For residents of minority urban neighborhoods, access to Amazon.com’s vast array of products can be a godsend. Unlike whiter ZIP codes, these parts of town often lack well-stocked stores and quality supermarkets. People in neighborhoods that retailers avoid must travel farther and sometimes pay more to obtain household necessities.
As Amazon has expanded rapidly to become “the everything store,” it’s offered the promise of an egalitarian shopping experience. Yet as the retailing giant rolled out its upgrade to its $99-a-year Prime service, Prime Free Same-Day Delivery, that promise proved harder to deliver on. “Amazon Doesn’t Consider the Race of Its Customers. Should It?,” a Bloomberg investigation by David Ingold and Spencer Soper published on April 21, 2016, found that in six major U.S. cities, Amazon’s service area excluded predominantly black ZIP codes to varying degrees.
In Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, cities still struggling to overcome generations of racial segregation and economic inequality, black citizens were about half as likely to live in neighborhoods with access to Amazon same-day delivery as white residents. The most striking gap in Amazon’s same-day service was in Boston, where three ZIP codes encompassing the primarily black neighborhood of Roxbury were excluded from same-day service, while the neighborhoods that surround it on all sides were eligible.
Through detailed interactive maps and unusually candid interviews with Amazon executives, the article showed how the company’s data-driven approach to deciding where to deliver can inadvertently reinforce long-entrenched inequalities.
The Bloomberg graphics team created a script to run every zip code in the U.S. through the Amazon page where shoppers can see if same-day delivery is available in their zip code, and to regularly check for updates in service. Then, to figure out the population and racial make-up of each neighborhood Ingold looked to data from the American Community Survey 5-year estimate’s table B03002, and then used U.S. Census Bureau shape files and various mapping software to compare demographic data with same-day delivery zip codes.
All of the images in the story were sharable and the map of Boston, in which all neighborhoods are serviced except for the majority black neighborhood of Roxbury right in the middle of the city, came to define the project. It quickly became the most shared data visualization in the story on social media and local TV broadcasts, inciting bewilderment and outrage.
The story provoked an immediate response from public and elected officials that led Amazon to change its policies over the two week’s following the investigation’s publication: