CSCW 2016 panel recap: Does the Sharing Economy do Any Good?

This blogpost is a recap of a panel organized at the CSCW 2016 conference.

A summary of Does the Sharing Economy do Any Good? (pdf) is archived in the ACM Digital Library. In it, we describe the topic and aims of the panel in this way: Despite the benefits offered by sharing economy, researchers have identified several challenges preventing disadvantaged groups (e.g. low socioeconomic status, un(der)employed and/or users from emerging regions) from receiving the same level of benefits as those from advantaged populations. This panel brings researchers from the sharing economy and mobile crowdsourcing space whose research has identified unique challenges for underserved populations. We consider the opportunities offered by these platforms to disadvantaged communities and examine to what extent these platforms instead may recreate disadvantage, as well as the workarounds communities employ to make these platforms work for them. We examine the opportunities for the CSCW community to address these challenges going forward.

The goal of this post is to document some of what we discussed during the session. (I want to acknowledge Tawanna for coordinating and chairing the panel as well as thank all the panelists for sharing their slides with me to help make this blogpost happen.)

In her introductory comments, Tawanna Dillahunt (University of Michigan) described the aims of the panels around presenting different perspectives and research findings about the sharing economy as they relate to populations who may be underserved (e.g., low SES, un(der)employed and/or users from emerging regions). We were invited to focus on 1) the challenges uncovered in prior work (e.g., discrimination, perceived safety concerns, limited trust, technical and methodological challenges); 2) opportunities for CSCW to address these challenges and barriers to doing so; and 3) next steps for CSCW researchers and practitioners. In other words, the panel

  • What are the opportunities for the sharing economy to benefit populations who may have limited education, limited access to resources or be un(der)employed?
  • Why are individuals from low-SES areas less able to benefit from these applications, and what are the unique challenges they face?
  • What are some of the methodological challenges studying these applications among underserved populations?

Tawanna, then, shared recent research about active job seekers from disadvantaged communities. The goal of this project was to explore whether the sharing economy was feasible for unemployed and underemployed individuals from economically distressed areas. Instead of repeating Tawanna’s remarks in detail, I’m happy to point you to this paper: The Promise of the Sharing Economy among Disadvantaged Communities (published at CHI’15). In brief, the key findings from this research suggest that some participants felt that the sharing economy would fail in communities that had low collective efficacy among its members. Collective efficacy refers to the feeling that your community has some control over the environment, and these participants felt that they lived in unproductive neighborhoods. Another barrier was that participants distrusted aspects of the sharing economy related to monetary transactions and to sharing their personal data. For example, participants were hesitant to pay using cell phones, provide their location, provide a link from sharing economy applications to other accounts, such as Facebook, and display photos. Moreover, the reputation systems built into applications (such as Lyft and Airbnb) were misconceived by the participants. Finally, the participants stated that item exchanges required a safe place (like a police or fire station) for conducting the exchange. [You should also check out these publications from Tawanna and colleagues: Fostering Social Capital in Economically Distressed Communities (published at CHI’14) and Designing for Disadvantaged Job Seekers: Insights from Early Investigations (forthcoming at DIS’16).]

Next, it was my turn to take the stage and share insights from recent research. I started by voicing the question on many people’s minds – “what are we talking about when we talk about the ‘sharing economy'”? My goal here was not to settle the dispute but to nudge the community to work toward developing a set of terms that can cover in a nuanced and more precise way the diversity within what gets referred to as the “sharing economy”, ranging from paid on-demand labor to community-oriented models, such as time banks. I also suggested that asking “How common is it for those involved to take part on both sides of the market?” (or more personally “Would you be happy to act in both/all roles that are relevant for a given marketplace?”) could serve as something of a litmus test for assessing the flavour of different systems in the domain. From these general remarks, I shifted into a discussion of the lessons learned from our efforts of setting up local online peer-to-peer exchange in a single parents’ network. For details, you should check out the paper I co-authored with Kai Huotari and Coye Cheshire: Challenges to Participation in the Sharing Economy: The Case of Local Online Peer-to-Peer Exchange in a Single Parents’ Network (published in Interaction Design and Architecture(s), special issue on peer-to-peer exchange and the sharing economy). One key insight from this work was that (1) the perceived risks of participation are very contextual and (2) pressures related to a specific situation (such as a being a single parent in a particular geographical and societal setting) can impede participation even when social & material benefits of participation are considered desirable (or even necessary) and even when no direct monetary investment is required. For the participants in this study, the initial social commitment and time investment to build trusted relationships and embrace a new online peer sharing system were significant barriers to participation. So, in designing peer-to-peer exchange systems, it is important to think about for whom is it easy to take part, what type of exchanges are facilitated and what kinds of requirements for trust do they involve. Moreover, while there is a lot to be gained from peer support, sometimes it could be more effective to match participants with differing, complimentary needs/interests, with one another. Finally, it is worthwhile to seek clarity on whether the aim is to design for a particular group vs for the inclusion of a particular group in a broader exchange system.

Third, Jacki O’Neill (Microsoft Research India) took the stage to share findings of an ethnographic study of auto-rickshaw drivers in Bangalore who were using a peer-to-peer app (Ola Auto) for getting rides. The project was driven by Jacki’s interest in understanding how this app impacted the practices of auto driving and, specifically, whether the app improves the auto-drivers’ lot. I encourage you to read more about the research Jacki and her team have done from their CSCW’16 extended abstract Design Illustrations to Make Adoption of Ola Technology More Beneficial for Indian Auto-Rickshaw Drivers and the forthcoming CHI’16 paper Peer to peer in the workplace: A view from the roadIn brief, the promise of Ola is to reduce uncertainty by connecting drivers to customers and making it easier for drivers to get fares. In reality, Ola currently does little to reduce the uncertainty of an auto-drivers day and, rather, acts as a digital middleman, intervening in the marketplace by setting fares and incentives, and controlling the platform, network and algorithms. Furthermore, the app controls what information is hidden from and revealed to the drivers. Despite this state of affairs that is far from ideal, Jacki emphasized that peer-to-peer apps offer opportunities for creating new types of more direct working relationships between drivers and passengers. Yet, she pointed out that to avoid recreating existing hierarchies, we must be less technology-driven and acknowledge that we are redesigning work – if we want to create sustainable markets for work, we need to understand and balance the priorities and needs of all the actors involved. Jacki concluded on the hopeful note that more equitable re-design could produce more sustainable, long term marketplaces which can also make a profit.

Loren Terveen (University of Minnesota) joined the discussion with a focus on the US, taking as his starting point a recent paper he co-authored with Jacob Thebault-Spieker and Brent Hecht: Avoiding the South Side and the Suburbs: The Geography of Mobile Crowdsourcing Markets (published at CSCW’15). The paper takes on questions about where participants in mobile crowdsourcing markets will be willing to go to complete tasks and how geography affects how much participants in mobile crowdsourcing markets request in payment. Most people participating in mobile crowdsourcing markets do not live in lowest income areas or in suburbs, and crowdworkers are less willing to go over to areas further away from their homes. Participants were found to assess acceptable distance in light of the payoff and perceived safety. Moving to a more general discussion, Loren challenged us to think about what can we do in the face of the inequalities that research reveals and, second – who’s we? Finally, he brought up Lawrence Lessig’s Code, suggesting that the four ways to regulate behavior that are identified in the book (social norms, law, incentives, code) could be helpful in thinking about this domain, too, opening up space to think about what different people might want to take on, on the one hand as researchers and, on the other, as citizens (and how these two may align to a different degree and in different ways depending on the person and the setting).

Our last speaker was Cory Kendrick (Uber) addressed the topic of the panel based on her work at Uber. She approached the perspective from the point of view of passengers, arguing that Uber’s service can extend the research of public transit and help connect the first and last mile, providing mobility options for density-starved areas. Cory also pointed to this report from 2010 by the Brookings InstitutionJob Sprawl and the Suburbanization of Poverty.

Finally, there were plenty of good questions from the audience. We did not have the time to address all of them (not even close) so here’s a slightly edited, selected collection to prompt further reflections:

  • Should companies like Uber and Task Rabbit build more empathy and awareness of workers to their consumers in their app? Is that realistic?
  • What’s the point of asking what we can do outside of the system? Why are we talking as if existing systems have no room for change?
  • What happens when/if all the VC money propping the sharing economy up dries up and the people who make a living off of this can no longer do so because the subsidies dry up?
  • What are ways we can ensure that people take part on both sides of the market?
  • What CSCW applications can we start working on that help foster collective bargaining?
  • How can algorithms used by these platforms be made more transparent to drivers?
  • How do we stop the unintended consequence of the sharing economy on the rights of workers to collective action?
  • It seems that sharing economy systems are more buyer’s markets. What can be done to balance this out?
  • How does homophily and discrimination vary among the type of service/economy in question?
  • What are alternatives to the current reputation systems?
  • How might cooperatives work as a model for sharing economies? What about roles that the public sector, especially cities, could take?
  • Are there examples of local communities adapting applications of the sharing economy to address their own community’s needs?

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