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Matthew Bui on data justice, Yelp reviews and playing basketball with Adam Sandler

Matthew Bui sitting on a couch wearing a blazer and smiling.

Tuesday, 03/21/2023

Matthew Bui’s research focuses on issues of technology and social justice, especially within and for communities of color. An assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan School of Information, Bui is currently researching how entrepreneurs of color navigate digital platforms such as Yelp, Instagram and Facebook for their businesses. 

Here Bui talks about his journey to UMSI, his current research interests and some of his favorite places in Ann Arbor. 

Tell us a bit about your career path before joining UMSI. 

Before this year, I was a postdoc at UMSI, and before that I was at the NYU Institute Alliance for Public Interest Technology. The project at NYU is still ongoing, and began as a way to think about targeted advertisements as racially discriminatory by design and how we might audit that and think about potential regulation. 

I was in the middle of the postdoc at NYU and then the job opportunity at UMSI popped up. A lot of my faculty colleagues here are doing really interesting, innovative research, especially from the lenses of the public interest and social justice. That’s what compelled me to apply and then leave mid postdoc at NYU and move to UMSI, first as a postdoc and then faculty. 

Tell us about your research interests and what types of projects excite you the most. 

I focus on issues of race and technology, with an emphasis on data. I started out working in data activism and thinking about data reuse. What’s most exciting for me right now is research that's more creative. For example, thinking about the political, social and cultural implications of data and how it's used. A lot of people think I'm a data scientist—which I have training in–but I actually prefer using qualitative and mixed method approaches to uncover stories or patterns and implications that you might not know from a purely quantitative analysis of the data. 

Can you give us examples of some of the projects you’ve worked on? 

One project that’s taking up a lot of my space is thinking about how restaurant owners and entrepreneurs of color think about how they represent themselves digitally and how they engage in digital tools. 

On the basic level, we scraped some Yelp data and mapped out the landscape of restaurants in different Midwest cities such as Detroit and Chicago. We have restaurants that are Black-owned and the data is showing a spike in visibility a month after Yelp added the Black-owned category was added, largely in response to George Floyd protests.

The rate at which these restaurants were reviewed grew significantly, in comparison to non-Black owned restaurants. But if you look at their star ratings, Black-owned businesses went down a notch. So we’re asking: Is there a cost to increased digital visibility for some vs. other communities? And when we’re thinking about social justice issues, could Yelp’s Black-owned tag be doing more harm than good? 

On top of that we’re doing a lot of interviews with restaurant owners and asking: How do you present yourself digitally? How do you think about your digital presence?

This work and my previous work is going to feed into a book about food platforms and data as a vehicle for thinking about racial and neighborhood politics. For example, what are the metrics for what we consider for ‘authentic’ food, especially thinking about ethnic cuisine? How are these metrics shaped by society? Why do we think mom and pops are more authentic than the local fusion Asian American place? What are the metrics for top-notch food? Who can make it—both in terms of making a food brand but also succeeding in the industry?

Another project I’m working on is with Dr. Germaine Halegoua and some other colleagues. We’re co-organizing an urban technology workshop in Toronto. It’s thinking about urban technology and how we can politically design and engage while considering issues of housing, poverty and climate. 

What roots me in my work is not only the creative projects but thinking about grassroots movements and activism. What are the questions that need to be asked to open the door for activists to be able to engage and make change? How can my research align with this important work on the ground?

What inspired you to choose a career in information? Was there a moment where you knew this would be your path? 

I feel happy to have landed here because a lot of people are doing interesting work with technology. It’s very interdisciplinary and relevant to multiple fields, which is how I think I ended up here. 

I originally started studying social media data. I was in a communications program for my undergraduate, masters and PhD degrees. And so I was constantly thinking about what stories we can tell with data and using data as information as well as knowledge representation. For example, whose knowledge is deemed worthy? And how do we think about the politics of this? 

I think I’ve been in conversation with multiple fields because the work is naturally so interdisciplinary. Race and technology traverses so many fields and I appreciate the technical work, but I’m more driven to examine the social implications of how and what we design, or don’t. 

You’ve taught in your previous positions and are now teaching at UMSI. What do you see in your most successful students? 

University of Michigan students are so driven. Since last year I’ve been fielding a lot of requests and even now, I have some undergraduates I’ve been working with since last winter. It’s exciting to see their journeys, especially because so many undergraduate and graduate students here are asking critical questions about the impact of tech on society. 

I love seeing students make connections. Those moments are really special. It’s been fun to mentor students in different ways. That is super meaningful. 

You moved to Ann Arbor a year ago. What are your favorite places to eat so far as someone who is a foodie and studies food? 

Miss Kim is a regular. Homes Campus is a staple. I really like the food truck scene here. We follow Basil Babe and Tacos El Mariachi Loco

I’m trying to think of other places. I don’t know, Taco Bell, maybe? [laughs]. 

What’s your favorite Taco Bell order? 

It varies. Lately, because they brought back the Mexican pizza combo it’s been that. But also the chicken chalupa combo. I don’t know. It’s not Mexican food. It’s in a different category.

Other than liking Taco Bell, tell us something unexpected about you. 

Umm, we have a puppy we named after Grace Lee Boggs who we call Gracie. Also, I played basketball with Adam Sandler. I went to UCLA, and he was a frequent visitor at our gym. I was also once within breathing room of Brad Pitt. But we don’t really talk about him anymore. 

What was it like playing basketball with Adam Sandler? Does he pass the ball? 

Yes! He plays point guard and he will pass the ball around. He doesn’t keep it. There are some point guards that keep the ball like there’s no one else on the team, but he’s not like that. 


Learn more about Matthew Bui’s research in his faculty profile