Image courtesy Airbnb

Airbnb will set out to identify and measure racial discrimination experienced by users of its service through a new research project in partnership with Color of Change and other advisers.

Why it matters: “The reason we’re doing this is because we have not achieved our goal of reducing all bias and discrimination on our platform,” Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky tells Axios.

The big picture: Users of Airbnb’s home-sharing service have faced discrimination for years. Frustrated and heartbreaking anecdotes of subtle and overt racism would occasionally surface in social media, but affected customers had little other recourse.

  • “This is not a new issue,” says Chesky. “Presumably, this issue has existed so long as people had the tools to be discerning of who they want to stay with; and then, therefore, they could discriminate.”

Details: Project Lighthouse, as it’s been named, will seek to measure discrimination that travelers and hosts face based on the perception of their race.

  • "The right data to use is perceived race, because… when people deny somebody a home, they don't ask them their background, their nationality, their heritage. They look at them, they make a snap judgment, and the two things that we identified were photo and name,” says Chesky.
  • The study will cover the reservation process, reviews, and interactions with Airbnb’s customer support.
  • The company says it worked with privacy experts to ensure that the data won’t be linked with a user’s Airbnb account. It will be publishing its methodology, and users can also opt out of participating in the study.
  • After it’s completed, the company will publish its findings and data.

What they’re saying: "We get gaslit around whether or not something was racist or not" says Color Of Change President Rashad Robinson. "People say it was something else."

  • "They’re gonna be transparent about the data, which is the most important thing for us," he adds of Project Lighthouse.
  • Robinson also points out that Airbnb has assigned engineers to work on anti-discrimination efforts — a sign in Silicon Valley that the company takes the problem seriously.

Yes, but: A study is one thing, but what Airbnb does afterwards will be the true test of its commitment to combat discrimination.

  • More broadly, Airbnb will have to address discrimination that happens offline, when guests and hosts meet in person — as well as how its service affects the neighborhoods and cities where it operates, potentially deepening existing inequities.

Flashback: In 2016, the company enlisted former attorney general Eric Holder to investigate and assemble a report on the issue.

  • Since then, Airbnb has rolled out an anti-discrimination policy it requires all users to agree to.
  • It has also experimented with other approaches, such as downplaying users’ photos and names, and increasing the number of accommodations available via “Instant Booking” to decrease opportunities for discrimination.
  • Still, the company has lacked a way to measure whether these efforts have been effective, says Chesky. "Even if we'd made a lot of progress, it would be hard to know," he says.

What's next: As a future data-gathering project, Chesky says he wants to capture in-the-moment data, probably through the Airbnb app, about what he calls "moments of truth" for guests — booking, check-in, settling in (say, the morning after arrival), and checking out.

  • "How comfortable did you feel?" Chesky said. "These are moments when the most issues happen, and also the most delight happens."

Meanwhile: Chesky reiterated to Axios that a move for Airbnb to go public in 2020 is not off the table — and, as we previously reported, internal conversations on a potential IPO have resumed.

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