Ride-hailing algorithms questioned as Black woman quoted more than white man for same Toronto trip

TORONTO — A Black woman and a white man were quoted drastically different fares on the same ride-hailing journey — leading to calls for more transparency and questions for tech companies about whether they are properly monitoring the computer programs that are deciding prices.

Joanne Parks and Adam Ferreira said they put identical departures and destinations into their Uber apps in Toronto last week, and were surprised when Parks’ fare was more than $25 higher.

“I said, oh, this is what my Uber is, my friend acknowledged the rate was different with him, and he goes, ‘That’s a little strange,” Parks told CTV News Toronto. She said they tried again, within seconds, and got the same result.

Ferreira was offered a trip from Dupont Street and Christie Street to Rebel in the Port Lands for $32.58. Parks was offered the same trip for $57.80, some 77 per cent more.

“It was surprising, I was a little shocked,” Parks recalled.

The pair snapped a photo of them holding the two phones next to each other with the caption, “Just tell me the reason isn’t what I think it is, @Uber” — it was retweeted more than 25,000 times.

Ferreira said he just wanted to know what was behind the different treatment.

“It could be racial, it could be that she’s a woman and I’m a man and women rely on cars more, especially at night, so they could charge women more. It could have been anything,” he said.

Uber pointed out that one phone shows that “Fares are higher due to increased demand” and the other shows “Fares are a lot higher due to increased demand,” saying that its algorithm was using ‘surge pricing’ where prices change because of a variety of factors.

Uber told CTV News Toronto in a statement, “Surge pricing changes in real time and has nothing to do with the identity of the rider. Uber is committed to being an anti-racist company and has no space for discrimination.”

Unlike taxis, there are no regulated fares for ride-share companies, and their algorithms change the prices constantly based on many factors. Drivers say they don’t even know what’s being charged.

University of Toronto computer science professor Ronald Baecker said some algorithms are not programmed, they are trained with real-world data. That data can be biased, and that bias can be baked into the app without the programmers realizing it.

“These algorithms treat people of colour differently than they treat people who are white, treat women differently than men,” he said.

Those programs are often black boxes, training themselves, without any input from the companies that run them, he said.

“My conjecture is that no one at Uber really understands why this decision was made,” he said.

A study in Chicago showed that ride hailing algorithms gave higher prices to people of colour, poor people, the young, and the highly educated. That study was possible because Chicago required the companies to disclose their prices — something that isn’t done in Toronto, he said.

Baecker says Toronto should follow Chicago’s lead and disclose its prices so any patterns can be seen clearly.

And he said the federal government should consider adopting regulations similar to Europe, which requires that if a person wants to know the reason behind an algorithm that has made a decision about them, they shall be told.

Those ideas were supported by Parks and Ferriera, who say the experience has changed how they think of their ride-hailing apps.

“Every time I use the app now I’m always going to compare it to the guy next to me to see if I get a better rate,” Ferreira said.

Parks said she deleted the app and won’t be using it any more.

One option for her — going back to taxis, which have apps and a regulated fare. For the trip they tried, the fare would be about $25.60, no matter who hails it. 

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