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Professor Robinson and Colleagues Awarded $1.5 Million Research Grant by NSF Professor Robinson and Colleagues Awarded $1.5 Million Research Grant by NSF

H.C. Robinson10.01.19 —Professor H.C. Robinson and colleagues at Northeastern University and Boston College have been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to research the digital platform economy’s challenges posed to workers, business organizations and the public policy institutions that may regulate it with the goal of making algorithmic workplaces such as Uber, TaskRabbit and Upwork more efficient and economically sustainable over the long term, minimizing the negative effects on the public good and maximizing workers’ autonomy, income security and the information by which they determine their engagement with platforms. Drawing on the expertise of scholars trained in law, social science, policy and engineering, the multidisciplinary project is titled: “Managing the Algorithmic Workplace: A Multi-Method Study for Comprehensive Optimization of Platforms.”  

“Our research addresses a core problem: that we cannot predict what causes platform effects, or how they will unfold, because we can only observe that they have occurred — for example, pricing change leads to increased or decreased engagement of workers,” explained Robinson, an associate professor of law and sociology. “We have identified the impediment to such optimization as lack of data, largely due to the fact that the software generating the algorithmic workplace is proprietary.” 

The research team notes that very few of these businesses — notably Uber — are profitable, raising questions about the sustainability of the business model. Generally, workers are low-paid, lack meaningful control over working conditions and drop out at high rates. Government authorities have had little success at regulating the underlying business activity that platforms make possible, in turn limiting their ability to constrain the negative effects on the public good. The research team will introduce a new concept — comprehensive platform optimization — to describe a situation in which a platform owner is able to optimize for profit and efficiency, government regulators for the public good, and workers for greater income, flexibility and control of workplace conditions. The research team will collect and analyze a wide range of data with the goal of disseminating their findings to firms, regulators, workers and labor advocates as they seek to address platform failures and develop more efficient and economically and environmentally sustainable systems. 

Robinson’s co-principal investigators are Northeastern University faculty members Ozlem Ergun, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering; Mike Kane, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Steve Vallas, professor of sociology. They are joined by Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College.

This grant is made possible by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), Directorate for Engineering, Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier: Core Research program, one mechanism by which the NSF is responding to the challenges and opportunities for the future of jobs and work. The overarching vision is to support convergent research to understand and develop the human-technology partnership, design new technologies to augment human performance, illuminate the emerging socio-technological landscape, understand the risks and benefits of new technologies, understand and influence the impact of artificial intelligence on workers and work, and foster lifelong and pervasive learning.

About Northeastern University School of Law

The nation’s leader in experiential legal education since 1968, Northeastern University School of Law offers the longest-running, most extensive experience-based legal education program in the country and is a national leader in legal education reform. Founded with cooperative legal education as the cornerstone of its program, Northeastern guarantees its students unparalleled practical legal work experiences. All students participate in full-time legal placements, and can choose from the more than 1,500 employers worldwide participating in the school’s signature Cooperative Legal Education Program. The future of legal education since 1968, Northeastern University School of Law blends theory and practice, providing students with a unique set of skills and experience to successfully practice law.

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