Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"A Lone Data Whiz Is Fighting Airbnb — and Winning"

From Backchannel:
The “Inside Airbnb” project has earned the home-sharing company a deluge of bad press and forced it to be more transparent.

Murray Cox had been gathering data on Airbnb for over a year when he had his first breakthrough. It was December 2015, and the company, in an effort to be more transparent, had just released a trove of data on its presence in New York City. But to Cox, a Brooklyn community activist with a background in product development, something about the data dump smelled fishy.

At first glance, Airbnb’s data painted a pretty good picture of the company. It showed, for example, that the vast majority of hosts were listing only one apartment — seeming to debunk the city’s fears of rampant illegal hotel operations. But Cox knew more about Airbnb’s presence in New York City than virtually anyone else outside the company.

In his spare time, the documentary photographer had been scraping information on Airbnb listings across the city and displaying them in interactive maps on his website, InsideAirbnb.com. A self-described “data activist,” Cox updated his numbers regularly—and as he compared Airbnb’s data to his own, he noticed a serious discrepancy. A large chunk of listings seemed to have gone missing just before Airbnb released its report.

Meanwhile in Waterloo, Ontario, a product manager named Tom Slee had noticed the same thing. Since 2013, Slee, like Cox, had been scraping vast amounts of Airbnb data and publishing it to his personal website, where he also ran blog posts denouncing Uber’s presence in Canada and criticizing the broader sharing economy. Given their shared interest, Slee and Cox had known each other for some time, and so they decided to compare notes. The numbers matched up: Both sets of data showed that about a thousand listings had disappeared from Airbnb’s site immediately before the company made its data on some 36,000 listings publicly available.

It quickly became apparent to them that those missing listings represented Airbnb hosts who were placing multiple apartments on the site, in clear violation of a 2010 New York state law. This, they realized, could be huge.

Both Cox and Slee are vocal critics of the sharing economy, and of Airbnb in particular. They charge that it is threatening affordable housing, exacerbating gentrification, and only paying lip service to the ideals of home sharing and community. As Airbnb becomes more powerful and more deeply entrenched in cities, that concern is only growing. One housing advocacy group found that in 2015, Airbnb had reduced the availability of housing in New York City by 10 percent.

A tech company with a $30 billion valuation may seem like a most formidable opponent. But as campaigns across the industry have shown, even just a handful of passionate individuals can bring about change. Look no further than Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou’s demand for data on gender diversity in tech, which triggered a movement, or the first guy who tweeted #DeleteUber, kicking off last month’s frenzy. Small-scale activism, when done cleverly, has an impact — as Cox and Slee soon learned for themselves....MUCH MORE
Yeah, most buildings frown on tenants setting up mini-hotels or BnB's or whatever.
We don't have any prior posts on Mr. Cox. 
Re: Mr. Slee, on February 1st we followed a hat tip and referral chain back to one of the funniest (because it's true) descriptions of Uber you're likely to find: 

It sounds like Ben Thompson is falling for the Uber bait and switch. Stages of which:
Uber has a nice business as a status product (Uber Black Car ~ 2010)
Uber Black may not be profitable, but Uber will displace taxis and be hugely profitable because of technology-driven efficiencies (UberX: 2014-2015)
UberX may not be profitable, but UberPool will lead to new efficiencies in mass transit (2015-2016)
UberX may not be profitable, but Uber is a logistics company and will rewrite the rules of delivery (UberEats, various speculative stories, 2013-2015)
UberPool may not be profitable, but when Uber displaces car ownership the scale of the market will make it profitable (2016)
Uber with drivers may not be profitable, but driverless cars will make Uber profitable (2014-)
Driverless cars may not be profitable, but Uber is looking into flying vehicles (2016)