Professor Balakrishnan Rajagopal, in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning assumed the role of special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing — through an appointment by the United Nations Human Rights Council. He recently spoke on human rights in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic and how he plans to address other challenges in his new appointment.

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Photo credit: M.Iacobo

Q: What is the role of the UN special rapporteur? How does the UN address human rights challenges through mechanisms such as these?

A: Special rapporteurs are independent experts who are voted in to lead work in specific thematic areas — such as housing, food, freedom of expression, and minority rights — by states at the UN Human Rights Council. Rapporteurs are a kind of global watchdog attempting to hold states and other entities to account when they violate human rights. They also promote respect for international law and help develop the law further through their leadership. Rapporteurs have a public role in monitoring and holding to account states or other entities when violations of rights occur; they provide intellectual leadership for their thematic areas by reporting to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council; and they conduct visits to specific countries to assess their record of compliance with human rights relevant to their mandate. The multiple roles played by rapporteurs have generated new policies and laws, stopped ongoing human rights abuses, and provided important political and moral support for victims and organizations that work to protect human rights. States have come to rely on special rapporteurs quite a lot over the years. Their role is perceived as a “crown jewel” of the UN human rights system, in the words of the UN high commissioner for human rights. The information, analysis, and leadership provided by the rapporteurs is an important part of how states and civil society organizations have come to promote respect for human rights. The work done by the rapporteurs can be best seen as a form of public service at the global level. …

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Photo credit: M. Iacobo

New ideas, better policies can help sustain good careers

Peter Dizikes | MIT News Office

The American workforce is at a crossroads. Digitization and automation have replaced millions of middle-class jobs, while wages have stagnated for many who remain employed. A lot of labor has become insecure, low-income freelance work.

Yet there is reason for optimism on behalf of workers, as scholars and business leaders outlined in an MIT conference on Wednesday. Automation and artificial intelligence do not just replace jobs; they also create them. And many labor, education, and safety-net policies could help workers greatly as well.

That was the outlook of many participants at the conference, the “AI and the Work of the Future Congress,” marking the release of the final report of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future. The report concludes that there is no technology-driven jobs wipeout on the horizon, but new policies are needed to match the steady march of innovation; technology has mostly helped white-collar workers, but not the rest of the work force in the U.S. …

At MIT, a young architect finds the perfect platform for collaborative learning

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MIT graduate student Ous Abou Ras is focusing on the emergent field of computational architecture

AS A YOUNG CHILD, OUS ABOU RAS LOVED going to work with his father, an architect, and poring over building plans. Originally from Syria, Abou Ras grew up in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and has always been drawn to building and design. “I used to love playing with LEGOs,” he recalls, “and initially I wanted to be an engineer.” …

New approach could spark an era of battery-free ocean exploration, with applications ranging from marine conservation to aquaculture.

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GPS isn’t waterproof. The navigation system depends on radio waves, which break down rapidly in liquids, including seawater. To track undersea objects like drones or whales, researchers rely on acoustic signaling. But devices that generate and send sound usually require batteries — bulky, short-lived batteries that need regular changing. Could we do without them?

MIT researchers think so. They’ve built a battery-free pinpointing system dubbed Underwater Backscatter Localization (UBL). Rather than emitting its own acoustic signals, UBL reflects modulated signals from its environment. That provides researchers with positioning information, at net-zero energy. Though the technology is still developing, UBL could someday become a key tool for marine conservationists, climate scientists, and the U.S. …

Researchers at MIT have designed a skin-like device that can measure small facial movements in patients who have lost the ability to speak.

By Anne Trafton/MIT News

People with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) suffer from a gradual decline in their ability to control their muscles. As a result, they often lose the ability to speak, making it difficult to communicate with others.

A team of MIT researchers has now designed a stretchable, skin-like device that can be attached to a patient’s face and can measure small movements such as a twitch or a smile. …

Reflections during critical moments

Now that I am close to graduating with a masters degree in City Planning, I’m reflecting on how I’ve grown in the past two years. It was a year before that, in the summer of 2017, when I decided to apply to grad school. By that time I had worked for five years at several architecture firms. I felt like I needed a career shift, but was also afraid of stepping away from a path I had carved for myself for more than a decade. The following letters are all written to myself in the summer of 2017 from myself at different times along my masters degree journey. …

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Let’s say, at the start of the video game, you opt to play as a circle.

Your character’s shape is important, but it’s not immediately clear why. Artist Ani Liu SM ’17 has designed it that way. You do know that your objective is to ascend the professional ladder from lowly intern to exalted CEO. But, as in life, some have it easier than others. You’ll see when you play.

Liu has imbued the video game — a work in progress called Shapes and Ladders: Battles of Bias and Bureaucracy — with dark truths about the kinds of systemic challenges faced by marginalized people, such as those who are Black, women, immigrants, gay, trans, or differently abled. In the game world, circles and triangles are much more likely to encounter sexual assault in the workplace. Circles earn 80 cents for each dollar earned by squares. And other insidious disadvantages lurk, depending on your shape’s corresponding identity: having to work “a second shift” of childcare or housework, lacking maternity leave, or facing a higher mortality risk in encounters with police. “The shapes are preloaded with statistics taken from real life,” explains Liu, who started the project, which she describes as a “first-person empathy narrative,” as part of her 2019–21 Arts Fellowship at Princeton University. …

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Lacking a strong public transit system, residents of Nairobi, Kenya, often get around the city using “matatus” — group taxis following familiar routes. This informal method of transportation is essential to people’s lives: About 3.5 million people in Nairobi regularly use matatus.

Some years ago, around 2012, Sarah Williams became interested in mapping Nairobi’s matatus. Now an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), she helped develop an app that collected data from the vehicles as they circulated around Nairobi, then collaborated with matatu owners and drivers to map the entire network. …

Listening to immigrant and indigenous Pacific Islander voices

As a community activist and scholar, DUSP PhD candidate Kevin Lee has a lot on his plate. But “when things matter so deeply in your bones, the energy just comes.”

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The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.

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