You may have seen Pantheon, the newest creation out of MIT Media Lab’s Macro Connection group, in the news lately. With the ability to rank globally famous people—Aristotle currently sits at number one—the platform has garnered a lot of attention. These rankings, however, are just one part of Pantheon.

A concept developed by Macro Connection’s Principal Investigator, César A. Hidalgo, which builds off his previous work with the Observatory of Economic Complexity and DataViva, Pantheon aims to map and visualize historical cultural production. Think of cultural production as contributions to our global culture, like Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone or Stephen King’s multitude of novels.

“The major insight at the project’s start was that a lot of things can count as culture, say Starbucks or blue jeans. Those things we can’t really measure, but we can measure Harry Potter as proxied by JK Rowling,” explains graduate student Kevin Hu ’13, who works with the Macro Connections group.

Consequently, cultural productions are represented in Pantheon’s database by the biographies of globally notable characters who have broken the boundaries of space, time, and language.

Pantheon then ranks, sorts, and visualizes the data of the 11,340 biographies sourced from Wikipedia that meet this criteria. For the language criteria, a biography must appear in Wikipedia in more than 25 different languages to be included in Pantheon’s database. Pantheon’s space criteria relates to how far a notable figure’s influence has reached around the world. Lastly, time helps to weed out cultural one-hit wonders that may seem huge in a specific year, but lose their cultural relevance beyond that.

With this information, Pantheon can then provide visitors myriad visualizations. It can showcase the cultural output of a country based on profession—the US is tops for actors. Or rank the most famous gymnasts of all time—Věra Čáslavská of the Czech Republic claims the number one spot.

Beyond the compelling visualizations, Hu says that the ultimate goal of Pantheon is to give everyone the chance to discover and draw conclusions from data it provides: “Anyone with a web browser and internet connection can learn the stories contained in our data.”


Christie Barany SM '00 makes her pitch on Shark Tank.

Christie Barany SM ’00 makes her pitch on Shark Tank. Screenshot via

Imagine pitching your two-year-old startup to a panel of multi-millionaire entrepreneurs. Now imagine those potential investors dissecting your company’s potential—while nearly seven million people watch on television.

That scenario occurred for Christie Barany SM ’00 on April 5 when she promoted her company, Monkey Mat, on Shark Tank, a reality series that features business pitches from entrepreneurs to a panel of investors, or “sharks.”

“It was surreal,” says Barany. “The cameras start rolling and the sharks know nothing about you—then the questions start flying.”

Barany and business partner Courtney Tabor—the self-titled “Monkey Mat Mamas”—were seeking $100,000 in exchange for 30 percent stake in Monkey Mat, which sells 5’ x 5’ water-repellant mats that can be folded into a compact pouch. The company’s target audience is parents seeking a portable, clean surface that could be used at airports, picnics, and soccer games.

After their pitch, Barany and Tabor fielded questions—and criticism—from five sharks. One investor strongly disapproved of the mats’ then-price of $39.99 (“It needs to be $9.99!”) and another was unimpressed with their size and color. (“It’s too small…and the colors are off.”)

“Obviously you want every shark to be interested,” Barany says. “But the great thing is that it happens so fast, you don’t have any time to take it personally.”

The "Monkey Mat Mamas" inside the Shark Tank.

The “Monkey Mat Mamas” inside the Shark Tank.

Others were more receptive; shark Mark Cuban said he loved the product and shark Lori Greiner believed she could lower the sale price. Cuban and Greiner made an offer: $100,000 for a 35 percent stake in the company.

The Monkey Mat Mamas quickly accepted the handshake deal. (Watch the April 5 Shark Tank episode.)

“We were thrilled,” she says. “It was validation because we weren’t willing to compromise the quality to lower the price.”

Although the episode aired on April 5, filming took place in July 2013 following a months-long application process. Pitches are condensed into a 10-minute segment for TV, but in reality, many pitches can take more than an hour.

“We’ve tried to recreate the pitch so many times,” she says. “The dialogue went in so many different directions. They definitely focused on the price point during the show.”

In the nine-month period between the actual pitch and the show’s airing, Barany and Tabor have worked with closely with Cuban and Greiner to grow the product. Thanks in part to the sharks’ experience in manufacturing and retail, Monkey Mat was able to lower its price to $19.99.

“We’re amazed at how accessible they are,” she says. “They have so much on their plate but they are always available. They’re helping us expand the company with a lower cost and new price in a broader market.”

Barany co-founded Monkey Mat in 2012 after a career in the medical device and biotechnology industry. She says reaction from the Shark Tank appearance was instantaneous and overwhelming.

“Building this company is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “The response has been great, and because of DVR, it’s still coming. But the challenges that come with an MIT education—pushing boundaries and working through the night—has really prepared me.”


How do we make sense of the tsunami of information that surrounds us when even professional news editors find it challenging?

61Fresh offers history in real time, updated every 10 minutes.

61Fresh offers Boston-area history in real time, updated every 10 minutes.

One answer could be 61Fresh, a crowd-driven news aggregator that searches tweets linking to 500 Boston-area websites every 10 minutes, identifies trending news bits, and then passes them on to Twitter followers or website readers.

61Fresh is among the many projects developed in a collaboration between GlobeLab, the Boston Globe’s R&D group, and the MIT Center for Civic Media (CFCM). Ali Hashmi, a civic media researcher and MIT Media Lab graduate student, contributed to 61Fresh as a Knight Fellow last summer by developing software that helped parse the universe of tweets. Among his projects was building natural language processing system that classified sports and non-sports news, so readers could modify their information streams.

For 61Fresh to work, you have to get rid of human decision makers, Hashmi says, they are just too slow. Algorithms churn through the tweets, identify what texts and URLs are retweeted, and determine—and share—the rising news.

“We can actually extract all these rising news items in real time and give you an accurate snapshot of how people are sharing news and what pieces of news are rising,” Hashmi says. And it’s more than just the news of the day, he says. “It is a very real time account of history in progress.”

PageOneX project

One collaboration, using printed newspapers and the online tool PageOneX, created a front-page visualization of guns, war, and terrorism. Courtesy CFCM.

Hashmi and CFCM are not just news hounds; they want to understand the impact of media tools and practices on communities worldwide. Hashmi, an expert in machine learning and natural language processing, is also studying the interactions between information published by the mainstream media in Pakistan and local bloggers.  Follow Hashmi on Twitter for more on his research.

Learn how the Nieman Journalism Lab described 61Fresh, which was funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation.

Ongoing collaborations bring authentic journalism challenges into the classroom and CFCM researchers are embedded at the GlobeLab, working on the technical issues facing newsrooms.

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Empire State Building in Denver Broncos colors. Image via @EmpireStateBldg

Denver Broncos colors.
Image via @EmpireStateBldg

The two weeks of hype surrounding the NFL Super Bowl on Feb. 2 can be summarized in one question: Who’s going to win?

Most attempts to answer that question generally end in argument. But an MIT alumni-founded art studio is part of a team taking a more visual approach: a Twitter-powered light show on the Empire State Building.

In a five-night campaign that began on Jan. 27, one Super Bowl question is posed daily on Twitter from Verizon Wireless (who created the campaign in partnership with the Empire State Building) using the hashtag #WhosGonnaWin. The conversations on Twitter are monitored throughout the day.

At 6 p.m. EST, the building’s colors begin to rapidly change, depending on which fanbase is most raucously tweeting its support. At 7 p.m., based on that day’s final tally, the building is lit up in the colors of one of the game’s two teams, the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.

The visual sentiment was designed by Sosolimited, an art and technology studio—cofounded by Justin Manor ’00, SM ’03; John Rothenberg ’02, SM ’07; and Eric Gunther ’00, MNG ’02—that created an algorithm that monitors fan support on Twitter.

Seattle Seahawks colors. Image via @EmpireStateBldg

Seattle Seahawks colors. Image via @EmpireStateBldg

Tweets determine whether Empire State Building displays Broncos or Seahawks colors,” New York Times:

Here’s the game plan: By using the hashtag #WhosGonnaWin, fans of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks post their predictions, which are tracked via an algorithm created by a team of MIT graduates.

During all the back and forth tweeting and tabulating, “the building will look like it’s alive,” Empire State Building lighting designer Marc Brickman said. “It will look as if it is literally breathing colors — it’s going to be a real rush.”

Sosolimited’s algorithm will also be used during the Super Bowl, as fan predictions on Twitter will be projected during halftime of the championship game.

The MIT-founded studio has experience gauging emotions around massive sporting events. During the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the group programmed the London Eye, the city’s famous Ferris wheel, to light up based on how people commented about the Games on Twitter. The project, called Energy of the Nation, used a complicated algorithm that linguistically analyzed tweets related to the Games and ranked the sentiments as positive or negative.


Global Data Chandelier at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Global Data Chandelier at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

At first glance, the elaborate chandelier above the atrium at the new $100 million headquarters for the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is no more than a massive piece of decorative art.

In reality, CSIS’ Global Data Chandelier is an MIT alumni-developed interactive data map that can better help the center educate its visitors on global data like water scarcity in China or the geopolitical unrest in the Middle East.

When viewed from below, the chandelier’s 425 hanging pendants—each fixture is 6-18 inches in length—form a map of the world. Using LED lighting animation and a computerized data set, the map can display up-to-date global “data stories” like GDP growth rate, renewable water resources, and energy consumption.

The map is a creation of the art and technology studio Sosolimited, which was cofounded in 2003 by Justin Manor ’00, SM ’03; John Rothenberg ’02, SM ’07; and Eric Gunther ’00, MNG ’02. The studio specializes in interactive installations and live performances, including the Twitter-infused London Eye at the 2012 Summer Olympics and live deconstructions of the presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

“It functions as a chandelier but if you look closer the lighting tells stories driven by real world data,” say Rothenberg. “If CSIS is hosting a panel on energy policy in the Asia or discussing the conflict in Syria, the chandelier can radiate from that point.”

Close-up view of the chandelier's pendants, which act as data points.

Close-up view of the chandelier’s pendants, which act as data points.

According to their website, CSIS is a Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan think tank that conducts research and analysis and helps develop initiatives based around international policy, defense and security, regional stability, and challenges in energy, climate change, and global development. The center hosts more than 1,600 events each year.

“We wanted to develop a way to convey the spirit of CSIS,” Rothenberg says. “The chandelier’s goal is to both function as an artwork and also highlight the data sets researchers deal with on a daily basis.”

The chandelier, which was a three-year process and unveiled in late 2013, currently operates on data sets that can be updated quarterly. Rothenberg sees future opportunities to connect to real-time data.

A whole-map view from the center's lower level.

A whole-map view from the center’s lower level.

“Our goal is to make it even more explanatory and educational,” he says. “We want to continue adding data stories and would love it if the chandler would automatically highlight countries if they are frequently mentioned in the news.”

MIT alumni Jeff Lieberman ’00, SM ’04, SM ’06; Lauren McCarthy ’08; and Samuel Kronick ’10 also contributed to the project.


Jonah Peretti SM ’01 turned 40 last week. Judging by his work since his Media Lab days, 40 may be the new big thing. The story of his success in the past decade is the story of virality in the 21st century. Look how his Midas-touchy charm has worked its magic so far:

1. In 2001, Peretti learned that Nike was offering customizable sneakers to customers. Peretti asked them to print the word “sweatshop” on a pair. They refused. Then the Today show called.

2. Don’t want to give your number to someone at a bar? Tell them to call 212-479-7990 instead. That will patch them through to Peretti’s New York Rejection Line.

3. Another commentary on social mores: Black People Love Us, a satirical site Peretti launched a decade ago.

4. Have you reblogged, retweeted, reposted, or otherwise shared content online? You owe a penny for each to Peretti, who coined the term reblog during his work at Eyebeam.

5. Stop the NRA. Peretti didn’t do that, exactly, but creating the website shaped his thinking of his next big project…

6. The Huffington Post. Partnering with Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer in 2005, Peretti was the man behind the site’s design and functionality.


7. Buzzfeed. To date, this is Peretti’s magnum opus. It’s currently the #56 most-trafficked website in the country.

8. More than cat videos? Yes, says Peretti. “Animals are single-digit percentages of our traffic, yet they’re used as shorthand by people who want to dismiss us. Animals matter because they get to the human element. Cats are not about cats, they’re about telling human stories.”

9. Acclaim: I Want Media named Peretti its 2012 Person of the Year. Peretti earned more votes than fellow finalists Nate Silver, Tina Brown, and Anderson Cooper. This month, he’s on the cover of Wired UK.


10. Redefining journalism: Peretti hired Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Schoofs and Propublica journalist Ben Smith in the past year. Buzzfeed staff began reporting from Syria this fall.


11. Disruptive innovation: Stephen Colbert told Peretti in an interview last month, “So many people are copying you now, it’s only going to be a matter of time before the New York Times is buzzfeeding their own site.”

12. The Dodo: Peretti’s animal appreciation has extended to advising this site, which launched on Tuesday.



What makes up a city? In the recent MIT course, In this Building: Multimedia and Place-based Storytelling, architecture and urban planning students became urban storytellers, learning how to uncover the personal side of everyday Boston storefronts and homes.

Their resulting multimedia projects revealed the cooperative culture of MIT’s PIKA dorm, the upward path of a homeless addict turned Dorchester home owner and family man, and a South End sandwich shop with a clientele for the history books.

Rindge Towers

Rindge Towers Photo: Ashwin Balakrishnan

Graduate students Ashwin Balakrishnan and Rachel Finkelstein reported on the controversies surrounding Rindge Towers, the largest affordable housing development in Cambridge. Opened in 1971, critics still dismiss the three 22-story buildings as “urine towers”—an unwelcome eyesore to the surrounding Cambridge neighborhood. But for residents, the towers’ 504 apartments are home to a rich melting pot of diverse cultures, ages, and experiences.

“The people here are my family,” remarked Tenant Association President Pat Casola in an interview with the students. Under her organizing force, tenants prevented the mid-1990s market-rate conversion of all apartments, which would have forced many to find new homes.

899-907 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

899-907 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge

Graduate students Lawrence Barriner, Kirsten Greco, and Ruth Sappelt uncovered the colorful past of 899-907 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square, Cambridge. Home to Toscanini’s Ice Cream, Cinderella’s Pizza, and at one time a brothel, this post-Civil War, mixed-use building sits on real estate that “for many years has been worth more down that up,” according to owner Patrick W. Barrett III.

The building’s uncertain future demonstrates a common challenge for independent mom and pop shops struggling to compete with more powerful big box chains. “You see this all the time in changing neighborhoods where things that seem like irreplaceable institutions go away,” said Toscanini’s owner Gus Rancatore.

Charlie's Sandwich Shoppe Photo: Carmela Zakon

Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe
Photo: Carmela Zakon

Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe is another irreplaceable institution that graduate student Carmela Zakon and Nse Umoh Esema MCP ’12 explored.

Located at 429 Columbus Avenue in Boston’s South End, the 86-year old restaurant was one of the first to serve black customers and became a popular late night hang out for Boston jazz musicians and the Black Porters Union. Legend has it that a young Sammy Davis Jr. tap danced in the restaurant’s entry way for extra change.

“You have completely changed my perspective on what a city is,” said Dewald LaGrange, project manager at Epi Use, who attended the final project presentations. “In order to do proper city planning, you have to understand people.”

In this Building was taught by MIT Associate Professor J. Phillip Thomson, Boston Globe Assistant Metro Editor Steve Wilmsen, and Alexa Mills MCP ’08.


faculty_forum_online_logo_gradientFor most Americans, handheld computing and smart phones are a daily necessity and have helped create a world of near-constant communication.

One consequence of this interconnected society is privacy—or the lack thereof. Recent headlines about mass surveillance have highlighted problems with the infrastructure of virtual space.

In the November 2013 Faculty Forum Online, Professor Hal Abelson PhD ’73 discussed the challenges of digital privacy, how the flow of open information can be globally cultivated, and the cultural and political disruptions caused by the information explosion.

Following his comments, Abelson took live questions from the worldwide MIT community. Enjoy a sample or watch the full webcast then continue the discussion in the comments below.

Is online shopping dangerous?

About Hal Abelson PhD ’73

Hal Abelson PhD '73

Hal Abelson PhD ’73

Harold (Hal) Abelson is the MIT Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He is a cochair of the MIT Council on Educational Technology, which oversees MIT’s strategic educational technology activities and investments, and helps lead Institute initiatives such as MIT OpenCourseWare and DSpace.

A longtime leader in using computation as a conceptual framework in teaching, Abelson is a founding director of Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the Free Software Foundation, and a former director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. He helped develop the MIT App Inventor, a web-based system that allows non-developers to design and create mobile applications.

From 2009-2010, Abelson was a visiting faculty member at Google. In addition to his doctorate in mathematics from MIT, he holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University.


Q & A with Hal Abelson,” Research at Google
Hal Abelson Q & A,” Code Quarterly: The Hackademic Journal
MIT’s glorious nerd heritage must not be forgotten,” The Tech, January 1990
Media Lab biography: Hal Abelson

About Faculty Forum Online

Eight times per season, the Faculty Forum Online presents compelling interviews with faculty on timely and relevant topics. Viewers watch and participate in live 30-minute interviews via interactive chat. Since its inception in 2011, archival editions of these programs have been viewed more than 50,000 times.


Ender's Game screenshot

Ender’s Game battle room (screenshot)

The science fiction movie Ender’s Game, which opened on Nov. 1, has already made an impact at MIT, as hackers turned Lobby 7 into the movie’s Battle School shortly after the premiere.

What the hackers may not have known is that the movie scene and location they recreated—a Battle School training exercise—was designed and conceived by an MIT alum. Matthew Butler SM ’92 served as Ender’s Game’s visual effects supervisor. Butler—who has worked on the movies Fight Club, Titantic, and A Beautiful Mind and was nominated for the 2012 Academy Award in Visual Effects for his work on Transformers: Dark of the Moon—created the room using nearly entirely computer graphics.

Matthew Butler SM '92

Matthew Butler SM ’92

In the film, the battle room is a zero-gravity, glass-domed sphere located within Battle School, a space station that trains human cadets to defend Earth in anticipation of an alien invasion.  According to Time, which published a photo gallery of the room’s development, Butler supervised a staff of more than 400 people who worked on the movie’s visual effects for more than two years.

Digital Domain: The Making of Ender’s Game,”

“One of the ideas in Ender’s Game is to try to get the best out of the people you work with,” says director Gavin Hood. “I understandably went to Matthew early on and said, ‘I’m a screenwriter not an engineer. You’re an MIT graduate. ‘Can you take a look at it and talk about anything that comes off to you as being scientifically inaccurate?’ Matthew was a stickler for getting the zero-G right and working out the mathematics for what velocity they’d be moving at and how they’d turn.”

Greg Chamitoff PhD '

Greg Chamitoff PhD ’92

In addition to the computer-generated detail needed to create a futuristic space station, Butler also had to realistically depict each actor moving weightlessly in the zero-gravity training ground. To do this, Butler sought the counsel of his former MIT roommate, retired NASA astronaut Greg Chamitoff PhD ’92. Chamitoff, who has spent nearly 200 days in space, counseled the cast on moving in zero gravity and provided photos and videos of Earth that he had taken while in space.

Ender’s Game Film Got Zero Gravity Tips from Real-Life Astronaut,”

Ender’s Game even caused Chamitoff to flash back to life in space briefly while he was watching the film. As the Battle School students float out into the battle room for the first time, the view of the Earth stretching out beneath them reminded him of his life on the space station. “['Ender's Game'] was really amazing,” Chamitoff said. “I expected it to be perfect. I expected it to look perfect, because I know that Matt puts math in behind it.”

For more on Ender’s Game, read an Oct. 17, 2013, interview with Butler from the New York Times that detail the visual effects needed to create the film’s depictions of Earth, Battle School, the stars, and the cadets.


After making a big life decision–to leave behind the practice of faith in which she was raised, Anna Wexler ’07 developed a keen eye for others going through crises of faith. This awareness is the subject of her first film, Unorthodox.

Wexler’s path since that decision has been quite literally unorthodox. Having left an insular, Orthodox Jewish community behind, she studied brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, then put that aside for a few years to develop, edit, and produce a feature film.

L-R Anna Wexler '07, Nadja Oertelt '08.

L-R Anna Wexler ’07, Nadja Oertelt ’07.

The film’s title makes perfect sense for Wexler, who co-directed it with classmate Nadja Oertelt ’07.

The two conceived of the idea for the film as undergraduates. The premise: three Orthodox Jewish teenagers, at varying levels of commitment to their faith, travel to Israel to explore that faith in practice for a year, with cameras in tow.

Wexler and Oertelt weaved the three teens’ journeys with Wexler’s own reflections in a rough cut over five years ago. But the two aspiring filmmakers found the typical obstacles of editing, post-production, and funding along the way.

After a successful $16,000 Kickstarter campaign and some help from WGBH, they overcame them, and on November 10 the film will premiere at the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

Crowdfunding was new to both alumnae two years ago, but they found immediate success.

“What was unexpected was how successful our campaign actually was,” says Oertelt. “It went viral in the modern Orthodox Jewish world and we blew past our goal because of grassroots outreach by our fans…”

Wexler and Oertelt both admire the work of Professor Richard Leacock and of other filmmakers who have trouble disentangling themselves from their subjects.

“Because we were filming our subjects over such a long period of time, we developed real relationships with them and their families, and learned, sometimes with difficulty, that the separation between filmmaker and subject is a very blurry one,” says Oertelt.

Both young filmmakers also credit professors in the Program on Art, Culture, and Technology for supporting them early on.

Unorthodox premiers in a year of great turmoil for the Middle East, a fact not lost on Wexler and Oertelt.

“Because we simply observe our subjects and focus on their internal struggles, the greater geopolitical context of those struggles is writ large,” Oertelt says. “We avoid commenting on the issues [facing Israel] in the film, and people’s opinions about what Unorthodox says about it varies wildly.  I think if the film makes anything clear about Israel, it is that the actual land is immensely powerful to certain communities, and is fundamental to their identities as individuals and communities.”