Citizen scientists learn how algorithms affect their online shopping and help researchers break open the “black box” of price-personalization
Have you ever wondered whether you see the same online prices as other consumers? If not, you may want to after hearing about price personalization. While many Internet users may understand that algorithms affect their social media feeds, few realize that algorithms also personalize their online shopping experiences. Researchers at Northeastern University’s Volunteer Science, a platform for gamified scientific research, are studying how this personalization occurs and who it affects, and they’re tapping into the world of citizen science to do it.
In 2014, Northeastern researchers published a study uncovering instances of personalized pricing on 16 e-commerce sites. Personalized pricing takes two forms: price discrimination (offering different prices to different users) and price steering (ordering ranked lists differently).
The team found that personalized pricing could occur based on any of a number of variables, such as whether you’re logged in, your location, or your user history. Christo Wilson, assistant professor in the College of Computer and Information Science and a lead researcher on the project, characterizes the phenomenon as an “information black box” because consumers have no idea how a company’s algorithms use their data and ultimately affect them.
“There’s an information asymmetry here,” Wilson explains. “A company has a lot of information about a lot of people and there’s nothing compelling them to share any of it or the data techniques they use.”
The researchers teamed up with Volunteer Science, linking different prices to consumer data to learn which consumers are affected by price personalization and how it happens. “We expect the internet to look the same for us as it does for everybody else,” says Jason Radford, the project manager at Volunteer Science, “but that’s just not the case. We’ve developed a way to detect when different consumers see different things, but we don’t know which consumers it happens to most often, or if it’s unfair in any way.”
Radford saw a unique opportunity to apply citizen science: Volunteer Science could tap into its volunteer base to obtain real-world data, and, at the same time, help expose price personalization to everyday consumers. By asking online shoppers to share data about themselves, the researchers could identify when price personalization occurs and whether or not it’s biased.
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