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Research in the time of covid

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Maria Zuber got the word on a Friday: Harvard had shut down its research labs. As vice president for research, Zuber consulted with lead researchers across campus over whether MIT should follow suit. “Don’t you dare,” she remembers them saying. “Don’t you dare be like those Harvard people.” 

As covid-19 cases continued to rise across the country, however, she and other senior administrators made the difficult decision by that Sunday: MIT would be scaling down its research to near zero for the first time since opening its doors 155 years ago. “It was a complete shock to people,” Zuber says. “We gave labs three days to come up with a plan, and another three days to execute it.” 

MIT has always prided itself on being always open. Professors go into the lab at 3 a.m. to check on experiments and find that grad students may be just putting on another pot of coffee. Closing just isn’t in the Institute’s DNA. “We view ourselves as a 24/7 institution,” says Zuber, who is also the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics. 

Since that Friday the 13th in March, however, MIT has had to adjust to research in the time of covid. With more than 90% of its labs shut down by March 20, researchers have had to adapt to working from home and collaborating over Zoom. Meanwhile, faculty tapped to serve on the Research Ramp-Up Lightning Committee began collaborating in mid-April to solve a daunting engineering challenge: how to open up MIT’s research labs safely once more. 

Ramp down

Krystyn Van Vliet, a professor of biological engineering and materials science, was on a plane home from Singapore just days after the first three covid cases were identified there. She knew the outbreak would soon be hitting the US. By the time she got back to Cambridge, Van Vliet had started preparations, drafting plans to divide her team into three units that would work different shifts so if any one person contracted the virus, others would be protected. 

Then, less than two months later, came the order to shut down her lab entirely. At the time of the announcement, she was working on a line of stem cells that take 80 days to grow. “We had to close down that experiment and lose three months of work,” Van Vliet says. Her team frantically gathered whatever data they could before they had to dispose of the cells. “You have to manage the disappointment,” she says.

Closing just isn’t in the Institute’s DNA. “We view ourselves as a 24/7 institution,” says geophysics professor Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research.

As MIT’s associate provost, Van Vliet had the additional responsibility of managing the use of lab space on campus during the pandemic, leading nightly meetings of the Space Contingency Working Group. “MIT ramped down, but it never completely closed,” she says. Exemptions were given to labs studying the coronavirus, working on such things as developing and testing a new vaccine or designing a new ventilator. 

In addition, researchers could apply for exemptions to work on ongoing experiments involving expensive materials or rare animals, such as a specialized strain of transgenic mice. Koch Institute director Tyler Jacks, a professor of biology, was about four months into experiments testing a new drug for efficacy against certain types of cancer. “Animals had been dosed multiple times, but the research wouldn’t be completed for another month or two,” he says. “To terminate abruptly would result in the irrevocable loss of data, materials, and frankly resources.” In the end, about 10% of labs, including his, stayed active.

covid supply drawer at CSAIL
Drawers at CSAIL that once held cables are now stocked with gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer.
TONY LUONG

Everyone else, however, was forced to shut down as quickly and completely as possible. Canan Dagdeviren, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab who designs conformable electronic devices for biomedical applications, counted herself lucky. As a junior faculty member facing space and budget constraints, she had set up her space from the start as an efficient “lean lab.” Color-coded maps in her clean room and cloud storage of data allowed her to shut down quickly. “We have standard operating procedures for emergencies, and everyone knew what to do,” Dagdeviren says. “They took it all apart from start to end in 15 minutes.”

For researchers working on complicated biological or animal experiments, turning on a dime to shift to a virtual lab wasn’t so easy. Neuroscience professor Jim DiCarlo, head of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, does both computational modeling and behavioral experiments involving primates. “Our experiments with animals had to basically stop—it’s painful from a research perspective,” he says. Some types of research, for example, involve implanting electrodes into the brains of the primates and must be monitored closely for six months. While none of those experiments were then under way, the closure meant any new experiments had to be put on hold. “We couldn’t perform them from an ethical perspective unless we knew they were going to continue the entire time,” he says.

Someone, of course, also had to keep caring for the animals. The job of making sure that happened fell to Jim Fox, professor of biological engineering and director of the Division of Comparative Medicine, which oversees more than 100,000 animals—including mice and rats, zebrafish and zebra finches, pigs and primates. Some rodents were euthanized, but other mice and rats and all other animals remained on campus, spread out over seven buildings, throughout the closure. “Primates are in a special category because of cost and availability and ethical issues,” he says. “Others are specially genetically engineered animals that are very difficult to replace.”

While there was concern that some primates could contract the coronavirus, their animal technicians were already wearing full protective gear—surgical masks, face shields, lab coats, gloves—to stop transmission of any pathogens. For those caring for other animals, Fox mandated the use of masks as well as the usual gloves and lab coats, stepping up sanitation procedures too. 

None of the animals contracted covid during the three-month lockdown, but three technicians did. “Fortunately, they stayed home and were retested, and all came back to work without a problem,” Fox says.

Lockdown

Having shut down their campus operations, most researchers across MIT had to shift their work to a virtual environment. Many, like DiCarlo, were still able to be productive remotely. “We’ve got plenty of data, and took advantage of the time to get it better organized and analyzed,” he says. “The silver lining of this is that we can catch up on all of the things we usually don’t have time to do.” In the time away from the lab, he says, his team was able to make headway on long-standing goals of sharing data more publicly and developing a platform for benchmarking computational models against experimental data.

Still, the three-month closure was difficult for grad students dependent upon their research for an advanced degree. 

“I was in the middle of an experiment involving several monkeys, and starting to get some really good data, as coronavirus started to break out,” says Michael Lee, a grad student in DiCarlo’s lab who conducts behavioral experiments with primates to study visual computation and learning. “It was a little disappointing not being able to continue.” 

chair in CSAIL
With strict social distancing rules in place, a researcher’s jacket marks the only chair in use in a CSAIL lab on a Tuesday in September.
TONY LUONG

Although he wasn’t completely stuck, since some of his work involves coding and analysis he could perform remotely, it was nerve-wracking to pause his research. “Like many graduate students, I feel pressure to always be striving toward graduation, so there was some feeling of anxiety about how long my experiments would be on hold,” Lee says. 

Other researchers had to figure out new ways to continue their work virtually. “As a junior faculty member, I don’t have the luxury to stop or slow down,” says Dagdeviren, “so I said to my students, ‘We can’t go inside the clean room physically, so why don’t we do experiments in simulations?’” 

She reached out to theoretical physicists at the University of Buffalo, who collaborated on simulations for the materials they were studying in the lab. “Now our students are not only experimentalists,” she says, “but they are starting to be theorists as well.” 

For researchers at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), staying out of the lab posed other challenges. “There are some students and researchers who need access to special equipment like robots and 3D printers,” says CSAIL director Daniela Rus. Some were able to send files to a fabrication company to print designs, while others bought their own desktop 3D printers. “We’ve been able to fabricate in our homes, but not as extensively and not with as wide a range of materials as in the lab,” she says. 

Her team, however, has also used the time away from the lab to develop new simulations. For a project involving new control systems for autonomous driving, the researchers were able to work with an existing data set to simulate various driving conditions, such as different lighting or weather. “All of these things are actually quite difficult to implement in simulation, but we have made a great deal of progress and are very excited about getting more capable in training a [machine-learning model] starting with one data set,” Rus says. 

Of course, researchers also had to deal with new communication techniques for a world in which they couldn’t just scribble equations and formulas on the nearest whiteboard. “Even though the work can be done online, the thinking is often done in person,” says Van Vliet, whose lab already had some experience using online tools to share screens with colleagues in Singapore. 

Adjusting to a covid world, in which many researchers were juggling their work with other issues like caring for children at home, meant having to plan much of that formerly spontaneous conversation in advance. “We had to use Slack or a group calendar to say ‘We’re going to get together and talk about this’—not just leave it to email or chance,” she says. 

Ramp up

“How do you manage access to MIT’s buildings in a campus that’s been historically open?” asks Joe Higgins, vice president for campus services and stewardship. It isn’t a rhetorical question. “There are some doors on campus that have never had locks on them,” he says.

But if researchers were ever going to return to campus, then controlling access to the buildings would be critical to keeping them safe. Tackling that was one of many issues on the agenda for the group of faculty researchers and administrators Zuber appointed to the Lightning Committee, so named because they were charged with swiftly proposing guidelines for safely reopening MIT’s research labs. 

“How do you manage access to MIT’s buildings in a campus that’s been historically open? There are some doors on campus that have never had locks on them.”

“We had to work at lightning speed,” says Jacks, who chairs the committee. Other members include heads of the biggest departments, labs, and centers on campus, including DiCarlo and Rus. “These are people who are used to not only doing research but also planning and overseeing research activities,” Jacks says. “We could get input from other faculty and disseminate information so the guidelines came from the ranks, if you will. I think for MIT at least, it was a more appropriate strategy than having them come from above and be imposed on all the labs.”

Together, Zuber, the committee, and Van Vliet and the MIT Space Contingency Working Group ultimately decided on 42 exterior doors that would allow access into the buildings—with other entryways locked for the foreseeable future.

Once inside, researchers would be expected to head straight to their labs, avoiding the usual serendipitous encounters in the Infinite Corridor that often spark collaborations. To limit opportunities for the coronavirus to spread, Van Vliet’s Space Contingency Working Group divided the campus buildings, many of which are interconnected, into 13 clusters, and essentially cut them off from each other. 

chair in foyer at BCS
In the atrium of Building 46,
a sign reminds Brain and Cognitive Sciences researchers of the one-person-per-table limit.
TONY LUONG

“We had to create artificial neighborhoods,” says Van Vliet. “We’d say, ‘Your lab is in Cluster 1, and you guys are going to go in and out of this door, and this door only.’” (Of course, it wasn’t practical to block off the many connections of the Infinite Corridor itself. “This is an honor system,” Higgins says.)

Unlike many universities, however, MIT had used key cards to control access only to certain buildings; others were never locked. So a pilot program was set up for three buildings housing most of the work that continued on campus during the lockdown: Buildings 76 (the Koch Institute), 68 (Biology), and E17-E25, which houses many administrative and academic groups, including the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. People were given access to particular buildings, tapping their IDs at temporary card readers to get in. Greeters also staffed check-in desks to confirm that those entering were on the approved access list, and to provide face coverings if needed.

It very quickly became clear that such a system was not scalable to the entire campus, so the Information Systems & Technology (IS&T) team began to look into access control applications, using hospitals as a model. The IS&T engineers then designed Covid Access, a system tying identifying information for each person requesting campus access to the results of a covid test. Everyone coming to campus must get tested regularly (as often as twice a week), and attest to being symptom-free each morning through the Covid Pass app, which feeds into the Covid Access system. 

“We had this eureka moment, where instead of having people claim they were healthy at a station, we could link that to an access card that wouldn’t work without it,” Higgins says. IS&T had to program researchers’ MIT IDs to serve as keys that would allow access only to their particular building clusters, a process that required some tweaking. They also provided key-card access to specific buildings for vendors and contractors, including those servicing labs and lab equipment. 

To ensure proper social distancing, Massachusetts had set guidelines of eight people per 1,000 square feet of space, or 125 square feet per person. The Lightning Committee recommended that MIT start with 160 square feet per person, which would leave lab capacity at approximately 25% of pre-covid numbers. The question was how to get labs to adhere to the requirements. “Everybody at MIT wants to know what the rules are so they can break them,” Higgins jokes. 

Early on, they considered giving principal investigators the option of getting to 25% lab density by thinking about it in terms of hours worked or lab space. “We said, let’s gamify it and give them space and time, and they can solve for either equation,” Higgins says. In the end, they had PIs calculate the maximum number of researchers who could be in their lab at once, given the 160-square-feet rule, and divvy up the available hours as they saw fit.  

As both an administrator and a researcher, Van Vliet appreciated being able to schedule her team’s work this way: “It gave me flexibility as a PI to say, okay, I have a bundle of hours—how can I schedule them? Like I was scheduling shifts of staff of a diner.” In addition, if a particular lab needed more hours in a particular week, it could trade with a neighboring lab for hours in the following week.

The Lightning Committee worked through countless such issues, collaborating closely not only with IS&T, Higgins and the Campus Operations team, and Van Vliet and the Space Contingency Working Group, but also with such groups as MIT Medical, the Environmental Health and Safety group, the procurement team, and MIT Emergency Management. 

Keeping everyone safe meant requiring everyone in the buildings to wear masks at all times—except when they were eating or drinking, or alone in a closed-door office. So the team that had collected personal protective equipment from the Institute’s labs to donate to frontline health-care workers in the early days of the pandemic shifted its focus to preparing for the repopulation of campus. They called upon alumni and research networks in Asia and South America, where equipment is manufactured, to help restock PPE. And since the usual decentralized approach to ordering supplies wouldn’t work in a pandemic, they also worked with MIT’s procurement team to set up the MIT Covid-19 Store, which delivers free PPE in a day or two to any department requesting it.

Miller in research lab
Researcher Nicholas Miller has a section of Mark Harnett’s lab to himself at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
TONY LUONG

Meanwhile, a faculty team on campus and researchers at Lincoln Laboratory’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group began developing the MIT Covid-19 Response System (better known as MCRS), which includes a dashboard to help MIT’s medical and operational leaders understand infection risk on campus. Integrating de-identified data from multiple sources—such as Covid Access, daily records of campus badge readers, and PIs’ floor plans for the research ramp-up—the system models building density and traffic patterns and will eventually incorporate predictive analytics. An initial version launched in September.

As Zuber and the Lightning Committee prepared to open laboratories again in early June, a shortage of disinfectant wipes forced a one-week delay. “We got all the key cards changed and the app written, and everything worked perfectly,” says Zuber, “and then the wipes didn’t arrive.” But on June 15, after the team had sourced a reliable supply of spray disinfectants, MIT’s labs officially ramped up to 25% capacity again. With many researchers leery of using public transportation, the MIT leadership team made parking free on campus. “It was just about being realistic and doing a little to reduce people’s anxiety,” he says.

A new normal

The measures put in place appear to have paid off—between mid-June and mid-­August, just four cases of covid were detected on campus. After a month of 25% density, the Lightning Committee allowed labs to increase capacity to 50% of their previous person-hours, decreasing the required space per researcher to 125 square feet. (An anticipated third phase this fall would in theory open labs up to 100% capacity, though researchers will still be encouraged to do whatever work they can at home.) 

To accommodate more researchers on campus and the arrival of seniors for the fall term, MIT Medical ramped up its testing capability significantly in mid-­August. Of the more than 22,000 tests given to those seeking campus access between August 17 and 31, just 10 (or 0.05%) were positive, resulting in prompt quarantining and the usual protocol of contact tracing. 

In ramping up, labs have had to make adjustments for a research environment in which members are required to wear masks and stay six feet apart. “People are much more careful about how they allocate their time,” says Rus. “Their time on campus is much more intentional—they come in to make a surgical strike to use the 3D printers or run a robot experiment that was tested in simulation.” 

hand sanitizer station
A hand sanitizing station in Building 46.
exit sign
Some corridors are designated for one-way traffics, as this CSAIL door sign indicates.

DiCarlo agrees. “It’s sort of come in, get the data, get out,” he says. In former days, a part of his space in Building 46 was the “wet lab” where researchers suited up with masks and gloves to perform experiments, while the rest was “dry space” where they could have a cup of coffee and socialize. “Now it’s like the entire building is a wet lab,” he says. “You may see a few people walking by wearing masks, but otherwise it’s pretty quiet.” 

When Lee started to work again with his monkeys, he says, “I was amazed at how shiny the floors were.” He was able to pick right back up with the experiments. “Luckily, my monkeys still knew how to do the behavioral tasks I had given them,” he says. Still, he misses the camaraderie and long conversations with lab mates. “I do miss being with my lab friends and colleagues,” he says. “It’s pretty lonely.” 

Researchers have had to make numerous adjustments. Van Vliet says she can no longer work side by side with students even though “you need to be looking into the same microscope to help them.” Her team has taken to wearing head-mounted GoPro cameras while working under the hood, so that colleagues can watch virtually on a screen. “The cell types we work with are precious—we have to work with them just right,” Van Vliet says. “Our brains are getting rewired as we go.”

For all the inconveniences and difficulties, the experience has not been without its serendipitous benefits—in new virtual ways of working, enhanced simulations for experiments, or different perspectives on how the research will ultimately be used. 

“We never would have done an experiment in which we told people to work at home for long periods of time,” says Zuber. In any good research, however, sometimes the biggest discoveries come from the results you never expected. “People have shown themselves to be incredibly productive and worked really effectively at home,” she says. “I think there is going to be a lot more flexibility in the future in how people work.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Thanksgiving on track for a record $6B in US online sales, says Adobe

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As people prepare and eat their Thanksgiving meals, or just “work” on relaxing for the day, some consumers are going online to get a jump on holiday shopping deals. Adobe, which is following online sales in real time at 80 of the top 100 retailers in the US, covering some 100 million SKUs, says that initial figures indicate that we are on track to break $6 billion in e-commerce sales for Thanksgiving Day. Overall, it believes consumers will spend $189.1 billion shopping online this year.

To put that figure into some context, the overall holiday sales season represents a 33.1% jump on 2019. And last year Adobe said shoppers spent $4.2 billion online on Thanksgiving: this years’s numbers represent a jump of 42.3%. And leading up to today, each day this week had sales of more than $3 billion.

What’s going on? The figures are a hopefully encouraging sign that despite some of the economic declines of 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, retailers will at least be able to make up for some of their losses in the next couple of months, traditionally the most important period for sales.

As we have been reporting over the last several months, overall, 2020 has been a high watermark year for e-commerce, with the bigger trend of more browsing and shopping online — which has been growing for years — getting a notable boost from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The push for more social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus has driven many to stay away from crowded places like stores, and it has forced us to stay at home, where we have turned to the internet to get things done.

These trends are not only seeing those already familiar with online shopping spending more. It’s also introducing a new category of shoppers to that platform. Adobe said that so far this week, 9% of all sales have been “generated by net new customers as traditional brick-and-mortar shoppers turn online to complete transactions in light of shop closures and efforts to avoid virus transmission through in-person contact.”

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has traditionally been marked as the start of holiday shopping, but the growth of e-commerce has given more prominence to Thanksgiving Day, when physical stores are closed and many of us are milling about the house possibly with not much to do. This year seems to be following through on that trend.

“Families have many traditions during the holidays. Travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and fear of spreading the virus are, however, preventing Americans from enjoying so many of them. Shopping online is one festive habit that can be maintained online and sales figures are showcasing that gifting remains a much beloved tradition this year,” said Taylor Schreiner, Director, Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement.

(That’s not to say that Black Friday won’t be big: Adobe predicts that it will break $10.3 billion in sales online this year.)

Some drilling down into what is selling:

Adobe said that board games and other categories that “bring the focus on family” are seeing a strong surge, with sales up five times over last year.

Similarly — in keeping with how much we are all shopping for groceries online now — grocery sales in the last week were up a whopping 596% compared to October, as people stocked up for the long weekend (whether or not, it seems, it was being spent with family).

Other top items include Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, Just Dance 2021, as well as vTech toys and Rainbow High Dolls.

Amazon’s announcement this week that it would be offering more options for delivery this season speaks to how e-commerce is growing beyond simple home delivery, and how this has become a key part of how retailers are differentiating their businesses from each other. Curbside pickup has grown by 116% over last year this week, and expedited shipping is up 49%. 

Smartphones are going to figure strong once more too. Adobe said $25.5 billion has been spent via smartphones in November to date (up 48% over 2019), accounting for 38.6% of all e-commerce sales.

In the US big retailers continue to dominate how people shop, with the likes of Walmart, Target Amazon and others pulling in more than $1 billion in revenue annually collectively seeing their sales go up 147% since October. Part of the reason: more sophisticated websites, with conversion rates 100% higher than those of smaller businesses. (That leaves a big opening for companies that can build tools to help smaller businesses compete better on this front.)

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AstraZeneca says it will likely do another study of COVID-19 vaccine after accidental lower dose shows higher efficacy

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AstraZeneca’s CEO told Bloomberg that the pharmaceutical company will likely conduct another global trial of the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine trial, following the disclosure that the more effective dosage in the existing Phase 3 clinical trial was actually administered by accident. AstraZeneca and its partner the University of Oxford reported interim results that showed 62% efficacy for a full two-dose regimen, and a 90% efficacy rate for a half-dose followed by a full dose – which the scientists developing the drug later acknowledged was actually just an accidental administration of what was supposed to be two full doses.

To be clear, this shouldn’t dampen anyone’s optimism about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The results are still very promising, and an additional trial is being done only to ensure that what was seen as a result of the accidental half-dosage is actually borne out when the vaccine is administered that way intentionally. That said, this could extend the amount of time that it takes for the Oxford vaccine to be approved in the U.S., since this will proceed ahead of a planned U.S. trial that would be required for the FDA to approve it for use domestically.

The Oxford vaccine’s rollout to the rest of the world likely won’t be affected, according to AstraZeneca’s CEO, since the studies that have been conducted, including safety data, are already in place from participants around the world outside of the U.S.

While vaccine candidates from Moderna and Pfizer have also shown very strong efficacy in early Phase 3 data, hopes are riding high on the AstraZeneca version because it relies on a different technology, can be stored and transported at standard refrigerator temperatures rather than frozen, and costs just a fraction per dose compared to the other two leading vaccines in development.

That makes it an incredibly valuable resource for global inoculation programs, including distribution where cost and transportation infrastructures are major concerns.

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The apps keeping Rio’s residents safe from stray bullets

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Julia Borges was at her cousin’s 12th birthday party when she was shot. The 17-year-old had been standing on a third-floor balcony when a stray bullet hit her in the back, lodging in the muscle between her lungs and aorta.

That was November 8. Luckily, Borges was taken to hospital and has since recovered. Many are not so fortunate. At least 106 people have been killed by stray bullets in Rio this year so far.

Among the most dangerous areas are the narrow streets of the city’s favelas, where more than a million people currently live. Here, the houses are piled up on each other, and the alleys that wind between them are dotted with small squares. These same streets regularly echo with the sounds of gunfire: shooutouts between police and drug traffickers, rival groups of traffickers, or even police-backed militias take place on a daily basis.

Innocent victims are often caught in the crossfire. In many cases residents must lie on the floor or create barricades to hide from stray bullets as they wait for a truce. In 2019, Rio saw an average of 26 shootings a day. Things have cooled slightly since the pandemic began, but there was still an average of 14 shootings every day up until the end of June. Around 1,500 people are shot dead in Rio’s metropolitan area every year.

Living in Rio is like “being a hostage to violence,” says Rafael César, who lives in the neighborhood of Cordovil, west of the city. 

screenshot of FogoCruzado app
A screenshot of Fogo Cruzado
FOGOCRUZADO VIA GOOGLE PLAY

Like many residents, César has started using apps to help keep himself safe. These crowdsourced apps help users keep track of dangerous zones on their way home and let residents warn others about which areas to avoid. 

One of the most popular apps, Fogo Cruzado, was started by a journalist named Cecilia Olliveira. She had planned to do a story about victims of stray bullets in the city, but the information she needed was not available. So in 2016 she set up a Google Docs spreadsheet to collect information about shootings, logging where and when they happened, how many victims there were, and more. In 2018, with the help of Amnesty International, the spreadsheet was turned into an app and a database to help those monitoring and reporting on armed violence. The app has been downloaded over 250,000 times and covers both Rio and Recife.

A user who hears gunshots can log it as an incident on the app. The information is verified and cross-checked by the Fogo Cruzado team with the support of a network of activists and volunteers and then uploaded to the platform, triggering a notification for users. Fogo Cruzado also has a team of trusted collaborators who can instantly upload information without such vetting. Users can subscribe to receive updates whenever they are heading toward a zone considered dangerous—such as a favela that’s known to have had recent shootings, or one that is currently contested by gangs. 

Fogo Cruzado is used by local residents who are planning on leaving home to work or need to check if it’s safe to return afterwards, says Olliveira. 

“I started using the Fogo Cruzado because there were frequent police operations in a region I was passing through every day,” says journalist Bruno de Blasi. He says that WhatsApp groups were full of rumors and false reports of shootings, so he decided to use the app as a way to “avoid unnecessary scares.”  

Like many in the city, he has had his own experience of being close to a shootout. He recalls one that began on the street where he lives. 

“The feeling was horrible, especially because that street was considered one of the safest and quietest in the neighborhood, which is also where the police battalion is,” he says. “Suddenly I had to stay away from the window of my own room because of the risk of a stray bullet. It was very tense.”

Fogo Cruzado has also worked with a number of other organizations to create a new map of armed groups in Rio de Janeiro. The map, which was launched in October, is designed to keep the city’s residents up to date about which areas are currently dominated by criminal factions or police militias and are therefore less likely to be safe.

Other apps also collect data on shootings, but Fogo Cruzado is one of the few to be updated by the public, says Renê Silva, editor of the website Voz das Comunidades (Voice of the Communities), which covers the Complexo do Alemão, a large group of favelas in Rio. “There are places where the app identifies shootings that don’t come out in the media,” he says.

The app Onde Tem Tiroteio (Where There’s Shooting) works in a similar way.  It was initially created in January 2016 by four friends as a Facebook page. While Fogo Cruzado focuses on the metropolitan region of Rio, Onde Tem Tiroteio(OTT) covers the entire state—and since 2018, it has covered the state of São Paulo too. It differs from Fogo Cruzada in that it lets the network of users double-check the veracity of shooting reports.

funeral of Matheus Lessa
Relatives and friends carry the coffin of 22-year-old Matheus Lessa who was shot dead when he tried to defend his mother during an assault at their family-owned store in Rio de Janeiro
AP PHOTO/LEO CORREA

Once you download the OTT app you can choose what you want to receive alerts about, whether it’s shootings, floods, or demonstrations. Each anonymous report is reviewed by a network of more than 7,000 volunteers on the ground and confirmed before being uploaded to the app. Weekly reports are also released to the press. More than 4.7 million people used the app last year, according to Dennis Coli, one of OTT’s cofounders.

“OTT-Brasil’s main mission is to remove all citizens from organized gang looting routes, false police blitzes, and stray bullets, with information that is collected, analysed, and disseminated in a very short period of time,” he says.

The apps have a political angle, too. As well as keeping Rio’s citizens out of danger, they can help researchers and public institutions understand patterns of violence—and help put pressure on politicians.

They “serve primarily to draw attention to the dimension of the problem,” says Pablo Ortellado, a professor of public policy management at the University of São Paulo. For him, such apps have “a specific but key function of increasing the pressure on the authorities.”

Indeed, Recife was chosen as the second city for the Fogo Cruzado app not only because of its high rates of violence but also because, Olliveira says, the state government had stopped releasing data and had started censoring journalists. “Before, there was excellent access to public security data, but the data gradually became scarce and the work of the press became more and more difficult,” she says.

In this way, data collection apps can help challenge the information provided by governments, says Yasodara Córdova, an MPA/Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts.

In the past, the state had a monopoly on official information, but today things have changed, she says. “It is healthy to maintain redundant databases, collected by active communities, so that data can be challenged in order to keep the civic space open and global.”

Felipe Luciano, an OTT user from São Gonçalo, a city near Rio, agrees. “The key is trust,” he says. “What motivated me to use OTT is the credibility of the information posted there. I feel safer using it.”

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