From her home in Cape Town, Alice is preparing a trip from Edinburgh to Loch Lomond and the Isle of Mull, a dream come true, and a chance to spend time with some of her best friends from university days. She is browsing the EtherBedroom app, looking for places to stay during her two nights stop in Oban. It’s close to the date of her departure, but she’s relaxed. The prices look great, and she knows she will be able to book any room as soon as she decide between the one-room in the city centre with a free tour thrown in, or the gorgeous loft offering her a personalised 40% discount.
She never used EtherBedroom before, but it doesn’t matter. Her Reputation Barometer crosses borders, and her high score opens doors. Her near-perfect reviews from SBB, the leading peer-to-peer accommodation platform across south and west Africa, sure help. So does her employment record and the fact she has accumulated plenty of loyalty points with Baimazon, the retail giant. Upon creating her account with EtherBedroom, she simply had to click on “Barometer” as her preferred reputation broker, and the Barometer did the rest. It queried records and reputation scores across platforms similar to EtherBedroom – with Alice’s consent, of course.
It’s a good thing Alice has a great score. Her friend Bob, who lives in Glasgow, wouldn’t have been able to book her a room on EtherBedroom anyway.
Youthful indiscretions stick, over there, and while Bob is by all accounts an upstanding citizen now, his use of most online platforms is heavily curtailed. He knows how to work around it, of course. You learn those things fast, learn to use the alternatives, the services where reputation management is not de rigueur yet, the shady ones too. He tried fixing his record, to understand why his score was so low. No luck.
Too much stress spending hours and days on the phone with Barometer or TrueTrust, the two big providers in the UK. Neither would tell him whether it was the heavy partying in his early twenties or an in-work/out-of-work career as experimental artist that was the problem. Too much stress trying to fix it, anyway. Life goes on. It’s the social networks he misses the most. His friends refuse to connect with him in case his reputation damages theirs…
What is it?
In this scenario we explore a service that measures and monitors an individual’s standing by giving an overall score for their reputation. Adopting and expanding ideas from the credit scoring industry, as well as inspiration from popular culture and recent news, we wanted to explore how data portability could enable new forms of management of reputation in the peer-to-peer accommodation sector.
The reputation score given by our fictional Reputation Barometer, and other similar services, is informed by the reviews received by an individual when renting or letting properties on peer-to-peer accommodation platforms, but also by their behaviour or reputation in other contexts, for example on other online services or in their career.
Once calculated, a person’s reputation score can be used to make decisions by other users of the peer-to-peer platform, or services outside this sector. In this scenario, use of the barometer and score would be widespread, normal, and expected.
We explored how the reputation could be represented, for example as a whole number on a scale that ranges from 0 – 600. This ‘score’ is assigned to an individual through the assessment of a number of data points, building a picture of an individual’s trustworthiness.
An insights dashboard forms part of the Barometer. It offers insights into how your score could be improved, how improvements would benefit you and your standing in relation to the rest of society and your peers.
How does it work? How is it related to portability?
The core idea behind this scenario is that with widespread data portability, sharing of data about individuals becomes easier as standards and interfaces are developed to maturity. So much so that reputation and personal data on other platforms can flow between each other.
In our scenario, a user who registers with a peer-to-peer accommodation platform needs to bring their reputation score with them, fostering two-way trust from an early point in their interactions on the platform. It works by prompting the user to connect their chosen P2P rental platform account to their barometer, or vice-versa, both in order to port their existing reputation to that platform, and so the barometer can port data back from the platform.
Once consent is established, data ported between the accommodation platform and the barometer includes reviews, history, and reputation data from other platforms and services.
Through other data sharing mechanisms, the Reputation Barometer may include a person’s criminal record, tax records, employment history, financial history and current balance.
The system may also use existing open data, such as demographic and economic statistics, to better gauge someone’s reputation in the context of their location and background.
A cross-sector working group could be needed to develop standards for safely sharing and determining a reputation score. Meanwhile civil society, businesses and governments would need to consider the potential harms and need for updates to legislation such as that to protect privacy and prevent discrimination.
Benefits and risks
Reputation becoming more portable means that it may be easier for people – in their roles as service users or workers – to move between platforms. In a global world, knowing who you can trust becomes easier.
The idea of quantifying reputation with a single score, however reductive, creates a simple indicator of otherwise elusive, qualitative information. This is both a benefit and a risk, because of how it hides complexity and nuance.
A feedback loop is created as reputation is used to determine the levels of service provided to people. Those with higher reputations are likely to receive services from those demanding higher reputations, which increases their reputations further, while those with lower reputations are likely to be placed in situations where they find it hard to succeed, further lowering their reputation. These feedback loops can lead to stratification of society and widening inequalities.
In some variants of this scenario, we can suppose that data portability is no longer used simply as a mechanism giving individuals protection and control, but a requirement from states and corporations to participate in society. This then creates a risk of control of population via the opaque workings of an algorithm that calculates reputation.
Such opacity can then create, and hide, discrimination against specific groups of people, whether deliberately or accidentally, via proxies implicit in the data. It could negatively affect the more creative and challenging portions of society – such as in art, comedy, acting and media – as reactions to people’s deliberately provocative work as creators has negative impacts on those individuals’ lives as citizens.
All of this could result in an increase in anxiety and other mental illnesses due to fear of your every action or mistake affecting your future.
How far in the future could this be?
This is hard to tell.
In some sense such systems already exist – in China or in western societies’ credit score systems. Although the level of participation and co-operation of multiple actors required to bring about the specific scenario we describe does feel remote, some of us felt it might be inevitable because it was so easy to imagine.
That said, limiting the scope of a reputation system to the portability of data about a user of a peer-to-peer accommodation platform to ‘seed’ their reputation in another peer-to-peer accommodation platform does not feel far-fetched and could be useful. It could be created through collaboration between existing platforms, coupled with careful experimentation with how to make it fair and effective.
The harder part would be limiting the use of the data to this particular scenario and preventing it from being used in other contexts where problems are more likely to occur.