NSF Convergence

Smartphones have evolved to connect people with much more than a simple phone call. One of many critical needs the devices now serve: providing financial services to underbanked, underserved populations, says Bill Maurer, UCI anthropology and law professor and social sciences dean.

“Access to financial systems helps previously unbanked populations - who are disproportionately from racialized and marginalized communities - build credit and wealth,” he says. The director of UCI’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, Maurer is an expert how populations around the world spend, save and interact with money. And yet as access has become more pervasive, so, too, have new financial technology – fintech – services, apps and other fringe services that target this financially vulnerable population.

“Every day people receive algorithmically-driven targeted advertisements on their smartphones and other devices which, in the financial sphere, include loan offers or credit-score boosting services,” says Maurer. “Services marketed often include outright scams or disinformation designed to prey upon unsuspecting consumers with thin or no credit files due to their lack of prior banking history.”

These practices sow distrust that perpetuates the racial wealth gap as consumers pay higher fees for basic services or exclude themselves entirely from the system. And it’s a social problem, says Maurer, that requires a social scientific solution.

He’s leading a multidisciplinary team of researchers and institutional partners in a large-scale study to understand mis- and disinformation about money, banking, and finance among racialized and marginalized communities in the United States. They’ve received $750,000 from the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator - a program that aims to translate and speed basic research to have national-scale, societal impact - to approach the issue from a social science perspective using ethnographic research, content analysis and data modeling. The project is one of 28 grants awarded in this year's cohort and one of the only funded to date that centers on the contributions of the social sciences.

Joining Maurer on the initiative are:

  • Jim Weatherall, UCI logic & philosophy of science professor, who studies the spread of misinformation
  • Erin Lockwood, UCI political science assistant professor, who studies finance and political legitimacy
  • Roderic Crooks, UCI informatics assistant professor, who studies community data activism
  • Matthew Harding, UCI economics professor, who studies finance and algorithmic credit scoring
  • Taylor Nelms, ’15 UCI anthropology Ph.D. and Filene Research Institute senior director, who studies financial inclusion and community-based financial service

Together, they’ll partner with the U.S. credit union system to pilot the Algorithmic Observatory (AO), a community-driven forum for monitoring and countering mis- and disinformation. Starting with a regional approach in Southern California, they’ll leverage relationships between Filene and credit union partners to access data on specific communities that are targeted with predatory mis- and disinformation practices. They’ll analyze and develop models that assess common delivery mechanisms – social media, emails, others - products, messages and their spread. Simultaneously, researchers will push out more reliable information to the affected communities via non-profit financial inclusion partnerships while advocating for policy changes. When they have a working model, they hope to expand the Algorithmic Observatory nationwide.

“By approaching this issue from a community-driven approach, we hope to illuminate practices that are perpetuating inequity while also working to right it,” says Maurer.

Funding for this work begins in October 2021 and runs through September 2022.

Learn more about the NSF Convergence Accelerator 2021 cohort: https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/announcements/092221.jsp 

connect with us


© UC Irvine School of Social Sciences - 3151 Social Sciences Plaza, Irvine, CA 92697-5100 - 949.824.2766