How online platforms can counteract discrimination


by Kristen Senz

After discovering the extent of discrimination against black guests and hosts on Airbnb, researcher Michael Luca and colleagues have developed a toolkit to help managers recognize and mitigate discrimination on platforms. in line.

Platforms like Airbnb and Uber can reduce the prevalence of discrimination among their users by making wise design choices, says Luca, Lee J. Styslinger III associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, who studies platform design for over a decade. .

“The choices you make as a manager can have a profound impact on the inclusiveness of the systems you create,” says Luca, who also co-wrote a new case study, Racial discrimination on Airbnb: the role of platform design. “Platform companies should consider the implications of design choices, including unintended consequences like discrimination.”

A 2015 study by Luca and colleagues Benjamin Edelman, now an economist at Microsoft, and Dan Svirsky, an economist at Uber, used booking requests from 20 fake Airbnb profiles without photos to assess discrimination among 6,400 Airbnb hosts in five. American cities. To isolate the issue of race, half of the fake profiles were given names that birth records show are common among whites, while half had common names among African Americans.

Applications made from profiles with African-American sounding names were about 16% less likely to be accepted. According to the study, discrimination was pervasive at all price points and in various neighborhoods, but most of the refusals came from hosts who had never hosted a black guest. In a related article, the researchers found that African American Hosts in New York generally charged less than other platform hosts for similar listings.

“Research shows that African American guests were rejected more often than white guests,” says Luca. “More broadly, the evidence points to disparities on both sides of the market – African American guests and hosts face discrimination.”

Once the research was made public, policy makers took note. Users began to push back. The hashtag #AirbnbWhileBlack has become a trend. In 2016, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky responded to the findings and publicly acknowledged that the potential for discrimination on the platform had not occurred to him or his two co-founders prior to the site’s launch, a blind spot which he attributed in part to the fact that all three of the company’s founders were white men.

Airbnb set up a working group to determine the extent of the problem and assess the proposed fixes, some of which Luca had recommended and described in a Harvard Business Review article co-written with Ray Fisman. The company has since made a series of announcements about its efforts to measure and mitigate racial discrimination among users, most recently by PPhare project (pdf).

Bad design invites discrimination

Airbnb’s early design choices were aimed at facilitating a user’s trust in both the platform and other users, but some of those choices had the unintended consequence of allowing discrimination. For example, when it launched in 2008, the names and profile photos of potential guests featured prominently on Airbnb requests that hosts saw before they booked. This design contrasted with existing platforms such as eBay, where product images dominated pages and users remained anonymous.

At the time, Chesky said, “Access is built on trust, and trust is built on transparency. When you take away anonymity, it brings out the best in people. We believe anonymity does no place in the future of Airbnb or the sharing economy. “

But in the end, putting users’ photos at the forefront made it easier to discriminate, according to Luca’s research. In response to increasing research and public pressure, hosts now only see a guest’s profile photo after a reservation is confirmed. In addition, the company has updated its policies and terms of service. Luca also highlights the increased use of Airbnb’s “instant book” feature, which allows customers to book rentals before hosts see their profile, as a step in the right direction.

Through experimentation, Luca says, platform companies like Airbnb can highlight design elements that align with both business performance goals and inclusiveness.

“If you operate an online marketplace,” he says, “you have to ask yourself if discrimination is likely to be a problem and what design choices could mitigate the risk of discrimination. If you only optimize short-term growth measures and ignore the potential for discrimination, you could create a blind spot. “

A manager’s toolkit for designing platforms

The first step in creating inclusive online platforms, explains Luca, is for designers and policy makers to recognize the potential for discrimination.

Luca and Svirsky describe a framework for making inclusive design choices in a forthcoming article in the journal Marketing intelligence review. The following is a condensed version:

Build awareness. Builders of digital platforms must recognize how their design choices and algorithms can discriminate in a market. Managers can be proactive in investigating and resolving the problem. For example, Uber created a cross-functional equity working group of economists, data scientists, lawyers, and product managers to explore issues of discrimination.

Measure discrimination. Many platforms do not know the racial, ethnic or gender makeup of their transaction participants. Regularly reporting on issues and successes of users who are at risk of discrimination can help businesses uncover and address issues.

Retain sensitive data. In many cases, a simple but effective change involves withholding potentially sensitive user information, such as race and gender, in the early stages of engagement with the platform.

Automate by taking into account algorithmic biases. Automation and algorithms can help reduce bias, as is the case with Airbnb’s instant booking feature. However, discrimination can also occur through algorithms. Algorithms can be twisted by changing their inputs, but this requires managers to think about their diversity and equity goals. For example, LinkedIn redesigned its recruitment search tool to ensure that the gender breakdown of search results matches the gender breakdown for that occupation as a whole. If 30% of data scientists are female, then a recruiter looking for data scientists would see 30% female applications in search results.

Think like an architect of choice. Principles of Choice Architecture can help reduce discrimination. For example, people tend to use any option that is configured by default, so resetting options to their defaults with inclusiveness in mind can be a useful strategy. Businesses may also consider increasing the prominence of their anti-discrimination policies to help raise awareness.

Experiment to measure the effects. Platforms can incorporate efforts to measure discrimination into their experimental tests to understand the impact of different design choices.

Be transparent. Platforms should make their work on discrimination issues transparent and open lines of communication with managers and designers. It is also essential to evaluate the methods of measuring selectivity and associated design changes over time.


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