Airbnb’s new plan to measure discrimination on its service

Airbnb will set out to identify and measure racial discrimination experienced by users of its service through a new research project in partnership with Color of Change and other advisers.

Why is this important: “The reason we’re doing this is that we haven’t achieved our goal of reducing all bias and discrimination on our platform,” Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky told Axios.

The big picture: Users of Airbnb’s home-sharing service have been discriminated against for years. Frustrating and heartbreaking anecdotes of subtle and overt racism occasionally surfaced on social media, but affected customers had little other recourse.

  • “This is not a new problem,” Chesky says. “Presumably this problem has been around for as long as people had the tools to discern who they want to stay with; and then, therefore, they could discriminate.

Details: Flagship Projectas its name suggests, will seek to measure the discrimination travelers and hosts face based on their perceived race.

  • “The right data to use is perceived race, because… when people deny someone housing, they don’t ask their origin, their nationality, their heritage. They look at it, they make a quick judgement, and the two things that we identified the photo and the name,” Chesky explains.
  • The study will cover the booking process, reviews and interactions with Airbnb customer service.
  • The company says it has worked with privacy experts to ensure the data will not be linked to a user’s Airbnb account. It will publish its methodology and users may also refuse to participate in the study.
  • Once completed, the company will publish its findings and data.

What they say“We’re enlightened as to whether something was racist or not,” says Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson. “People say it was something else.”

  • “They’re going to be transparent about the data, which is the most important thing for us,” he adds of Project Lighthouse.
  • Robinson also points out that Airbnb has assigned engineers to work on anti-discrimination efforts — a sign in Silicon Valley that the company is taking the issue seriously.

Yes, but: A study is one thing, but what Airbnb does next will be the true test of its commitment to the fight against discrimination.

  • More broadly, Airbnb will have to address the discrimination that occurs offline, when travelers and hosts meet in person, as well as how its service affects the neighborhoods and cities where it operates, potentially deepening existing inequalities.

Rollback: In 2016, the company enlisted former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate and write a report on the matter.

  • Since then, Airbnb has rolled out an anti-discrimination policy it requires the agreement of all users.
  • He also experimented with other approaches, such as minimizing user photos and names, and increasing the number of accommodation available via “Instant Booking” to reduce the possibility of discrimination.
  • Still, the company had no way to measure whether those efforts were effective, Chesky says. “Even if we had made a lot of progress, it would be hard to know,” he said.

And after: As a future data collection project, Chesky says he wants to capture instant data, likely through the Airbnb app, on what he calls “moments of truth” for guests – booking, check-in, check-in (say, the day after arrival) and departure.

  • “How comfortable did you feel?” Chesky said. “These are times when the most trouble happens, and also when the most fun happens.”

Meanwhile: Chesky reiterated to Axios that a decision by Airbnb to go public in 2020 is not off the table — and, as we previously reported, internal conversations about a possible IPO have resumed.

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