricter, and detailed EU data protection regulations, cookies can constitute personal data. Identifiers don’t have to include a user’s legal name (meaning identity found on national ID card or drivers’ license) to be considered personal data under EU law. If entities processing personal data can indirectly identify you, based on multiple data, such as cookies, and other identifiers likely to distinguish you from others, that is considered processing personal data. This is what EU authorities refer to as “singling-out” to indirectly identify people: isolating some or all records which identify an individual, linking at least two records of the same individual to identify someone, or inferring identification by looking at certain characteristics and comparing them to other characteristics. The very definition of personal data under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) refers to things that are "online identifiers." GDPR guidelines specifically mention that cookie identifiers may be used to create profiles of and identify people. If companies process personal data in a way that could tell one person apart from another, then this person is "identified or identifiable." And if the data is about a person, and used with the purpose of evaluating the individual, or is likely to have an impact on the person’s rights or interests, such data "relates to" the "identified or identifiable" person.
These are key elements of what is defined as personal data within EU regulation and valuable to understand this case. Why? Because EU regulation requires companies to request users’ prior consent before using any identifying cookies, except ones strictly necessary for things like remembering items in your shopping cart or information entered into forms. In contrast, APPI uses very different criteria to judge whether cookies or similar machine-generated identifiers are personal data. APPI guidelines look at whether a company collecting, processing, and transferring cookies can readily collate them with other information by a method used in the ordinary course of business to find out the legal identity of an individual. So if a company can identify an individual by asking another company to access other data to collate with a cookie and identify an individual, the cookie is not considered personal data for the company. The company can thus freely collect, process, and transfer the cookie even when a recipient of the cookie can easily re-identify the person by linking it with another data set. Under this test, companies can indirectly identify people by means of singling out without running afoul of the APPI.The Rikunabi Scheme: Data Laundering to Circumvent the Spirit of the Law
The strategy involved three players. The first two are Recruit Career and Recruit Communications. Recruit Career is the company that operates Rikunabi, the job-search website. Recruit Communications is a marketing and advertising company, which Recruit Career subcontracted to create and deliver algorithmic scores. The third player is the one purchasing the scores: Rikunabi’s clients such as Toyota Motor Corporation.
According to a disclosure by Recruit Career, the scheme operated as follows:
Recruit Career collected data about users who visited and used the Rikunabi site. This included their real names, email addresses, and other personal data, as well as their browsing activity on Rikunabi. For example, one user’s profile might contain information about which companies they searched for, which ones they looked at, and what industries they seemed most interested in. All of this information was linked to a Rikunabi cookie ID. For the creation of algorithmic scores, Recruit Career shared with Recruit Communications Rikunabi users’ browsing history and activity linked to their Rikunabi cookie IDs, omitting real names.
At the same time, client companies such as Toyota accepted job applications on their own website. Each client company collected applicants’ legal names and contact information, and also assigned each applicant a unique applicant ID. All of this information was linked to the companies’ Employer cookie IDs. For the scoring work, each client company instructed applicants to take a web survey, which was designed to allow Recruit Communications to directly collect their Employer cookie IDs and applicant IDs connected to them. In this way, Recruit Communications was able to collect applicants’ Rikunabi cookies and the cookies assigned to applicants by client companies.
Recruit Communications somehow linked these two sets of identifiers, possibly by using cookie synching (a method that web trackers use to link cookies with one another and combine the data one company has about a user with data that other companies might have), so that it could associate their Rikunabi browsing activity with applicant IDs and single out an individual.
With the linked database, Recruit Communications put the data to work. It trained a machine learning model to look at a user’s Rikunabi browsing history and then predict whether that user would accept or reject a job offer form a particular company.
Recruit Communications then delivered those scores associated with applicant IDs back to client companies. Since each client had its own database linking its applicant IDs to real identities, client companies could easily associate the scores they received from Recruit Communications with the real names of job applicants. And job seekers who trusted their data with Rikunabi? Without their knowledge or consent, the site’s operator and its sister company, in collaboration with Rikunabi’s clients, had created a system that may have cost them a job offer by inaccurately predicting what jobs or companies they were interested in.Why Do It Like This?
The APPI prohibits businesses from sharing a user’s personal data without prior consent. So, if Recruit Career delivered scores linked to applicants’ names, it would be required to get users’ consent to process their information in that way.
APPI doesn’t regard cookies or similar machine-generated identifiers as personal data if a company itself cannot readily collate it with other data sets to identify a person. So, Recruit Communication was, by being provided only with data disconnected from names and other personal identifiers, systematically unready to collate other information to identify individuals. Thus, under APPI, Recruit Communications was not collecting, processing, and providing any personal data and had no need to get user consent to calculate and deliver algorithmic scores to client companies.
This data laundering scheme could have been created to ensure that the whole program was technically legal, even without users’ consent. But as Recruit Career knew those client companies can easily associate the scores linked to each applicant ID with applicants’ real names, the Japanese data protection authority, Personal Information Protection Commission, found that it had engaged in “very inappropriate services, which circumvented the spirit of the law,” and ordered the company to improve privacy protections.The 2020 APPI Amendment Closed Some Loopholes, But Others Remain
After the scandal, the APPI was amended in June 2020. When the amended law goes into effect by early 2022, it will require companies transferring a cookie or similar machine-generated identifiers to confirm beforehand whether the recipient of the data can identify an individual by combining such data with other information that the recipient has. When that is the case, the new APPI requires companies transferring such data to ensure that the recipient obtained users' prior consent for the collection of personal data. Rikunabi’s scheme would violate the 2020 amendment unless Recruit Communications, knowing full well that clients can combine the data it provides with data they already have to identify individuals, confirmed with clients before transferring algorithmic scores that they had obtained users’ prior consent for collecting their private information.
But even after the 2020 amendment, the APPI does not classify a cookie as personal data when combined indirectly with the dossiers of behavioral data often associated with them. This is a mistake. Cookies and similar machine-generated identifiers (like mobile ad IDs) are the linchpins that enable widespread online tracking and profiling. Cookies are used to link behavior from different websites to a single user, allowing trackers to connect huge swaths of a person’s life into a single profile. Just because a cookie isn’t directly linked to a person’s real identity doesn’t make the profile any less sensitive. And thanks to the data broker industry, cookies often can be linked to real identities with relative ease. A slew of “identity resolution” service providers sell trackers the ability to link pseudonymous cookie IDs to mobile phones, email addresses, or real names.
In this ongoing series, MIT faculty, students, and alumni in the humanistic fields share perspectives that are significant for solving climate change and mitigating its myriad social and ecological impacts. Nadia Christidi is a PhD student in MIT HASTS, a program that combines research in history, anthropology, science, technology, and society. Her dissertation examines how three cities that face water supply challenges are imagining, planning, and preparing for the future of water. Christidi has a particular interest in the roles that art, design, and architecture are playing in that future imagining and future planning process. MIT SHASS Communications spoke with her on the ways that her field and visual cultures contribute to solving issues of climate change.
Q: There are many sensible approaches to addressing the climate crisis. Increasingly, it looks as if we’ll need all of them. What perspectives from the HASTS fields are significant for addressing climate change and its ecological and social impacts?
A: My research focuses on how three cities that face water supply challenges are imagining, planning, and preparing for the future of water. The three cities I focus on are Los Angeles, Dubai, and Cape Town. Water is one of the key issues when it comes to adapting to climate change and my work tries to understand how climate change impacts are understood and adaptation policies developed.
My approach to climate change and adaptation brings together various disciplines — history, anthropology, science and technology studies, and visual cultures; each of these helps me see and elucidates very particular aspects of climate change.
I think history reminds us that our ways of being and systems are historically constructed rather than given, inevitable, or natural, and that there is an alternative. Anthropology elucidates that while we may all talk about "climate change," what is meant by it, how it is understood and experienced, and how it is dealt with as a problem will differ from place to place; climate change is as much a social and cultural phenomenon and experience as it is a scientific or environmental one, as much a global issue as it is a local one. The social, cultural, and local, anthropology reminds us, have to be factored into meaningful policy.
Science and technology studies sheds light on the various communities involved in developing climate change knowledge; the role that their investments, stakes, and interests play; and the translation between science and policy that needs to happen for scientifically-informed policy to emerge. The STS perspective also points out that science is one of many systems for understanding climate change and that there may be other valid, useful worldviews from which we can learn.
And finally, visual cultures underscore how pop cultural and visual references, symbols, and imagery shape imaginaries and expectations of climate change, including scientific ones, and sometimes open up or foreclose pathways to action.
Q: What pathways of thought and action do you personally think might be most fruitful for alleviating climate change and its impacts — and for forging a more sustainable future?
A: I think we are going to need a lot of imagination going forward. As climate change gets underway, we’re seeing a lot more emphasis on adaptation, and imagination is key to adapting to a set of totally different circumstances.
This belief has led me to explore the "imaginative capacities" of planning institutions, the impact of popular culture imaginaries, from the utopian to the dystopian, on our preparations for the future, and the role that creative practitioners — including artists, architects, and designers — can play in expanding our imaginative possibilities.
One of my interlocutors aptly uses the phrase "crisis of imagination" to describe the present. In order for the necessary imagination work to take place, we must take seriously different actors as sources of knowledge, expertise, and perspectives, and make the process of imagining and planning more inclusive.
Partly, my work considers how creative practitioners are imagining climate change and the future of water and the alternative knowledge or perspectives they can offer. Most of the works that I look at involve collaborations between artists/architects, scientists, engineers, and/or policymakers. They see artists contributing to science or transforming urban space or impacting policy.
For instance, the UAE pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, Wetland, will unveil a locally-produced salt-based building material as an alternative to cement. Developed by Dubai-based architects Wael Al Awar and Kenichi Teramoto, the pavilion tackles the issues of brine — a salty byproduct of desalination, which is the country’s main source of potable water — and the carbon footprint of cement use in Dubai’s robust construction industry.
Inspired by historical examples of salt architecture and by the natural architectures of local salt flat ecosystems, the architects worked with scientists from NYU Abu Dhabi to develop the material. Such work shows how interdisciplinary collaborations with creative practitioners can not only advance the sciences, but also reimagine established industries and practices, and develop innovative approaches to the carbon emissions problem.
Peggy Weil, an artist based in Los Angeles, rethinks landscape as a genre in our climate-changed present. Holding that the traditional horizontal format of the landscape is no longer representative, she develops “underscapes,” where she films the length of ice cores or aquifers, and “overscapes,” which involve studies of the air, as portraits of the Earth. These ‘scapes’ argue for a need to re-perceive our surroundings in order to more fully understand how we have chemically, hydrogeologically, and climatically transformed them.
Peggy and I have talked extensively about how important "re-perceiving" will be for encouraging behavior changes and generating economic and political support for the work of water managers and policymakers as well as the role of the arts in driving this "re-perception."
Q: What dimensions of the emerging climate crisis affect you most deeply — causing uncertainty, and/or altering the ways you think about the present and the future? When you confront an issue as formidable as climate change, what gives you hope?
A: I think one dimension of the climate crisis I find especially disturbing is its configuration at times and in certain places as an economic opportunity, where new devastating environmental conditions are taken to be opportunities for innovation and technological development that will enable economic growth.
This becomes especially compelling in times of economic deceleration or as the specter of the end of oil grows stronger. But we need to ask: economic growth for whom, at what costs, and with what effects? And is growth what we really need?
I don’t think that the economy should be pitted against the environment; I am a total believer in sustainability as an issue that must encompass the economic, social, and environmental. But the real problems are with economic distribution rather than growth, and the promise of unlimited growth — as further stoked by renewables — which is a fallacy or fantasy.
I tend to agree with journalist Naomi Klein that the market, green or not, isn’t going to solve climate change challenges because we need more than just a technofix; we need policy and behavioral changes and new investment directions, many of which go against established economic arrangements and priorities. Locally produced salt-based building materials are a good start, but not enough.
Some of the most challenging and consequential imaginative work we will have to do will be on the social front; this will entail reconsidering some things we take for granted. I love theorist Frederic Jameson’s suggestion that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” as well as Mike Fisher’s concept of “capitalist realism,” which captures the ideological underpinnings of that worldview.
The privatization of water is one of the scariest intensifying developments in my mind, especially given anticipated climate change effects, but I take some reassurance from projects that aim to counter such trends. One of the promising architectural proposals I've studied in Los Angeles is by Stephanie Newcomb. Stephanie’s work, Coopelluvia, aims to complement stormwater capture projects developed by governmental entities in LA county on public land and that form a major prong of the City of LA’s water planning strategy; it explores the possibility of turning stormwater captured in side setback spaces between private properties into a communal water resource in the low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Pacoima and Arletta in the San Fernando Valley.
Stephanie’s proposed intervention blurs the boundary between public and private and empowers marginalized communities through developing communal resource management systems with multiple environmental and social benefits. Her work is guided by theories of the commons, rather than privatization and market-oriented solutions — and I think such projects and theories hold a lot of promise for facilitating the kinds of radical change we need.
Series prepared by SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Co-Editor: Kathryn O'Neill
In January, when MIT’s campus was snowy and students were engaged in their Independent Activities Period, the Undergraduate Association (UA) announced a team-up with MIT leaders to source ideas on making the upcoming spring semester more enjoyable despite the pandemic. The resulting event, christened COVID Hack, started on Jan. 8 and encompassed three days of brainstorming around four tracks: outdoor spaces, virtual community, remote learning, and policy awareness.
Preceded by several days of community events intended to build excitement, the hackathon drew nearly 100 team proposals that were judged by MIT leaders including Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, and Professor Rick Danheiser, the Arthur C. Cope Professor of Chemistry and chair of the MIT faculty.
The idea of COVID Hack sprang from the proposals students were generating on their own to make life on campus in Covid time a little better. “They had ideas about dining or socialization,” says senior Kiara Wahnschafft, COVID Hack director, and UA chief of staff. “And so we thought, well, everyone's bored and at home during IAP. So why don't we hold this really fun event where you can actually share your ideas.”
What’s more, COVID Hack had the backing of MIT leaders who agreed to help the winners turn their hacks into real programs. The fun of thinking big, combined with the potential for those ideas to shape life on campus, gave participants an emotional and intellectual boost. “The Hack provided an outlet for actually thinking about your community,” says first-year student Abbie Schipper, who serves on the UA’s Committee on COVID-19 and helped organize the hackathon. “We asked a bunch of people what was the most fun thing they did over IAP, and they said it was the COVID Hack.”
The four selected concepts are now being implemented, though the final forms of some projects have evolved from the teams' original ideas. Here’s where their ideas stand today.
Submitted by Team banana bunch: Felix Li, Robert Cato III, Umang Bansal, and Sangita Vasikaran (all juniors)
The Pitch: “The _finite is an assortment of up to three guided walking loops in the MIT area with signs posted along the trails acting as conversation starters. The trails will help students explore new areas of campus, create extended social spaces, and encourage conversation and socialization in a Covid-safe way.”
What’s the latest? “This has already been implemented,” says Gustavo Burkett, senior associate dean for diversity and community involvement. Two routes — DORMfinite on the west side of campus and MAINfinite on the east side — offer a nice walk enhanced by unanticipated conversations. “Along each loop are signs with QR codes that link to questions intended to be conversation starters,” Burkett adds. “Using a smartphone, students will get questions to share with a walking buddy or for personal reflection if they’re walking alone.” Each route has its own set of questions, so the experience is different each time students walk the paths.
“The entire project is centered around asking questions and getting to know the people you're walking the trails with, and my friends and I had a lot of fun experimenting with the different questions,” says Robby Cato of Team banana bunch. “One of the biggest adaptations we made from our initial proposal was the use of QR codes,” Cato adds. “I think our original design had the questions printed directly on the signs, but this made the project less sustainable because you'd have to print new signs if you wanted to swap questions.”
And, like each team, finding the time to work on The _finite was among the biggest challenges they faced. “I think we were able to overcome this by delegating different tasks [to other team members] based on skill level and comfort,” Cato said.
Submitted by Team Ok Google, Play All Star By Smash Mouth: Tim Gutterman, Kenny Cox, and Ibuki Iwasaki (all juniors)
The Pitch: “Beavers Incognito is a weekend-long social event with a mystery-solving component. Designed to bring MIT undergraduates together using a novel yet simple anonymous matching system, this event will foster the development of meaningful, long-term connections within the student body.”
What’s the latest? “The team is ready to launch this any time now,” Burkett says. The system, currently undergoing beta testing, poses a number of questions to student participants about how they experience life at MIT. The algorithm matches participants, who then have to guess who they’re matched with based on the submitted answers. The team also got some help from an outside developer and support from the Division of Student Life (DSL) and the de Florez Fund for Humor.
“I’m surprised at how little we’ve actually had to change our concept since the hack,” says team member Kenny Cox. “We thought we would be able to consolidate all the parts of the project into one website, but that turned out to be logistically difficult, so we’ve had to think creatively about the way we’re going to deliver the project to students,” he says. Teammate Ibuki Iwasaki had a more personal take. “I’ve really enjoyed seeing responses come in ever since we opened up the registration to testers,” she says. “Kenny and I have put in a decent amount of time and effort into Beavers Incognito, and it’s been really cool to see it come to life.”
Improving Digital Education: A Handbook and Suggestions
Submitted by Team JAS: junior Shannon Weng and first-years Joshua-Curtis Kuffour and Abigail Kolyer
The Pitch: “This project aims to improve digital education by the creation of a handbook and the development of suggestions for professors and students. Our project will centralize academic information and tools that instructors can employ to foster a sense of community among students and faculty, and enhance the virtual MIT experience.”
What’s the latest? Team JAS published their handbook on the UA website. “The most enjoyable part of working on the handbook was the team assembly part,” says Joshua Curtis Kuffour. The team especially enjoyed working with a broad range of people who work on education. “From the UA Education committee to the Teaching and Learning Lab to even working with Ian Waitz was very exciting for all of us.” Vice Chancellor Waitz was particularly helpful, guiding the team to keep the handbook concise, Kuffour says. “Our original idea was to have a very lengthy handbook detailing everything we wanted to suggest to faculty regarding teaching online,” he says. The finished product is a web page with 19 suggestions across five topic areas.
“The judges really resonated with the goal that Team JAS articulated during their pitch: If instructors heard about what their students see as best practices, this could result in better teaching, better learning, and better engagement,” says Krishna Rajagopal, the William A.M. Burden Professor of Physics and MIT’s dean for digital learning. “Immediately after the hack, it was great to see how JAS and the UA did such an excellent job preparing their Handbook of Tips for Remote Teaching in a very short time.”
Submitted by Team :0:D: sophomore Kanoe Evile and first-year Jimin Lee
The Pitch: “[COVID Friends!] are animated public service announcements (PSAs) aiming to educate students on MIT Covid policies. This collection of characters unique to the MIT community will be an engaging and dynamic alternative to the currently dense presentation of Covid policy available to students through email and the DSL website.”
What’s the latest? [COVID Friends!] launched in early March and continues to evolve, with three student animators developing clips on topics such as Covid testing, daily attestation, and building access. “It’s been difficult deciding which policies to animate, and to actually create the animations,” Lee says. “Animating is a time-consuming process and thus it’s been difficult to balance this project with the semester and these challenging times.” To ensure that the interpretations of policies were both clear and correct for the first round of animations, the team shared storyboards with DSL staff.
“Their concept is really fun and novel,” says Matthew D. Bauer of DSL Communications, who discussed the project’s opportunities and challenges with team members Evile and Lee. “Covid policies are carefully written and detailed by design, so visually highlighting what students need to know helps to clarify expectations and encourage students to do their part.” Lee adds: “Beyond Covid, we think these beavers could be integrated into communications from the various offices and services on campus, and hope to continue to share informative and enjoyable content.” For the moment, [COVID Friends!] can be seen on various social media platforms and on the team’s Instagram account.
Expanding life outside
In addition to working with hackathon winners, the UA and DSL are implementing other outdoor enhancements that will invigorate campus as the weather gets warmer. “We’re setting up some fun and inviting spaces on campus, including outdoor games like giant Jenga and Connect Four, and we extended Tech Twinkles into spaces around the Student Center by wrapping trees with lights and installing strings of bistro lights in spaces where students can gather safely,” Burkett says. “We are preparing to take delivery of outdoor furniture — picnic tables, benches, and chairs — made from recycled milk crates, so it’s really durable and sustainable,” Burkett adds.
Another idea generated outside of the hackathon is a collaboration of the UA, DSL, and The Borderline, which sponsors student artists to paint works in the tunnel between buildings 66 and E17. Borderline will project student art in three campus locations to encourage outdoor activity and brighten the Institute’s overall environment.
The UA and DSL are also teaming up to run movies in the Stata Center Amphitheater using an inflatable screen. “We can safely get about 25 viewers in the space outside, so the UA worked out a system for obtaining tickets ahead of time, which ensures that we stay within Covid space usage limits,” Burkett says. The movies have since been moved to Kresge Lawn to allow more students to attend spread out across a wider space.
Junior Maheera Bawa, who also serves on the UA’s COVID-19 Committee and helped to organize the hackathon, says ideas that didn’t win their track also had merit. “Abby and I right now are trying to get ideas off the ground that didn't necessarily win but were really great,” she says. “Movies at Stata is one of them, and then there’s the ‘smores project, which was also really great.” The soon-to-launch effort includes delivering kits for making ‘smores outdoors to pods in undergraduate houses.
Though these ideas were developed with Covid time in mind, Burkett sees purpose beyond the pandemic for ideas submitted through COVID Hack. “We’re working to make the lighting around the Student Center more permanent,” he says, “and the new Student Events Board is taking over the movie nights and carrying those on beyond the pandemic.”
The student leaders are thinking even more broadly. “When we were developing COVID Hack, in the back of our minds we were thinking ‘Are we going to do this again in the future?’ And let's make sure that this is replicable, because the idea of bringing a whole bunch of students together to impact their experience is something we want to do again and again and again,” Wahnschafft says. “What if we do a [diversity, equity, and inclusion]-specific hackathon? Or, you could imagine doing another space-specific hackathon. It would be really cool to see them popping up across campus, getting more people involved in improving MIT further.”