May 8, 2021


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Stage workers collect their own data to verify algorithm math

3 min read

Armin Samii had was cycling for UberEats for a few weeks last July when he accepted a delivery he said would take 20 minutes, top. But the app got him up one of Pittsburgh’s steepest hills, a 4-mile one-way trip that took an hour. Then he noticed that Uber had only paid him for 1 mile – the distance from origin to destination as the crow flies, but not by bike.

“I had only made 20 deliveries, and this has happened to me before,” Samii says. “For people who are doing this full time, will they delve into this statement? Will they ever find this problem? “

Samii is a software engineer. So he created a Google Chrome extension, UberCheats, which helps workers spot pay gaps. The extension automatically extracts the start and end points of each trip and calculates the shortest trip distance between the two. If that distance doesn’t match what Uber paid for, the extension marks it for further consideration.

So far, only a few hundred workers have installed UberCheats on their browsers. Samii doesn’t have access to how couriers use the extension, but he says some have told him they used it to find payroll inconsistencies. Google briefly removed the extension last week, when Uber reported it as a trademark violation, but overturned its decision after Samii appealed.

The digital tool joins with others to help freelancers take back control of work run by opaque algorithms, with compensation structures that can change at any time. The need only increased during the pandemic, which has seen companies like DoorDash, Amazon and Instacart hire more contractors to support peak demand for deliveries. The expansion of saving odd jobs could be here to stay: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the “couriers and messengers” industry could grow 13 to 30 percent more by 2029 than it would have without a pandemic. Worldwide, up to 55 million people work as construction workers, according to the Fairwork research and advocacy group.

Projects arise from a practical need. In the United States, many workers keep track of their miles and expenses for tax purposes. But the projects are also born out of workers’ growing mistrust of companies that pay their wages. “I knew the business decisions of concert companies that meant they weren’t paying well,” Samii says. But he says he didn’t think apps could “pay less for work than you actually do.”

The tools are particularly useful for on-the-job workers because of their low wages and because it can be difficult for lone workers to share or find information about how work is paid, says Katie Wells, researcher at Georgetown University studying work. “Things are changed and hidden behind an algorithm, which makes it harder to determine what you’re earning and spending and if you’re screwed,” Wells says.

Performing workers usually have their own methods of tracking business expenses. Some like spreadsheets; others keep pens and notepaper in their glove boxes, so they can record kilometers and gasoline expenses. Still others use apps specifically designed to track mileage for tax purposes, like Stride and QuickBooks Self-Employed, which drivers can set up to run in the background of their phones when picking up passengers and deliveries.

Driver’s Seat Cooperative helps gig workers track their hours in apps and what they’re really doing.

Courtesy of Driver’s Seat Cooperative

But some workers were drawn to the local tools built by other workers on the scene – and the idea that they themselves could benefit from the information companies collect about them. Driver’s Seat Cooperative was launched in 2019 to help workers collect and analyze their own data from transportation and delivery apps like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart. Over 600 performing workers in 40 cities shared their information through the co-op, which helps them decide when and where to log into each app to earn the most money and how much they earn after spending. In turn, the company hopes to sell the data to transport agencies interested in learning more about the work together and pass the profits on to members of the cooperative. Only one municipal agency, in San Francisco, has paid for the data so far, for a local mobility study who sent $ 45,700 to the driver’s seat.

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