In 2014, Murray Cox moved to the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, and quit his tech job.
“I wanted to do something that had value,” he said. “I wasn’t satisfied working in a tech company. I don’t believe that they change the world for the better.”
Murray was trained in Computer Science and had worked a succession of programming and IT jobs, both in his home country, Australia, and the US. But for several years, he had been trying to distance himself from technology and establish a life as a social justice-oriented photojournalist instead. He traveled to Venezuela in to document participatory forms of democracy.
“I was planning to combat, at least in the US or mainstream media, the idea that Venezuela was a dictatorship,” he said. In Venezuela, Murray became interested in food justice projects. He carried that enthusiasm with him to Bed-Stuy, where he started a food justice project. He also photographed other food projects nearby in his rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, “using food as a lens to look at the changes in the neighborhood.”
Murray connected with local, grassroots, Black-led projects. One day, while taking pictures at a community garden, Murray met one of the founders of a local organization, DIVAS (Digital Interactive Visual Arts Sciences) for Social Justice. DIVAS teaches media literacy and tech skills to young women of color. Shortly afterward, Murray began volunteering for the organization. With the youth at DIVAS, Murray created, “My Sister’s Keeper,” an app that provides affirmations and advice via video recordings and explores questions of race, gender and growing up.
“I taught them how to code, and then with the other facilitators how to video, set up lighting, and so they were actually interviewing people for the content for the app,” Murray said.
In 2014, for DIVAS’ summer camp program, Murray began devising curriculum to talk to students about gentrification using data.
“I was teaching them maps and statistics,” he said. “On my mind were things like the rising costs of housing as a root cause of displacement. I noticed that a couple of journalists, one in San Francisco and one in New York, were using Airbnb data to talk about how Airbnb was being used in those cities. I had questions like, ‘How was Airbnb being used in my neighborhood?’ So I decided that I would see if I could get the data from my own neighborhood.”
Housing activists have long accused Airbnb of taking long-term housing off the market and driving up rental prices. In New York, it is illegal to list an entire apartment for rent for less than 30 days, unless a permanent resident is present. The law is meant to prevent commercial landlords from running illegal hotels.
Murray wrote code to scrape Airbnb’s online data and mapped the results, using open source software tools to create an interactive web-based interface. His maps showed that the majority of listings on Airbnb in his Bed-Stuy neighborhood were for entire homes, violating New York’s law.
“I also found quite a lot of hosts that had multiple Airbnbs,” he said. “I decided to collect data for the whole city.”
In February 2016, Inside Airbnb in New York City was released, with tools to navigate through what Murray thought were the key metrics of the story. A user could sort data in various neighborhoods, and also download the data for free.
Murray became acquainted with Tom Slee, a Canadian software engineer and critic of so-called “sharing economy” ventures. Slee had been tracking Airbnb data since 2013. At the end of 2015, both men noticed that right before Airbnb released a “data snapshot” of its New York City listings, claiming that it was “the first time Airbnb has voluntarily shared city data on a wide scale on how its hosts use the online platform,” the company had deleted 1,500 of its “entire home” listings in the area.
In a report that Murray and Tom wrote to expose the company’s actions, they stated: “Airbnb used the data snapshot to paint a misleading picture of its business: Airbnb’s message was that only 10 percent of Entire Homes listings belonged to hosts with multiple listings. Multiple-lister hosts earned 41 percent of the complete Entire Home revenue during the 2014-2015 year. This number is in line with what critics have been claiming for the last two years: a disproportionate amount of Airbnb’s revenue is gained from commercial operators offering listings that are more likely to disrupt neighbors and displace long-term residents, and many of which are illegal under New York State law.”
Initially, Murray said, he imagined publishing his findings as part of a more seemingly “objective” data journalism piece. But he changed his mind.
“I started to think about these polarized issues that we have in the world — and Airbnb happens to be one of them — where journalists take a neutral approach and then give equal weight to both sides, even when one side is putting marketing spin on things, not supplying information and misdirecting facts,” he remembered thinking.
“I felt Airbnb was doing this in the way that they dismissed any type of data talking about the issue; they talked about home sharing and how people were just renting out spare rooms. I didn’t want to give them equal weight, because at that point they’d raised a few billion dollars and were using it to control the conversation… like there’d be marketing campaigns in New York City subways, for example.
So I thought that it would be a better approach to take a contrary position, because people were going to come to my site, I hoped, and I wanted them to go away not thinking, ‘Oh, is it good? Is it bad?’ but actually coming away with an opinion. I was trying to be responsible. I was trying to base it on data, but I was also layering on my activism and opinion that I thought it was bad for housing, and I thought it was affecting our residential neighborhoods.”
Airbnb initially denied removing the listings for its 2015 data snapshot, but within weeks a company representative admitted in a letter to the New York State Assembly and Senate, “we removed approximately 1,500 listings from our platform in New York City that were controlled by commercial operators and did not reflect Airbnb’s vision for our community.”
When Inside Airbnb first published, Murray was not very connected to housing rights activists in New York City. He worked as a volunteer on the project and recruited a friend who he had worked with previously and was a designer. Murray supported himself with part-time consulting work. He didn’t expect to fund the project externally. Murray was wary of grant funding, he said, since Inside Airbnb “didn’t really align with nonprofit priorities and is a slightly political project.”
He explained, “It’s anti-corporate, and some people still think Airbnb is cool and a good thing. So I just perceive that getting foundation funding wouldn’t be available, and I didn’t really want to open myself up to corporate funding via hotel interests groups, for example.”
To his surprise, within months after the site went live, Murray began receiving requests from hospitality researchers willing to pay for data.
“They were asking me, ‘Can you add this city? Can you provide data on the whole country?’” Murray recalled. “So I started to make data sales, and that started to help sustain the project. We decided that we would split the money according to how much time we were putting into the project, like a cooperative model.”
He added, “But I tried not to think about the commercial aspects, because otherwise you start thinking about changing the project to get more data sales.”
Today, Inside Airbnb tracks data from 80 different cities worldwide. Inside Airbnb continues to track data on hosts with multiple listings, and it provides that information to city officials in New York and San Francisco for enforcement purposes, Murray said. As Inside Airbnb established itself, Murray joined the Coalition Against Illegal Hotels in New York City, which comprised of members from 40 different affordable housing and tenants’ rights groups. In March 2017, Inside Airbnb published its latest report, The Face of Airbnb, New York City - Airbnb as a Racial Gentrification Tool, which was endorsed by the Brooklyn-based Crown Heights Tenants Union.
The report found that “Black neighborhoods with the most Airbnb use are racially gentrifying, and the (often illegal) economic benefits of Airbnb accrue disproportionately to new, white residents and white speculators; while the majority Black residents in those communities suffer the most from the loss of housing, tenant harassment and the disruption of their communities. Across all 72 predominantly Black New York City neighborhoods, Airbnb hosts are five times more likely to be white. In those neighborhoods, the Airbnb host population is 74 percent white, while the white resident population is only 13.9 percent.”
Currently, Murray works with activists in Los Angeles, California, where tenants rights groups are pushing for an ordinance that would restrict Airbnb hosts to rent out their homes for half the year. Inside Airbnb’s latest report, Airbnb vs Rent, was inspired by conversations about that controversial 180-day rental cap.
“I came up with this comparison of using census data, ‘How much could you rent a typical house in that neighborhood?’ versus renting it out on Airbnb for 30, 60, 90, 120, 180 nights, and seeing at what point would you break even and therefore have an incentive to rent on Airbnb versus renting for a whole year to a tenant,” Murray said. “That was a device to discuss whether caps would be good for the city, and also what the cap should be.”
As a techie in social justice spaces, and an activist in techie spaces, Murray has found that he often bridges two very different worlds. Back when Inside Airbnb was just emerging, Murray would share some of his efforts with coworkers at a tech company.
“They all thought it was a little bit strange,” he recalled. “They were trying to make suggestions of how I could make money from it, and they didn’t really quite understand. I do keep in touch with some of those people, and some of those people I’ve been trying to kind of convert into supporters of activism. I don’t find that tech companies are good breeders for activists or even just people that are socially aware.”
Slowly, Murray is building a network of people with tech backgrounds who are interested in social justice. He is collaborating on a project to create jobs outside the tourist economy in Venice, Italy, and assembling a collective of techies in New York City.
“Most tech people are not very good at organizing,” Murray said. “They’re not even really connected with community groups either. That’s something that I work hard at: connecting with community groups. So I’m trying to find the opportunities to connect not just the community groups for my own projects, but also other people that don’t know how to plug themselves in.”