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MIT mathematics graduate student Lucas Mason-Brown has been named one of 35 Echoing Green Fellows for his work with Data for Black Lives (D4BL), an organization he recently co-founded to mobilize scientists to use data science to fight racial bias in real estate, finance, criminal justice, and other areas.
Historically, data science has been used in ways that disproportionately and negatively affect black communities. Big data and algorithms have been instrumental in predatory lending practices, predictive policing, and redlining, the practice of denying services such as banking or insurance to residents of a specific area based on its racial or ethnic composition.
D4BL aims to turn data science tools such as statistical modeling, data visualization, and crowdsourcing into instruments for fighting bias, building progressive movements, and promoting civic engagement.
Until last summer, D4BL was just a Twitter account with a few dozen followers until Mason-Brown and his friend and co-founder Yeshimabeit Milner put their ideas into action with a third friend, Max Clermont, who works in public health.
Now, with $90,000 of seed-funding that the Echoing Green Fellowship will provide over the next two years, D4BL will hire Milner as full-time executive director. Echoing Green is a nonprofit that has kickstarted both nonprofit and for-profit social entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries since 1987. Other fellowship benefits include health insurance, professional development, networking opportunities, technical support, pro bono partnerships, and a dedicated Echoing Green portfolio manager to help grow their organization. D4BL joins a community of social impact leaders that include Teach for America, City Year, One Acre Fund, and SKS Microfinance.
D4BL will also host a conference at the MIT Media Lab in November, an event that will also serve as D4BL’s public launch. The conference is expected to gather more than 200 activists, organizers, data scientists, computer programmers, and public officials.
Conference speakers from MIT will include President L. Rafael Reif, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science Melissa Nobles, and Media Lab Director’s Fellows Adam Foss and Julia Angwin, as well as Cathy O’Neil, MIT instructor and author of "Weapons of Math Destruction." Events will include a discussion of the mathematics of gerrymandering congressional districts led by the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, and a hackathon that will encourage mathematicians and data scientists to work with activists and organizers on pressing racial justice issues.
“The issues focused around people of color in this country deeply resonate with me,” said Isaiah Borne, a rising senior in chemical engineering, conference organizer, and political action co-chair of the MIT Black Students’ Union. “The D4BL conference is a unique opportunity for me — and anyone who's involved — to look at these social issues from a different perspective and create real, meaningful change in our community.”
The conference has also received support from MIT Vice President Kirk Kolenbrander, Vice President of Student Life Suzy Nelson, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, Institute for Data Systems and Society Director Munther Dahleh, Media Lab Director Joi Ito, and Institute Community and Equity Officer Ed Bertschinger.
“We have been overwhelmed by the amount of support and interest we have received at MIT and beyond,” said Mason-Brown. “There is a real thirst and a real need for this kind of work.”
A student of representation theory
A native of Belmont, Massachusetts, Mason-Brown studied math and philosophy at Brown University, received his MS in mathematics from Trinity College in Dublin, and taught seventh grade math and science for a year at the Edward Brooke School in Roslindale, Massachusetts. He is now in his second year at MIT, where he studies representation theory — the study of abstract symmetries — with his “mathematical hero,” Professor David Vogan.
Mason-Brown's research may not be directly related to his work for D4BL, but he is able to make time for both, he says.
“I think for me the impetus is simple: When you discover that something you care about deeply has been used, intentionally or unintentionally, to harm communities across the country — as big data and algorithms certainly have — you have no choice but to stand up and act.”