Y combinator needs to make its universal basic income experiment in Oakland public and transparent

Last Thursday, Y Combinator founder Sam Altman was on a stage in San Francisco speaking to Vice News tech correspondent Nellie Bowles about social change and startups. The one-hour talk was entertaining and educational for techies and non-techies alike.

I tuned in because I heard Altman was going to talk about Oakland’s universal basic income experiment, which has been giving 100 Oakland families around $1,500 every month since January. I have been fascinated by this experiment since it was announced last June and have written about it numerous times in this column. In this crossroads moment where human labor may be obsolete with the rise of sophisticated robots in the near future, the UBI is a fascinating safety net to ensure our place in the world.

Altman shared some interesting insights of how the experiment exactly works. For one, the subjects receive the money via direct deposit. Another was that subjects fill out a monthly survey over how they are feeling. But most importantly, Altman announced he plans to expand the experiment to 1,000 families in Oakland.

But before Altman and Y Combinator expands its study tenfold in Oakland, they need to first make the experiment public. For too long, the experiment — which has generated international interest — has been shrouded in secrecy. It needs to make public its methodologies, its subjects and its impacts.

I imagine the most common pushback against making the UBI experiment public is that transparency may corrupt the scientific process behind it. Altman and the experiment’s director, Elizabeth Rhodes, are treating this with the due diligence of a laboratory study, which I can appreciate. Until a conclusive report is written, Altman and Rhodes are planning to keep the experiment under wraps.

But while the secrecy may be good due diligence for conducting scientific studies, I believe the opaqueness is the wrong approach for three reasons.

First, the experiment’s overall impact is not simply limited to the selected 100 families. While it may not fully cover rent in Oakland for a family, a free $1,500 monthly check is significant enough to alter any family’s economic behavior. They may stop taking low-paying jobs to make ends meet or be more open to paying for goods and services they previously could not afford. As abstract as these decisions may be, they make tiny ripple waves in neighborhoods and cities that unknowingly impacts how others not involved in the study live and work.

In a city as compact and tight-knit as Oakland, these ripples can quickly add up. Oaklanders (and San Franciscans, too, to a degree, since many Oaklanders commute to work in The City) deserve to know who are making these ripple waves sooner rather than later. The experiment was an open lab from Day 1, because a closed lab is simply impossible. Its public relations should reflect the openness.

Second, it goes against Y Combinator’s longstanding principle of keeping its company transparent. Altman is an active blogger who publicly details his company’s progress. He also made his critically acclaimed “How to Start a Startup” lecture series public and free on his personal website. In a New Yorker profile, Altman advocated transparency to startup founders looking to him for advice. Why can’t he apply this honesty with the current UBI experiment?

Lastly, the experiment has reached a level of public noteworthiness in Oakland that warrants updates on its progress. Municipal officials, nonprofits and the general public deserve to know more. For months, I and many other Oaklanders I know have been asking basic key questions about the experiment with little to no answers: Who are the 100 families? How were they selected? How are they doing? How is the city of Oakland involved?

As a journalist, I repeatedly sought to get any and all information about the experiment to no avail. I reached out to Y Combinator for comments on the experiment but heard nothing back. In January, I emailed six economic development-focused nonprofits in Oakland to ask if they knew anything about the experiment and if Y Combinator ever got in touch with them. Two responded saying they knew nothing about the experiment.

In February, I got documents for a Freedom of Information Act request I filed for any correspondence between Oakland City Hall and Y Combinator when setting up the experiment. Unfortunately, the documents were a dud. The most relevant documents released were emails between Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Altman scheduling a conference call to talk about the experiment last May.

So Sam, tear down the wall. Let journalists and nonprofits know who’s involved, and let us share their story. The world is watching intently.

If not, for those who are reading and are part of the study, feel free to reach out to me. I would love to talk to you.

The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at seungylee14@gmail.com.

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