Data Sculpture: Media Perspective

For those of us who work with data, we get used to visualizing in our mind and develop an intuition for it. For everyone else, data visualization usually takes the form of a diagram on a small, two-dimensional screen. Standard data plots can take an exciting idea and turn it into something boring, or even worse, drudge up memories of panicked high school math exams. This experimental data sculpture attempts to draw the viewer into the visualization and connect them with the data on an intuitive, physical level. The sculpture shows the amount of coverage the U.S. mainstream media gave to Net Neutrality between January 2014 and April 2015, while the FCC was creating revised Net Neutrality rules. Each of the 33 panes of clear acrylic represents a two-week time slice, with the size of an etched circle corresponding to the amount of coverage. The top row shows total Net Neutrality coverage, with the other three rows representing coverage of "innovation," "discrimination," and "regulation," in reference to Net Neutrality.

Attention peaks four times: when the FCC announces its proposal, at the end of the public comment period, after President Obama announces support for reclassifying broadband, and finally when the FCC releases its new regulations. Coverage is notably low during the public comment period, the primary time individual citizens had a chance to influence the policy. The visualization also shows that "discrimination," language used in earlier technical and legal discussion of Net Neutrality disappeared from mainstream media coverage, giving way to the more idealogical and economic terms "innovation" and "regulation." The viewer can explore these data by walking around the sculpture, standing back, or standing close, making it easy to engage without a digital interface or specialized knowledge.

Cross-posted to MIT Center for Civic Media

Advice for First Generation College Students

Some students entering college this fall have prepared their entire lives. But first-generation students, the first in their family to attend college, will leave their known world behind, with little idea of what to expect.

About a decade ago, I was one of these students. Neither of my parents went to college, and my father (despite being one of the smartest people I know) never finished high school. I stumbled my way through four years at MIT, figuring things out as I went, usually by making mistakes. Now I’m back at MIT as a staff researcher, and last year I had the opportunity to serve as an alumni mentor for MIT’s First Generation Project. I was delighted to find that I was able to help some bright young students by sharing my hard-learned lessons. I was also surprised at how common many of the experiences I had were. So I’d like to share those experiences and lessons here in the hopes that they’ll help current first-gen students, and help everyone understand us a little better.

Navigating the College Environment

College culture is very different from the environments–often minority, working-class, and/or immigrant–that first-gen students are used to. The most common adjustment for first-gen students is learning to ask for help! That can be difficult to do when you’re not used to there being anyone to go to. When I was growing up, I learned that asking for help made people do whatever they could to get me to go away. They had their own problems, they didn’t need to deal with mine too. In college, it was a huge revelation that people would not only help me, but be happy to do it (with occasional exceptions). Colleges want their students to succeed! Getting help means talking to peers and professors, studying in groups, going to office hours, asking questions in class, and seeking out resources for counseling or student life issues when needed. Another revelation was that I didn’t need a specific ask. I could go to someone with a problem, and they would help me figure out how to solve it–probably better than I could have on my own. Just as important as asking, is learning not to feel guilty for needing help, instead feeling and expressing gratitude.

Mentorship is one of the most powerful types of help you can seek. The realities of college life can be very different from official policies. Trying to navigate college life by-the-book is often an exercise in frustration, bureaucracy, and confusion unless you’ve learned to read between the lines. A good mentor can help. Mentors are also key for learning what you don’t know you don’t know. An ideal mentor is someone who looks like the kind of person you’d like to grow into. They’ve no doubt learned a lot along the way. They can help you avoid obstacles and direct you towards resources you never knew existed. Finding good mentors can be easier said than done, but the first step is learning to reach out to more experienced people who share your interests and passions.

First-gen students also face a sense of isolation. When you’re a part of two very different worlds, you never quite fit in anywhere. The good news is: that’s OK. It’s more important to become comfortable with yourself than it is to try to fit a mold. A mostly-empty dorm can feel particularly lonely when it seems like everyone has flown home for a long weekend, but you couldn’t afford to. But you’re often not as alone as it seems, and it’s important to find people you can relate to, who you feel comfortable around. For me, this was living in the beautifully dilapidated, graffiti-covered Bexley Hall. And with many colleges now offering first-gen programs, it’s increasingly easier to meet students with similar expereinces. On the flipside, it’s important to venture out of your comfort zone, to fully take advantage everything your new environment has to offer. One thing that helps is to remember that even when you feel like an outsider, it doesn’t necessarily mean others see you that way. You probably have a unique perspective to offer, and if they’re wise, they’ll appreciate that. Similarly, it can be tough to find yourself judged against people who have had more opportunities than you, but instead of resenting it, it’s wise to learn from the unique perspective that they have.


If you’re the first in your family to go to college, chances are you’re paying your tuition with debt, and you won’t have much pocket change. There isn’t much you can do about that, but a few practical tips can make the financial squeeze a little more bearable. Student discounts are everywhere, especially in college towns, so always make sure to ask. Similarly, the Student Advantage card or a AAA membership can easily pay for themselves with discounts on travel and other purchases.

You’ll start getting credit card offers. The only cards you should consider are ones with no fee that offer cash back rewards (usually from 1-5%). If you do get one, never carry a balance. Never put more on it than you have in your checking account, and set a reminder for yourself to pay it off twice per month.

Textbooks are expensive. My textbook collection is still the most costly thing I own, and I’ve gotten rid of most of them! If you can, borrow your books from friends who have taken the class. Otherwise, rent or buy used books, and sell them as soon as you’re done with the class– the resale value drops quickly, especially if a new edition comes out.

Saving money is important, but one of the hardest things for a cash-strapped first-gen student to learn is that sometimes it’s better to spend it. A good rule of thumb is to spend extra money on things that will last a long time, and that will improve your life on a daily basis. That could be anything from a comfortable mattress, to bonding with a group of friends over dinner.

Family Obligations

The purpose of college is self-improvement, which requires a certain amount of self-centeredness. That can put first-gen students in a bind. Less privileged families are disproportionately affected by things like unemployment, physical and mental health issues, and incarceration. First-gen students can face an incredible amount of guilt for focusing on their studies while their families struggle. Trying to help your family and succeed in college can feel like you’re simultaneously playing two games with different rules, and you need to make the right moves to win both. The difficult truth is that, in most cases, focusing on your studies is better in the long run than letting them take the back seat while you help your family. As the cliché goes, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help anyone else.

I’ve personally struggled to find a balance obligations to myself and to my family, and over many years, I’ve settled on some guidelines that I’ve found helpful. For college students, earning potential is low and money is often more limited than time, so financial help is usually not the most efficient form. If you do need to help your family financially, make gifts, not loans. Counting on getting money back can set you up for catastrophes that are both financially and emotionally costly.

As an alternative to money, emotional support can be incredibly powerful, and the positive, thriving atmosphere of college can put you in a great position to offer it. Colleges usually offer great support and counseling for students, and by leveraging that to take better care of yourself, you can help provide a sense of stability and security to your family. You can also help your family in other non-monetary ways. For instance, if they need a new car, you could see whether anyone in your college network knows someone selling one for a good price.

Unfortunately, well-intentioned help can become unbalanced and unhealthy, so it’s important to develop strong boundaries. One rule of thumb is that if someone is capable of doing something themselves, doing it with them is ok, but doing it for them is not. Another good guideline is not to assume the consequences of anyone else’s decisions or actions. It can be incredibly hard to stick to these boundaries when people you love need help. Offering empathy and emotional support is often a good alternative. As a final thought, sometimes there just isn’t anything you can do to help. When that’s the case, remember that someday, you’ll be in a better position, and even though you can’t go back in time, you’ll be able to pay it forward and offer that help to your own friends, children, and mentees.

MIT Media Lab on Net Neutrality

When the FCC released it's 2014 Open Internet proposal, the MIT Media Lab formed a working group to make an official statement. I was one of the contributors, and I think we produced an insightful document on the importance of Net Neutrality.

This document is the response of members of the MIT Media Lab to NPRM 14-28, “In the Matter of Promoting the Open Internet.” We recognize that the Internet has become the platform for a great many innovations that have changed the face of society and industry. It has provided opportunity for people throughout the world to gain from unfettered access to information and, most important, to create a universal platform upon which advances in computing can propagate and impact the well-being of people everywhere. We therefore feel it is imperative to secure a future where the Internet remains open, without the constraints or restrictions that benefit some economic entities at the expense of the population at large, both in the United States and throughout the world...

Read the full comment.

MIT/Knight Civic Media 2014

New Work from the Center for Civic Media from MIT CMS/Writing on Vimeo.

A bunch of spectacular 5 minute updates on 2013—2014 research projects from the Center for Civic Media, where I work. Mine are at 11:00 (What We Watch) and 26:05 (Media Meter), but they're all wonderful.

How to Make Bread

Ed Platt: "How to Make Bread" from MIT CMS/Writing on Vimeo.

I gave an "icebreaker" ignite at the 2014 MIT/Knight Civic Media conference. The theme was "The most interesting thing I learned this year" and I talked about how to culture your own yeast to make bread.

MIT Physics Undergrad Thesis

My undergrad physics thesis, supervised by Edward Farhi. Link.

MIT Snowflake-A-Thon 2005

In January of 2005 I participated in the Snowflake-A-Thon hosted by the Simplicity group at the MIT Media Lab. The challenge was to write the simplest program that produced the most beautiful snowflake. You can see the gallery of all the snowflakes and a video of mine here. Update: The gallery is no longer available on the Media Lab site, but you can see my video below.

My program created a hexagonal grid, and assigned a number to each hexagon. The center started as "1" and the rest started as "0". After every time step, the value of each hexagon was added to each of its neighbors, modulo 32. I ran the code for a few time steps and then mapped the numbers to a gradient from dark blue to white. I got the idea from playing around with 2d cellular automata on a hexagonal grid when I was in high school.

I thought the resulting snowflake was really nice. Apparently the Simplicity people thought I was a total weirdo for coding a snowflake in MATLAB, but I remain pleased with the results.