Is Amazon’s “buy box” shafting you?


Stephen Woods | Flickr

Questioning Amazon’s algorithms. Amazon famously puts customers first. But a new report by ProPublica suggests that the company’s code pushes its own merchandise, even when other listings on the site offer better deals. The algorithm that chooses which seller to feature in the rectangular orange “buy box” seems to favor Amazon itself, or the “Fulfilled by Amazon” partners who pay the company to handle inventory and shipping. Read closely, though, and ProPublica’s argument turns out to be almost entirely about shipping costs. For Amazon’s favored Prime customers (who pay $100 a year for free shipping and other perks), and for anyone whose order tops $50, the shipping costs nothing, and the deal Amazon highlights really is the cheapest one. That’s still arguably a problem, but hardly the capital offense the story implies. Watchdogging algorithms is the investigative journalism of the future, and ProPublica does great work. But in its eagerness to tar Amazon it has obscured the real lessons here: Platform owners are always going to give themselves an edge. Amazon deserves credit for running an open platform that lets alert consumers find good deals and gives outside merchants access to its vast market. It has also earned a rap on the knuckles for tilting its listings to goose Prime signups. Instructive, for sure. Scandalous? Probably not.

Nuggets of gold in piles of user comments. Of course you care about user feedback and customer reviews! But who has time to read them all? Now there’s a machine-learning-style data analytics tool that will read them for you and tell you what to do (Buzzfeed). This service is called Metis, and for the moment its eyes are trained on the products of luxury merchants. For instance, it told a high-end hotelier that its guests really, really cared about customizing their breakfasts. We can assume this sort of analysis will quickly move down market as well, where the volume of feedback is even more overwhelming, and the potential payoff for small incremental improvements is that much higher. Anything that helps businesses listen better is valuable — as long as the process still allows individual human voices to make themselves heard.

Feds to self-driving car innovators: share your data. Here’s a key followup to yesterday’s story on the government’s new guidelines for the autonomous-vehicle industry. The feds want these companies — tech-industry competitors like Google, Tesla, and Uber, along with automotivve giants like GM, Ford, BMW, and Volvo — to publish their vehicle performance assessments and to share reports of “edge case” problem scenarios (Bloomberg). The government’s most urgent rationale for promoting the new technology is that it could be safer than the human-error-filled status quo; the fastest path to a safer self-driven future is one accelerated by “group learning.” That would require secretive competitors to open up. They’re unlikely to do so, and there’s little sign that the Feds will try to make them. But it makes a ton of sense, and any high-profile accident will spark enough public outcry to mandate such cooperation. (Also: In the self-driving future, safety isn’t our only worry; system security is critical, too — as this week’s Tesla hack reminds us.)

A green economy, courtesy of private enterprise. The U.N. says averting climate disaster will cost $90 trillion over the next decade and a half. Former treasure secretary Henry Paulson says we can do it, and the money is going to come from the private sector — as long as the public sector sends the right signals (The New York Times). Governments can encourage and support such “green finance,” but can’t make it happen on their own. They will need to promote environmental regulations and incentives, design marketplaces for carbon emissions, provide subsidies for sustainable energy while removing them from the old fossil-fuel industries, and support “green bond” programs to finance projects in China and other countries. But $90 trillion? Heck, don’t let that stand in the way of the planet’s future.

Creativity happens in cities’ margins. You can try to understand the different natures of different cities’ creative communities analyzing census and jobs data. Or, since creative projects don’t always show up neatly in official ledgers, you could just dig into the data from 100,000 Kickstarter projects (Polygraph). You’d learn that New York City shows a special affinity for dance projects, Los Angeles for film, Nashville for music, San Francisco for tech and design. (In Indianapolis, tabletop games are tops.) These aren’t hugely surprising findings. But poking around this study’s bubble-charts is endlessly fascinating. Exploring which cities backed which Kickstarters most avidly offers a great view of the creative obsessions that drive crowdfunding successes and keeps cities vibrant.

Featured in NewCo Shift: Why Healthcare Is Broken and Sugar Dominates Our Diet. NewCo editor-in-chief John Battelle interviews Dr. Jordan Shlain on the “hairball” of healthcare, what’s wrong with insurance companies, and why you have to keep filling out the same form over and over.

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