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He’s investigating the algorithms that make Uber, Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon work

Christo Wilson, an associate professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, has received a Sloan Research Fellowship, which recognizes scholars who are early in their careers and among the most promising researchers in their fields. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Google. Facebook. Uber. YouTube. Amazon. People are increasingly using these and other websites and apps to communicate, find information, watch movies and TV shows, and buy things. And what’s behind all the search results and recommendations that people receive through these services? Algorithms.

These algorithms can shape people’s daily lives, but most people have no idea how they work, and which data they’re using to produce their results.

Northeastern computer scientist Christo Wilson is trying to change that. His research investigates how these algorithms work, and whether the way they work can negatively affect users. His goal is to help make people more aware of how these algorithms work, and to get companies that use them to be more open about and accountable for how they work.

“We live in this world that is permeated by these complex algorithms that we don’t understand,” says Wilson, who is an associate professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern. “Every website, every app—they have huge amounts of data about us, and they use that to shape our experiences. Sometimes this is totally fine. We love it when Netflix recommends cool stuff to us. But in many scenarios these kinds of suggestions can be troubling.”

Wilson has studied the methods of the ride-hailing company Uber for “surge pricing” during periods of peak demand, and uncovered a glitch in its algorithm that caused some customers to be incorrectly charged higher prices than others. He’s investigated whether Google “personalizes” its political news searches, and found that Google’s search engine does not create partisan “filter bubbles” in which people only receive search results that reinforce their preexisting biases and beliefs. And he’s uncovered that Amazon and travel websites sometimes feature more prominently products and fares with higher prices than those that present better deals for consumers.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Wilson says that his field of study, which is called algorithm auditing, has emerged over the past decade, and that its importance will continue to grow. Now, he’s received a Sloan Research Fellowship, which recognizes scholars who are early in their careers and whose achievements put them among the most promising researchers in their fields.

“He’s a pioneer and leader in this new field of algorithm auditing,” said Carla Brodley, dean of the Khoury College of Computer Sciences.

The fellowships, which were announced by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation on Tuesday, are awarded to scholars in the United States and Canada. The fellowships recognize scholars who work in eight scientific or technical fields: chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics.

Wilson’s research has been covered by NPR, The Washington Post, Fast Company, BBC News, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal. His work led Uber to launch a blog to better explain how its pricing works. He also worked with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority to study the impact of ride-hailing services. The collaboration led the agency to write reports on the volume of ride-hailing vehicles in the county and their effect on traffic and congestion.

Wilson says that in future research, he plans to study whether the algorithms used by data brokers—which act as middlemen by buying consumer data from one company and selling it to another—derive correct inferences about people. He said he will also examine the algorithms used by credit scoring agencies, and by YouTube to recommend videos to its users.

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