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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Q&A: What happened at Barnet's polling stations this morning?

Eager democrats who arrived early in the morning to vote in the London elections were turned away. 

What’s going on?

When polls first opened at Barnet’s 155 polling stations at 7 this morning, many registered voters found that they were not on the station’s voting lists, meaning they were unable to cast their vote. Many reports suggested that the overwhelming majority were turned away. Rules were later relaxed in some, but not all, polling stations to allow those who arrived with their polling cards (which explicitly state they are not needed to cast a vote) to vote.

Why is this happening?

It is, needless to say, unclear. But some reports have suggested that polling station staff only had the updates to the electoral register (that is, those who have newly-registered) rather than the entire register itself. Which makes you wonder why nobody realised before 7am that there might be rather more people wanting to vote in Barnet than the lists suggested.

Is this a conspiracy?

No, of course it’s not. And if you think it is, take the tinfoil hat off and stop watching Russia Today. Barnet is a Tory-led council. If this mess harms any party it is likely to be the Conservatives. We don’t know how Barnet voted for mayor in 2012, but we do know the votes of Barnet plus predominantly Labour-supporting Camden: Boris Johnson got 82,839 first preference votes while Ken Livingstone received 58,354. But remember London’s not just electing a mayor today. It is also electing the members of the Greater London Assembly – and one of them represents the constituency of Barnet and Camden. The incumbent, Andrew Dismore, is from the Labour Party, and is running for reelection. He won fairly comfortably in 2012, far outperforming Ken Livingstone. But Tory campaigners have been talking up the possibility of defeating Dismore, especially in recent days after Labour’s anti-semitism ructions (Barnet has London’s largest Jewish population). Again, if there are voters who failed to vote this morning and cannot to do so later, then that will hurt the Conservatives and help Dismore.

Is it the fault of nasty outsourcers?

Seemingly not. As we’ve written before, Barnet Council is famous for outsourcing vast proportions of its services to private contractors – births and deaths in the borough are now registered elsewhere, for example. But though postal votes and other areas of electoral administration have been outsourced by Barnet, voter registration is performed in-house. This one’s on the council and nobody else.

What has Barnet done about it?

The council initially issued a statement saying that it was “aware of problems with our voter registration lists” and admitting that “a number of people who had not brought their polling card with them were unable to vote”. Which was a bit peculiar given the polling cards say that you don’t need to bring them to vote and there were plenty of reports of people who had polling cards also being denied their democratic rights.

As of 10.40am, the council said that: “All the updated electoral registers are now in place and people can vote as normal.” There appear to be no plans to extend voting hours – and it is not possible to reopen polling tomorrow morning for the frustrated early birds to return.

What does this mean for the result?

It’s very hard to form even a vaguely accurate picture of how many voters who would otherwise have voted will not vote because of this error. But if the margin of victory in the mayoral election or the relevant GLA contest is especially slim, expect calls for a re-run. Frustrated voters could in theory achieve that via the arcane procedure of an election petition, which would then be heard by a special election court, as when Lutfur Rahman’s election as Mayor of Tower Hamlets was declared void in April 2015.

Some have suggested that this may delay the eventual result, but remember that counting for the London elections was not due to begin until Friday morning anyway.

Is there a dodgier barnet than this Barnet?

Yes.

 

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.