Racist Technology in Action: How Pokéman Go inherited existing racial inequities

When Aura Bogado was playing Pokémon Go in a much Whiter neighbourhood than the one where she lived, she noticed how many more PokéStops were suddenly available. She then crowdsourced locations of these stops and found out, with the Urban Institute think tank, that there were on average 55 PokéStops in majority White neighbourhoods and 19 in neighbourhoods that were majority Black.

The reason for this difference (which mostly existed in the early weeks of the game)? Niantic, creators of Pokémon Go, had used the activity maps of an earlier game to seed their game world. That earlier game was played by players that were mostly male and tech-savvy.

Four graphs showing Ingress portal stops in Washington DC and how they relate to white/non-Hispanic, young ages, and black/non-Hispanic neighbourhoods.

As a result, the people in the communities that had less PokéStops had a harder time playing the game successfully. And they had to pay for in-game items that other players would often get for free.

Unfortunately, geographical disadvantages (reminiscent of redlining) as a result of relying on historical data happens all too often. Amazon initially offered Free Same-Day delivery to its prime customers in a racially inequitable way, and Google did the same when it rolled out its glass fibre internet offering.

See: Is Pokémon Go racist? How the app may be redlining communities of color at USA Today.

Header image from the Pókemon Go website.

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