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Steven Koppel demonstrates a new form of therapeutic expression called Expressive Digital Imagery. (Photo by Marilyn Humphries)
October 27, 2016

IDEAS UMass Boston Puts Spotlight on Innovation, Connection


  • Boston
Experts in the Arts, Technology, and Science Join Spotlight Team for Daylong Conference

Using video games to challenge biases. Putting mobile devices in the hands of mental health patients to create therapeutic images that do what words cannot. Drawing inspiration from nurses in developing countries to create life-saving kits. These were just some of the cutting-edge ideas explored at the IDEAS UMass Boston conference held on Wednesday.

The event ended with a panel discussion with The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, which earned national and international notice last year with the release of the Academy-Award winning film Spotlight.

“Today, this capital city’s urban public research university is the perfect setting to discuss some of the pressing challenges of our day and to hatch some new ideas for their solutions,” Chancellor J. Keith Motley said in his opening remarks.

Laura Ligouri

Laura Ligouri is the director and founder of Mindbridge, a nonprofit organization that uses psychological and neurobiological information for humanitarian efforts.

“The thing about having a great idea is that it not only illuminates the topic, but it illuminates everything else around it,” Ligouri said.

She shared how Mindbridge wants to use video games to celebrate the Roma, or Romani, people—Europe’s largest ethnic minority and the subject of mass killing in World War II—and encouraged the audience to imagine themselves playing a game like Pac-Man.

“We’re clicking away and then we realize, ‘Oh no. The ghost is going to come up and it’s going to get me.’ We project our self-identity on to that character. Not only are we understanding what the character is feeling or experiencing, but we are experiencing it as if they are ourselves,” Ligouri said.

Jose Gomez-Marquez is the director of the Little Devices Lab at MIT. He says 90 percent of medical technology that ends up in developing countries is donated, but that 60 to 80 percent fail within 6 months because it wasn’t designed to operate in those environments. Gomez-Marquez went to find the "MacGyver doctors" he discovered had developed do-it-yourself “hacks” to get around a lack of equipment and found out the doctors were actually nurses. The Little Devices Lab tapped into the DIY tricks these nurses and nurses here in the U.S. have developed, and created kits of components for medical professionals to use and adapt to their own situation.

“What I want to do is show that anybody can do these things. And it doesn’t have to be a balloon angioplasty device, but if we just start with digital health, we can save the system a lot of money and debunk a lot of these notions that these are magical technologies,” Gomez-Marquez said.

Also on Wednesday, Steven Koppel, founder of the EDI Institute, demonstrated how mobile devices can be used to create images that express what patients find difficult to express through other means; Alexie Torres-Fleming, executive director of the Access Strategies Fund, talked about using faith to create connections and conquer fear in our communities; and Justin Kang, the executive director of City Awake, talked about how the City of Boston is mobilizing and empowering millennials. Associate Professor of Hydrology Ellen Douglas talked about the importance of tackling climate change from the community-level on up, a point which resonated with audience member and UMass Boston student Matthias Tager.

“Bottom-up grassroots efforts, be it with health care innovations, with these nurses, producing these innovations, solving real problems in their professional environment and communities – the same with climate change – working together with the community, local authorities – this has to be the basis of effective problem-solving,” Tager said.

Kristen Halbert, another student in UMass Boston’s urban planning and community development master’s program, came to IDEAS UMass Boston to be exposed to new ways of thinking.

“I think it’s a great way to learn about new innovations and new ideas that we may not be exposed to in our everyday life and I may not hear about in class but are still important and relevant once I get out of my program,” Halbert said.

Scot Allen speaks alongside Sacha Pfeiffer and Todd Wallack

The day ended with a discussion with The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, moderated, as was the rest of the day, by Callie Crossley, host of WGBH’s Under the Radar with Callie Crossley.

“If you saw the movie, you actually saw a remarkable representation of what we kind of do every day,” editor Scott Allen said.

Investigative reporter Sacha Pfeiffer said what surprised her the most after the movie’s release was the amount of people who asked her if the door-knocking her on-screen alter ego, Rachel McAdams, did to find families and victims of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal was accurate.

“I was so startled by this question because of course we do that. I don’t know how else you get information. Certainly you could get some on your phone but you have to go out and talk to people at some point. But it made me realize that we can’t assume that other people understand what our day jobs entail. And I think if you look at a lot of pop culture portrayal of investigative reporting, it’s the sources in the dark alley, and the explosive revelation, when in reality it’s methodical, time-consuming, hard work, data entry, and resolving conflicting numbers,” Pfeiffer said.

Investigative reporter Todd Wallack talked about how data journalism has become more common.

“There’s a greater expectation both among ourselves and our editors, but also among our readers and viewers, that they want to see the data. They want to see that it’s real and you can back it up,” Wallack said. “We have developers who help develop really useful interactive graphics to help people explore data, we’re increasingly putting databases online in addition to documents, we’re doing our own surveys. I’ve learned to program so I can scrape data off of websites or clean it up in ways that I couldn’t do by hand, so it’s becoming more of a fundamental part of the process rather than a rarity.”

IDEAS UMass Boston is sponsored by UMass Boston, Plymouth Rock Assurance, Whittier Street Health Center, Flagship, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Asian American Civic Association, and Stay in MA. Media partners are the Boston Business Journal and MassInc.