October 22, 2021

Cornell University Researchers Introduce New Algorithm to Improve the Fairness of Online Rankings Without Sacrificing Their Usefulness or Relevance

From Cornell University:

When you search for something on the internet, do you scroll through page after page of suggestions – or pick from the first few choices?

Because most people choose from the tops of these lists, they rarely see the vast majority of the options, creating a potential for bias in everything from hiring to media exposure to e-commerce.

In a new paper, Cornell researchers introduce a tool they’ve developed to improve the fairness of online rankings without sacrificing their usefulness or relevance.

“If you could examine all your choices equally and then decide what to pick, that may be considered ideal. But since we can’t do that, rankings become a crucial interface to navigate these choices,” said computer science doctoral student Ashudeep Singh, co-first author of “Controlling Fairness and Bias in Dynamic Learning-to-Rank,” which won the Best Paper Award at the Association for Computing Machinery SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval, held virtually July 25-30.

“For example, many YouTubers will post videos of the same recipe, but some of them get seen way more than others, even though they might be very similar,” Singh said. “And this happens because of the way search results are presented to us. We generally go down the ranking linearly and our attention drops off fast.”

The researchers’ method, called FairCo, gives roughly equal exposure to equally relevant choices and avoids preferential treatment for items that are already high on the list. This can correct the unfairness inherent in existing algorithms, which can exacerbate inequality and political polarization, and curtail personal choice.

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About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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