Millón de Monos

Weblog de Manuel Aristarán

My MIT Media Lab Statement of Objectives

Even if the MIT Media Lab admission process is unique in many aspects, as most graduate programs they require an Statement of Objectives. Back in 2014, when I decided that I wanted to apply, I didn’t anticipate that writing one was going so be that difficult; I went over dozens of revisions, begged my friends and family for feedback, checked my grammar, and back again.

I now count myself among the lucky ones that were admitted for the Media Arts and Sciences graduate program in 2014. Here, I’m sharing my attempt at sounding smart-but-not-cocky and correct-but-not-boring, hoping that it’ll help those who are thinking of coming to study at this magical place.


One afternoon in 1987 my father came home after work with a present for me: it was a Czerweny 1500, a cheap clone of the venerable Sinclair ZX81. My friends at school played games on their powerful Commodore 64s and MSXs, but my little computer —made in Argentina— would only let me type instructions; I was fascinated by that. I have been a hacker since then and have worked as a professional software developer for more than 15 years.

I was born in the midst of Argentina’s last military dictatorship into a politically involved family. With the return of democracy in 1983, my parents went back to politics and civic activism. I was raised in demonstrations and heated political arguments around the family table. Such and upbringing led me to significant political involvement throughout my high school and university years. As I have grown professionally, I have been applying my practical software development skills to civic problems in Argentina.

As one of the 2013 Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellows, I had the the fortune of visiting the Media Lab, specifically the Center for Civic Media, twice in the past year. I am of course highly aware of the work and projects pursued by the Lab, but it was through conversations with its students that I fully realized its unique, pan-disciplinary approach to problem solving and research. I could feel the atmosphere of creative chaos that fuels the Lab. As I reflect on my recent visits, I suspect that the lab would be a second home to me; my own life and professional history are equally as diverse, protean, and a bit chaotic.

My projects focus on the intersection of media, politics, activism, data visualization, and technology. I like to think that they share a common thread: making data useful for people by building tools that can better inform our decisions and foster meaningful discussions and actions. As the market pushes computers towards becoming glorified television sets, networks to be one-way content delivery channels, and data to serve the needs of marketing departments and intelligence agencies, we need to take back the vision of the true pioneers of personal computing, like Alan Kay and Seymour Papert, who imagined and built computers as tools for thought and action, and not as devices for mere consumption and surveillance.

I believe that knowledge of the res publica and effective action in the public sphere is no longer achievable without technology. No one yet knows how the mechanisms and dynamics of the so-called new civics will materialize, but the projects that have come out of Center for Civic Media, MacroConnections, and Social Computing are offering the world a glimpse of how these tools are going to impact our society. I want to help shape the future of civic participation, data analysis, and meaningful social interaction through technology, by doing what I do best: designing and building tools.

My skills as a tool maker, curiosity, and willingness to learn allowed me to be one of the first employees of Satellogic1, an Argentine aerospace startup conceived in the Singularity University graduate studies program. During my two-year tenure at the company, my portfolio of work included designing and implementing simulations, writing hardware drivers and developing ground support software for the CUBEBUG-1 nanosatellite mission2, the first cubesat built in Argentina, grant-funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Throughout those two years working in Bariloche, a beautiful town in Patagonia, I experienced the most intense personal, intellectual, and professional growth of my life. The simulator that I created allowed the team to more deeply understand the coverage patterns of the spacecraft’s instruments. While working on the simulator, I grew my understanding of optics and Kepler’s laws of motion. I needed to become proficient with real-time operating systems, as I was tasked with writing the driver for the onboard communications module. I’ve been a licensed radio amateur for almost 20 years, so I was naturally brought into building the ground station and even climbed its 60 feet mast to install the antenna that I assembled. A nearby volcano erupted3 while I was living in Bariloche and I broke my wrist the first time I tried my luck at snowboarding down the edge-of-town slopes. I also got married to Luisina, my beautiful wife, who is a very talented documentary filmmaker and screenwriter.

The greatest achievement of the CUBEBUG-1 team was showing that is possible to bring agility and the hacker spirit to the aerospace industry. The satellite was designed, built, and successfully launched in less than a year by a group of six people that had not worked in aerospace before. The company is going strong: they’ve recently put a more complex cubesat4 into low earth orbit.

It was only recently when I realized that I could apply my technical skills to social issues as well. Around July 2010, the media in Bahía Blanca, Argentina —where I was born— was reporting on several corruption scandals within the local government. However, they weren’t tapping a rich source of information made available by the city: a daily feed of procurement data. I thought that was partly because it was not easy to consume and interpret, so I set out to build Gasto Público Bahiense5, a tool that scrapes the municipality’s website and re-publishes that information in a way that is easier to use and understand.

My personal project had an immediate impact on the local media and political landscape. For instance, the local press started using it as a source of information6, contractors used the site to check on their competitors’ past bids, citizens were made more aware of their government’s procurement decisions. By initiative of the opposition party, the City Council declared it “of municipal interest”7 by a majority vote. It was also featured by several national and international news outlets8.

The executive branch of the city’s government didn’t acknowledge the existence of Gasto Público Bahiense until one year after it was launched, when they redesigned their site and put a CAPTCHA in front of the section where the procurement data was published, thus making it inaccessible to web crawlers and scrapers. What was deceitfully justified by the city’s former secretary of finance as a “security and accessibility measure”9, was a political decision: the government didn’t want that data to be analyzed with tools other than theirs. This measure backfired on them, as it brought more notoriety to my project10. Evgeny Morozov devoted a section of his latest book to this case11, where he uses it to illustrate his views on the relative importance of opening government databases. Personal Democracy Media’s TechPresident recently reported on this and other projects that I developed.12

After an administration change last year, the government reversed their position towards Gasto Público Bahiense. Responding to the people’s newly acquired awareness of public information resources, the new mayor created an Innovation and Open Government agency13, whose appointed officer allowed us access to the procurement data feed through a web-service and included GPB in their own data portal. We’re now collaborating on an initiative to help smaller municipalities open their budget and procurement data by using their own technology and my project together.

This year, I was a speaker in the biggest Argentine TEDx event where I gave a talk to an audience of 1,500 about the story, challenges, and impact of Gasto Público Bahiense and other projects I developed during the last few years.14

My newfound interest in civic activism, public information, and technology brought me to being selected as one of the 2013 Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellows. I worked in the newsroom of the leading Argentine daily La Nación, where I participated in journalistic investigations, built interactive visualizations that were published alongside major stories, and trained the newspaper’s design, data journalism, and technology staffs in the use of tools like D3.js and CartoDB.

I developed Tabula15, an open source tool for extracting tabular information out of PDF files —a pervasive problem in data journalism—, also during my OpenNews fellowship. After its initial release in April 2013, it garnered a lot of attention within the data journalism16 and open data communities. It was instrumental in the building of ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs17. Both The New York Times and ProPublica now support the development of Tabula by devoting staff time to the project.

In the same spirit of data liberation —inspired by ProPublica’s Free the Files18 and The Guardian’s MP’s Expenses19— I’m building a tool20 for creating crowdsourced document transcription efforts, geared to the needs of media organizations and grassroots activism. La Nación chose this tool to build its own crowdsourced transcription platform, that will be launched at the beginning of 2014.

Hearing from people who have used the tools I’ve built, like the Chicago Public Schools Apples 2 Apples collective who used Tabula for building SchoolCuts.org21 and successfully used data to engage a community, taught me that is possible to improve the people’s understanding of their government and enable meaningful action. I want to draw upon those lessons. I want to study how can we use budget, spending, and procurement data for social change and civic activism. Participatory budgeting processes, for instance, could benefit from tools that would let citizens use that information to simulate budgeting and spending scenarios, propose changes, and work together towards reaching an agreement. I agree with Alan Kay in that the computer revolution hasn’t happened yet, as we still haven’t reached the full potential of personal computing for education, dynamic simulations of complex phenomena, and as tools for “new powerful argumentation”22. I believe that his vision can be also applied to the public sphere, by tackling the hard problem of the asymmetry of access to analytical tools.

The concepts behind projects like Civic Media’s Action Path, Promise Tracker, and Data Therapy are in perfect synergy with how I imagine the future mechanisms of civic participation. I fantasize about a Latin American version of Media Cloud and how it could help make sense of the very complex relationship between the press and current Latin American governments23.

I’m inspired by MacroConnections’ DataViva.info, a project that set new standards for government information repositories and showed how to turn complex public data into knowledge that can be used by everyone. I’ve shown Immersion to all of my friends, and witnessed how they changed their minds about what electronic surveillance really means.

I hesitate to call myself a hacker; that is a title that is bestowed upon by other hackers. But I do recognize in me the main characteristic of the hacker mindset: I learn by building, I think by doing.

My desire is to perpetually grow and be a better learner, builder, thinker, and doer. The MIT Media Lab is the best place I can think of to do that. I hope that you agree.

  1. Satellogic.com

  2. CUBEBUG-1. Launched on April 2013. Its on-board software was open-sourced, an example of my work can be seen in the communications module driver.

  3. 2011 Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption — Wikipedia. Retrieved 12/2/2013

  4. CUBEBUG-2 — Launched on November 2013.

  5. Gasto Público Bahiense: http://gastopublicobahiense.org (source on Github)

  6. Early example: Story on advertisement expenditure by the city government on a local news site.

  7. Text of the declaration (in spanish)

  8. Global Voices: “Argentina: Hackathons and budget transparency in Bahía Blanca”

  9. TV Interview with the former Secretary of Finance about this matter (in spanish) — July 6th, 2011

  10. Articles in major argentine newspapers: La Nacion, Perfil (in spanish)

  11. Morozov, E. Bad for the databases, good for democracy?. In To Save Everything Click Here.

  12. Chao, R. Buenos Aires, A Pocket of Civic Innovation in Argentina — TechPresident

  13. Secretaría de Innovación y Gobierno Abierto — Bahía Blanca (in spanish)

  14. TEDx Rio de La Plata: Cambiando el mundo de a una línea de código por vez (Video - spanish)

  15. Tabula — Released under the MIT license (source on github)

  16. Weiss, J. *How news organizations are using Tabula for data journalism. *

  17. Dollars for Docs - ProPublica

  18. Free The Files - ProPublica

  19. MP’s Expenses - The Guardian

  20. CrowData — Released under the MIT license (source on github)

  21. SchoolCuts.org “created to share information about the 129 schools under consideration for closing.”

  22. Viewpoints Research Institute memo M-2007-007-a — Retrieved 12/1/2013

  23. Goñi, U. “Argentina’s media empire Clarín told to sell off holdings by supreme court — The Guardian” — Retrieved 5/12/2013