Wonga are blinding critics with science

The payday loan company shows off about its algorithm, but lends to the same vulnerable people.

I read Michael Brooks' article, Doing Science the Wonga Way, with great interest.

I have had the algorithm Wonga uses to distinguish between applicants explained to me, and it is fascinating. It makes the most of the fact that the internet is replete with thousands of pieces of information about us that, in aggregate, paint a reasonable picture of who we are. More importantly for Wonga, they also paint a picture of how creditworthy we might be. It doesn't take this lightly: I've been told it uses 6-8000 data points about the each of the people it checks.

The problem was that I only had the algorithm explained to me after its accuracy was seriously put in to question.

Wonga has a weekly survey of people who they consider to be good customers, and they brag about them to journalists. When the Guardian's Amelia Gentleman interviewed Errol Damelin, the chief executive of Wonga, he and his team had a chance to show that their model worked. When they put names of potential customers through their high-tech filters, the system ought to tell them whether they would be good customers. They would then only lend if it would be responsible to. After all, Wonga says that it turns away two-thirds of applicants.

Rather than the "web-savvy young professionals" that the company says that it lends to, one of the "good customers" on their weekly survey was Susan, an unemployed former nurse dependent on disability benefits. She uses the loans she receives from Wonga to buy food when she is short of cash. In fact, at the time of the Guardian interview, she had taken out 6 loans with Wonga, nearly double the amount of payday loans the average customer takes out (3.5).

We have two options here. Either we can assume Wonga purposefully targets people who are not median income, employed and web-savvy, unlike what they say, or their algorithm doesn't work as well as they say.

In the same interview with the Guardian, John Morwood, Wonga's communications director, said:

Sometimes we will make loans to people on significant benefits, but it is not something we do very frequently. It is very infrequent. I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen.

Dr Brooks is correct to say that the company has enjoyed some fantastic and enviable funding from several organisations. Last time I looked, Wonga were the beneficiaries of £3.7m from Balderton Capital in 2007, £14m from Accel Partners (also investors in Facebook) in 2009, then £73m from Oak Investment Partners, Meritech Partners and the Wellcome Trust.

I can't be certain, but my assumption is that at least some of these backers are interested in Wonga as an example of good science put into action by business, and aren't particularly interested in funding legal loansharking.

But Wonga's algorithm clearly doesn't alter the fundamentals of their business as much as they claim. Even with their flashy, investor-attracting scientific background, they still lend to people whose custom they admit they ought not to take.

Wonga itself is either misusing its own system to justify lending to people who should be served by less expensive lenders such as credit unions (which I think payday lenders should be obliged to advertise to low-income customers), or its algorithm needs a lot more work than it says.

As it stands, if the system confuses repeat borrowers who are unemployed and on benefits to buy food for people who are middle class, have bank accounts, are in full time employment and need the cash for minor financial shocks here and there, then there is a major issue.

Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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