Amazon’s Prime Same Day Delivery racial bias

Amazon’s recently upgraded its Prime service with an option called Prime Free Same Day Delivery that allows customers in certain areas to receive select products within 24 hours free of charge (Soper and Ingold 2016).

However, according to a 2016 investigation carried out by Bloomberg, the service excludes many ZIP codes that correspond to neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by black communities. According to the report: “In Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Washington (…) black citizens are about half as likely to live in neighborhoods with access to Amazon same-day delivery as white residents” (ibid). In the case of Boston, the disparity is striking. The three ZIP codes that include the primarily black neighborhood of Roxbury are all excluded from Amazon’s Prime Free Same Day Delivery service whereas every neighborhoods that borders Roxbury are included (ibid).

No evidence points to Amazon’s delivery algorithm making decisions based on race (ibid)d. However, the output of the algorithm is undeniably racially discriminatory. Amazon claims that there is no discriminatory intent, rather that ZIP codes within cities are only excluded based on cost and efficiency calculations related to the proportion of Prime members in an area and the distance between the area and the closest Amazon warehouse. This means that Amazon claims Boston’s Roxbury is not included in the service because they don’t have enough Prime members, and/or they are too far from the nearest shipping warehouse.

Sorelle Friedler, a professor at Haverford College who concentrates studies in data bias, explains that “There is so much systemic bias with respect to race. If you aren’t purposefully trying to identify it and correct it, this bias is likely to creep into your outcomes” (ibid). Amazon has stated that it hopes to correct such bias and has announced that the same-day delivery option will soon extend to every ZIP code in previously launched cities. The company, however, has not provided a timetable for this expansion.