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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One Day Without Us reveals the spectre of Britain without immigration

Imagine a country without its NHS workers, its artists and even its consumers. That's why immigrants are striking today. 

What’s the best way of making yourself heard in politics? Protesting in the street, or contacting the media? Writing to politicians? A badge?

One option, of course, is to walk out - and give people a chance to recognise what they’d be missing if you weren’t there. In the labour movement, that’s long been an option – a last-case option, but an option nevertheless – when your contribution isn't being recognised.

A strike is a tit-for-tat negotiation and a warning shot. “I’ll work properly when you employ me properly”, it says, but simultaneously: “Here’s what you’d lose if I stopped”. Done right, the worker’s absence can shift the power balance in their favour.

Normally, people strike according to their role, in pursuit of certain conditions – the tube strikes, or last year’s teacher's strike.

Yet there is also a long and rich history of walk-outs whose terms are broader and boundaries hazier. One of the most famous is surely the 1975 Women's Strike, in Iceland, during which 90 per cent of the country's women refused to participate in either paid or unpaid work.

In 2016, the formula was repeated in Poland, where women went on strike to protest against a draconian change being proposed to the country's already-strict abortion laws. (It worked.)

Immigrant strikes, too, have a history. In 2006, for instance, a coalition of Los Angeles Catholic groups, unions and immigration reform groups proposed a boycott in opposition to a bill which, among other things, called for new border security fences to be built between America and Mexico. (Ahem.)

The action grew to become a national event, and on May 1, the “Great American Boycott” took place, with immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere leaving work, skipping school and refusing to buy or sell goods.

Now, with Donald Trump in the White House and Brexit looming, some have decided it’s time for another strike. Enter “One Day Without Us”.

Today, immigrants here in Britain will strike not for pay conditions or holiday allowances, but for basic recognition and respect. Across the country, businesses will close and immigrants will leave work, many of them to take place in alternative actions like rallies or letter-writing campaigns.

The name of the protest pulls no punches. This, it says, is what it would be like if we all went away. (Subtext: “like some of you want”.)

Because – and let’s be honest here – it’d be bad. In hospital this summer, I was treated by migrants. After 24 hours in NHS, I took a count, and found that only about one in five of the staff who had treated me were identifiably English. Around 4.6 per cent of NHS staff nationally are from the EU, including 9 per cent of doctors. Immigrants clean buildings, make our food, and provide a whole host of other vital services.

One Day Without Us, then, could do Britain a huge favour - it provides us with a quick preview function before anyone ups and leaves for good, taking the heart of our health service, or our food supplies, with them.

In recognition of this, some businesses are actively giving their workers the day off. One 36-year-old owner of a support services company, for instance, is giving her staff a paid holiday.

“Not all my colleagues are taking up the offer not to come in”, she explained. “Some, both British and foreign-born, would prefer to work. That’s fine, I wanted to give colleagues the freedom to choose.

 “It will cause some inconvenience and I’ve had to explain to clients why we aren’t offering all our services for one day, but I feel doing this is the only way to show how much this country relies on migrants. I may be a businesswoman, but I’m a human being first, and it hurts my heart to see how foreign-born colleagues are being treated by some people in the current political climate."

The woman, whose staff is 65 per cent foreign born, has asked her company not to be identified. She’s heard her staff being abused for speaking Polish.

Of course, not everyone is able to walk out of work. I write this from Chicago, Illinois, where last week activists participated in an American predecessor to One Day Without Us called “Day Without Immigrants”. Type “Day Without Immigrants" into Google followed by the word "Chicago" and you will find reports of restaurants closing down and citizens marching together through the city.

But search for just "Day Without Immigrants", and the top stories are all about participants being fired.

One Day Without Us, then, encourages any form of engagement. From human chains to sessions during which participants can write to their MP, these events allow immigrants, and supporters, to make themselves known across the country.

Businesses and museums, too, are involved. The Tate, for instance, is offering free tours showing visitors artworks created or influenced by migrants, showing Londoners which of the paintings that they’ve seen a dozen times only exist because of immigration.

Because paintings, like people, come from everywhere, whether or not you remember. Britain is a mongrel country, and so its art and culture are as mongrel as its workforce: a persistent thread through the country’s history.

We risk a lot forgetting this. At its best, assimilation provides a way of integrating without forgetting one’s own unique identity. In a world where immigrants risk threats or violence, however, invisibility can be the best option. For some, it is better not to be recognized as an immigrant than be abused as one.

Those of us who don’t risk threats have a duty to recognise this. I dislike the glibness of “we are all migrants” – maybe, technically, but we’re not all getting slurs shouted at us in the high street, are we? Still, I also don’t like anyone forgetting the fact that their existence, in all probably, is contingent on someone once being given clemency in a place that was their own. The movement of people is woven into the fabric of society.

Of course, it is impossible to say how successful One Day Without Us will be, or how many people’s lives will be directly affected. But I hope that, even as a gesture, it works: that people think of what would be missing from their lives without immigration.

We ignore it at our peril.

You can view all the One Day Without Us events on the organisers’ website, or contribute to a fund to support businesses which are closing for the day here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland