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ASU research finds that the gig economy doesn't really produce a 'flat Earth'

The gig economy does not create a 'flat Earth' of equity, ASU study finds.
April 5, 2017

Changing online sites could help overcome cultural biases, professor says

The online “gig economy” would seem to create an ideal work world for freelancers, as employers can choose the best people for a project from a global pool and workers can bid on jobs in any country.

But does the internet really make a true meritocracy?

A new paper by an Arizona State University professor finds that some biases still keep people away from work, but that modifying the online outsourcing platforms could promote fairness for people who are qualified.

Yili Hong, an assistant professor of information systems in the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU, examined data from one of the world’s largest online platformsThis platform posts more than 11 million projects from around the world, with more than 20 million registered users. that matches freelance information-technology workers to projects around the world.

Yili Hong 

“There’s long been the idea that the internet has ‘flattened’ the world, providing a level playing field for everyone all over the world,” Hong said.

“That’s the idea of these marketplaces. IT services are easy to outsource because you just need to deliver the codes, which you can do online. It’s not like a physical product. Anyone from any part of the world, as long as you have the internet and you have the skills, can compete with other people.”

Many studies have looked at pricing in the online gig economy, but few have considered country differences.

Hong and his colleagueHong, the co-director of the Digital Society Initiative in the Department of Information Systems at the W. P. Carey School of Business, did the research paper, “On Buyer Selection of Service Providers in Online Outsourcing Platforms for IT Services,” with Paul A. Pavlou of the Fox School of Business at Temple University. The paper will soon be published in the journal Information Systems Research. looked at several variables that could affect whether an employer chose a certain worker for an IT project. Three of those were objective: differences in language, time zone and culture between the countries of the employer and the prospective worker. 

“Culture could be things like conformity,” he said. “In some countries, I have to give you something very detailed. In other countries, they want you to take more initiative.”

The fourth was more subjective — whether the employer perceived the worker’s home country as being highly developed in information technology.

Finally, people who seek jobs on online platforms have “ratings,” based on past performance, and while many previous studies have looked at how ratings affect prices, Hong wanted to see whether a high rating could mitigate bias in choosing that worker.

Hong analyzed several big sets of publicly available data.

“What I found is if you have language, culture or time differences, I’m less likely to select you. If you are from a country that’s highly developed, I’m more likely to hire you,” he said.

Workers with good ratings were more likely to overcome language and culture differences, as well as the perception of their country’s IT development — but not time zones, the study found.

Hong studies the gig economy, and has done previous research on how the ride-sharing platform Uber affected traffic patterns and how online reviews changed when the platforms integrated with social media. He wonders whether freelancing sites could provide information to reduce these biases, such as by eliminating the country information or by offering language tests within the platform.

“Even if we are from different time zones, maybe I’m diligent and I can cater to that. I can get up early in the morning to talk to you. Maybe I’m from China, but I have 100 percent on this English test,” Hong said. “Even if I’m from a lower-developed country, I’m a summa cum laude from a good university.

“Our discipline is about how to design systems to better present information. These sites could be more sophisticated at providing information to make it more fair for everyone.”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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ASU student uncovers ancient stone ritual act for the deceased.
April 7, 2017

ASU student finds clues to ancient funerary customs in broken pieces of stone

Arizona State University archaeology student Claudine Gravel-Miguel went into her field of study 10 years ago simply for love of travel. Now, after falling in love with the science as well, her research has taken her to the Caverna delle Arene Candide in Italy, where she made a surprising discovery that is changing the way scientists look at human culture in the Paleolithic.

Gravel-Miguel, a doctoral student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, freely admits that she initially chose to study archaeology because she wanted a job that would let her see new places. But after her first class, it was questions about people — past and present — that soon captured her interest.

Her research focuses on using new tools like computational modeling to see how climate change and geography impacted prehistoric human mobility and social networks. Although that's not as effused with Hollywood glam, Gravel-Miguel argues that this is the reality of 21st-century archaeology.

“It may be cliché, but I think there is still a misconception that archaeologists do all their work in the field,” she said. “One of the first things I tell people when I talk about my work is that most of us spend more time in the lab and on computers than out on the terrain.”

This ability to bring new perspectives to old archaeological puzzles is exactly what led Gravel-Miguel to a recent, groundbreaking discovery in the Caverna delle Arene Candide.

photo of Gravel-Miguel photographing pebbles on the beach

ASU archaeology student Claudine Gravel-Miguel documents pebbles on a beach near the site. Photo by Genevieve Pothier Bouchard


This site, a cave high up a limestone cliff, was made famous in the 1940s when researchers found the remains of around 20 hunter-gatherers who were buried there 13,000–11,000 years ago. Throughout decades of excavation, archaeologists have found (and mostly ignored) pieces of small oblong-shaped stones. But Gravel-Miguel and the site director, Julien Riel-Salvatore, noticed that the stones were out of place in the cave — they had smooth surfaces like river rocks and all shared the same long, flat shape.

When she expressed interest in these peculiar stones, Riel-Salvatore encouraged her to investigate them further.

“The pebble project actually almost fell in my lap,” she said. “To be honest, I thought it would be a very simple study.”

Gravel-Miguel and her team quickly deduced that the hunter-gatherers had looked for and specifically chosen these stones from nearby beaches. However, microscopic analysis also revealed that the stones held traces of ochre, a red pigment frequently used by prehistoric people to paint the bodies of the deceased.

So why were the majority of these stone application tools carefully selected, only to wind up broken in a cave some distance away? In her recently published paper, Gravel-Miguel proposes that people smashed them intentionally after use.

“One would have had to handle the pebble by wrapping the hand around it, which should have prevented a break along the short axis,” she said. “Therefore, the shape and use wear of the piece tell us that the pebbles were not likely broken by accident while they were being used.”

The intention behind the breaks suggests it was likely part of a ritual act that symbolically killed the stones’ power over the dead. Such practice has been documented in the Neolithic, but never before in the Paleolithic, making this case the oldest example ever recorded.

Additionally, Gravel-Miguel found that each broken stone the team excavated had pieces missing from its fragments. She found only two refitting parts, but these gave her a clue about the fate of the other absent pieces.

“The two pieces of one refitted pebble have very different patinas,” she explained. “One is red and the other white. This shows that the two pieces were not discarded in the same place after the break, which suggests that the break may have had some meaning and that some of the pieces may have been curated.”

In her paper, Gravel-Miguel uses this data to support a hypothesis that one piece of each stone was left at the cave, while another was taken by a loved one as a way to remember and connect with the dead.

“This research reveals a new dimension of the burial rituals that took place this far back in time and strengthens our assumption that death has always been a very important component in the life of the living,” she said.

One of the next steps for this project is to expand research into other nearby archaeological sites from the same time period. This will help the team figure out if the practice of stone-smashing and fragment-keeping is something that was done locally by one group, or something that was part of a broader culture shared throughout the region.

Gravel-Miguel has also been left curious about whether the ritually broken stones were deposited as grave goods — that is, intentionally placed in the burial — or if they were just tossed away after the ritual. To find out, she will need to go back to the artifact collection of the archaeologist who excavated the site in the 1940s.

“There’s a lot more work to be done on this topic. It’s exciting,” she said.


Top photo: Public-domain photo of cliffs on the coast of Liguria, Italy.

Mikala Kass

communications assistant , School of Human Evolution and Social Change