Shaping Reparative Technology: Reforming Landlord Tech with Wonyoung So

MIT can pursue public interest technology when we encourage interdepartmental initiatives that prioritize justice and equity and the continuous evaluation of the societal impact of technological advancements.

Shaping Reparative Technology: Reforming Landlord Tech with Wonyoung So

Question 1: What technology or technologies are the focus of your research, teaching, and action?

I am broadly interested in what housing activists and scholars have collectively termed “Landlord Tech.” Landlord tech includes various real estate products and platforms, including tenant screening services, property management software for rental housing, automated valuation models for home appraisal, and mortgage lending algorithms for homeownership, among others. These technologies play a pivotal role in making crucial decisions for who gets housing and who gets more value from housing.

In particular, one of my research focuses on tenant screening services. These services utilize crime records, eviction records, and credit score databases to generate reports that aid landlords in their decision-making process regarding potential tenants. However, they are plagued by a number of issues including tenant blacklisting, high error rate, and unregulated algorithms that use racialized data including credit scores, eviction data, and criminal data.

Most of these landlord technologies share a common problem: they operate under the assumption that individuals featured in the data have historically been treated fairly. However, given the extensive history of slavery in the United States, and subsequent racial inequities including residential segregation and housing discrimination, this assumption of fairness is simply untrue. It is therefore crucial through this research to highlight how these technologies function on flawed assumptions, and to actively seek out the role of technologies better able to serve the public interest.

Question 2: What are the ways in which these technologies are and could be used to advance the public interest at MIT?

I actively engage with the complex challenges of rectifying historical injustices through the promotion of urban technologies that can be reparative. Rather than perpetuating the harms that have long afflicted marginalized communities, my approach involves a critical analysis of how certain technologies contribute to the persistence of these inequities. For instance, in tenant screening algorithms, the conditions of tenants are formalized as credit scores or tenant scores. Scores are often accompanied by eviction and criminal data with limited detail. As a result, landlords typically follow the decisions made by tenant screening services, and these decisions are legitimized to justify offering predatory contracts. For example, more security deposits are imposed against low-income tenants due to their categorization as “high-risk.”

In recognizing the significance of exposing such mechanisms that uphold racial inequality, I also seek to propose a reparative role for technologies. This initiative is centered on leveraging data-driven methodologies and algorithms to not only assess past injustices, but also to envision a future that actively promotes corrective actions. By fostering inclusive dialogue and collective deliberation, this approach aims to align our shared aspirations with a forward-looking trajectory that prioritizes equitable outcomes for all. A key methodological tenet of this framework involves an inclusive re-evaluation, wherein quantitative, computational, and design-based methodologies are seamlessly integrated to unveil historical oppressions and envisage a future that fosters co-liberation.

Question 3: What more could be done at MIT to ensure that these technologies are designed to better address the needs of those at the margins of society? What more can be done at MIT to further the public interest?

MIT's obligation to account for the public interest, particularly in the context of emerging technologies, should involve a critical evaluation of the social impact of the technologies it engages with or develops. Recognizing the historical injustices and systemic biases that underpin various technologies, MIT should prioritize a comprehensive assessment of the societal implications of these “innovations.” This includes acknowledging the perpetuation of inequities by certain technologies and ensuring that research and development initiatives actively seek to address these disparities. MIT's commitment should encompass fostering an environment that encourages critical discourse and multidisciplinary collaboration, with a focus on designing technologies that promote equity and social justice. By integrating a deep understanding of historical injustices into its research and educational initiatives, I believe MIT can play a significant role in steering the discourse that prioritizes the public interest and upholding the joy and well-being of marginalized communities.

Ultimately, I think it will be great if we can collaborate closely with community organizations to integrate community-centric perspectives into MIT's technological research and development. As a research-centric institution, we should advocate for the incorporation of diverse voices in decision-making processes and promote education and training programs emphasizing the ethical development and deployment of technology. To do this, we must encourage interdepartmental initiatives that prioritize justice and equity and the continuous evaluation of the societal impact of technological advancements.

Wonyoung So is an urban researcher and designer, who studies how urban data and technology have been historically used to orchestrate, predict, and police public life and how the future of urban science can be different if we care more about empowering marginalized groups in the city. In 2011, Wonyoung co-founded the crowdfunding platform Tumblbug and demonstrated an alternative to the sustainability of the DIY movement. He was a research fellow at the Senseable City Lab at MIT, and he co-curated Seoul Libre Maps at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism to realize the vision of a citizen-organized data community. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, where he was a Presidential Fellow. He works as a research assistant and technical lead of the Data + Feminism Lab at MIT. He holds a Master in City Planning at MIT DUSP and a BFA in Visual Communication Design at Kookmin University. His work has been recognized by Information is Beautiful Awards, MIT Museum, IEEE, Fast Co. Design, The Atlantic, CNN, The Guardian, Seoul Museum of Art, and Wired, among others.