BENGALURU, Karnatka — We live in the era of the rating economy—Amazon wants you to rate sellers, while Uber asks you to rate your driver, Netflix wants you to rate movies, and Practo wants you to rate your doctor. Sometimes the goal is to customise what's on offer. At other times, ratings are there to help customers make better choices. But what happens when the products are people—maids, and cooks, and drivers and so forth? Many apartment complexes are now being managed with the help of apps, that can be used to keep track of everything from maintenance payments, to access control at the main gate, to being a forum for people in the building to talk about what's going on. Discussions about the people who work in these societies is common, and unsurprisingly enough, it quickly showcases the petty, penny-pinching nature of people.
"She is very good, but took leave without telling me many times."—1 star
"Blah blah blah"—0 stars
"Just horrible"—0 stars
These are the reviews of a cook working in a gated complex on Harlur Road in Bengaluru. Through an acquaintance in the building, we were able to track down the cook, Rajamma. In Hindi, she explained that she had been working in the building for the last five years with different families. "Last year, I had to go back to my native place because my father was very unwell, and my phone was not working. It was an emergency, and I was able to tell them the next day, but at least one family they were angry because I did not ask before going," she said. "I was also angry and so I told them I quit."
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"When I came back to Bengaluru after four days, I went back to the house, but they had found someone already, and told some of the other flats I worked in too. I still have one out of the three houses I worked with, but I had to find more in another building which is further away from my home, but there was no choice," she added. We tried to speak with the residents Rajamma used to work with, but they declined to comment.
We also asked Rajamma how she felt about the ratings. "I don't like them, but they don't really matter. People always complain to each other about you anyway."
The fault in our five stars
Another resident, who lives in Salarpuria Serenity in HSR Layout asked not to be named because she didn't want to cause friction with her neighbors, but added that ratings like this are just the tip of the iceberg. "I work in a tech company and my husband does too. We moved to Bengaluru from Delhi two years ago, and I think that's the case for most of the people at least in my building," she explained. "In our building, we're using MyGate, which is a really great app. You place an order on Swiggy and then you get a notification on your phone to let the guy in, no intercom nonsense. But the ratings—it's not just maids, the dhobi, tutors, milkman, all of them can be found through it, and rated also. And of course, you see mostly people complaining."
"It's not a surprise though. I mean, most of these houses, the people are of the same job background as us, they're all paying Rs 30,000 or more as rent, and then maintenance, and a night out with drinks—which happens at least weekly—is another Rs 5,000 or more. But then the maid comes and says I need Rs 4,000 please, and they haggle and argue and bring it down to Rs 2,000," she added.
Having an app that rates these domestic workers only makes the problem worse, explained Noopur Raval, a PhD candidate in Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and previously an affiliate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
"The problem you are describing overall is the problem of reputation systems in various platforms. People tend to rate and give feedback only in extreme experiences—bad or good. There is also a rating bias because users have previously trained on rating systems for Amazon. Yelp etc. So a 5-star or equivalent does not mean the same thing in each platform and this affects workers too."
"As workers work within such systems, they gain a heightened awareness of their computing and quantification and try what I have called in another paper 'tactics of data relief', where they try to achieve invisibility/unavailability or just broadly a kind of situation in every task where the customer does not weaponize ratings and feedback," Raval said. This is done in a number of ways, such as restaurants putting up signs asking for ratings, or Uber drivers reminding you to give 5-stars as you exit the vehicle. "Uber drivers in the US come together on online forums and discuss what kinds of customers are more likely to give bad ratings and reviews—the cheap college student, the drunk weekend passenger—and they actively dissuade each other from driving in such areas."
"Unfortunately nobody has studied the housework and care-work platforms in India yet and we hope that our new project starting with APU will address these forms," she added.
Apartment management is big business
As of now, we don't hear too much about this because apartment management apps are still relatively new in India. MyGate, which recently raised Rs 65 crores in funding, only started in 2016, and while ApartmentAdda has been around since 2008, most companies have reached only a small slice of India's gated complexes so far. There's a lot of potential in this area, and investments are flowing in, noted Nishi Singh, researcher at startup analytics firm Tracxn. Some of the biggest companies (by funding) in this space are CommonFloor, MyGate, Zipgrid, ApartmentAdda, and the unfortunately named, Digital Gorkha. Another well-known name is ApnaComplex, which claims to be in the top three by number of households.
They all work slightly differently, but are built around the same concept of making community management easier. For MyGate, the impetus to get started, said one of its co-founders, Abhishek Kumar, was the booming growth in e-commerce. This included not just deliveries from Flipkart and Amazon, but also a daily stream of traffic from Swiggy, Zomato, Uber, BigBasket, laundry services, and so on.
"It's really amplified in the last five years, everything you need can be delivered—by outsiders who have to come into your doorstep," he said. "And you will have one security guard with a register and a lathi to keep track of this. The fact is, I don't know who is coming to my flat."
To study the problem, Kumar explained that the co-founders spent some time working at the main gate of their buildings. "What we found was that the intercom had a 24% chance of being answered," said Vijay Arisetty, another co-founder, and a Shaurya Chakra awardee. "I wanted to give people the sense of security that you get living on a base," he added.
To enable the entry of people, companies like MyGate take visitors' phone numbers, and photographs, but as of now, their terms are clear that the data is anonymized and not used for any purposes beyond allowing for entry and exit. When asked whether the company is considering using advertising, either to residents or to visitors, the founders said it would be a bad idea. "Subscriptions are already profit making, the day we decide to stop investing in growth, the business is already self-sustaining," said Kumar. "The moment we introduce ads, it will diminish the value of the platform."
And according to Singh from Tracxn, this is an industry that is growing fast. In 2013, there were six funded companies in this space, which went up to seven in 2014. Things peaked in 2015 with 15 companies, but the industry has already gone through one round of churn, and there are now 10 funded companies as per Singh. However, the amount of funding being secured has gone up, and although 2015 saw many more companies, the funding was $9.92 million, while in 2018 (year-to-date) the amount of funding so far is $11.32 million.
It's what the users want
For these companies, the customers are the RWAs or the builders, but the ultimate users are the residents, and a platform like this is something they want. "We use ApnaComplex in our building," said Priya Saini, a LinkedIn executive living in Bengaluru, "and I mainly used it to pay maintenance fee. I also tried to find a maid through it but found mostly rants about staff and maids. But now I have been using the app to approve visitors."
After launching security systems, Kumar explained that MyGate added the local services feature, where people can be reviewed, based on customer demand. "What we learned when we worked as guards was that there would be hundreds of calls in the morning to confirm, 'has my maid come or not?' from residents. And then the rating was so that residents can share tips about maids, drivers, it would be very helpful when you move in, or if a maid quits, all that," Kumar said.
The founders agreed that ratings could have an adverse impact on the people working in these complexes, but said that based on their own experience, this was not the case. "The reviews are done by the residents, and the building admin has the right to edit the review if they're being unfair. Since these are all known people in the community, it becomes easier to self-correct. If you and your neighbour have the same maid, just because you're having a bad day, you won't give a negative review because the neighbours will see it."
"We have not seen it happen [negative reviews going unchecked]," added Arisetty.
A Commonfloor spokesperson also agreed that "has the maid come" was a persistent question that residents wanted an answer to, and that a gate management system was a convenient and easy solution to this problem. "Tracking entry and exit is the most used feature, but it's also important to be able to track the history of the maid, or cook, or yoga teacher, or ironing man. This makes life safer and more manageable," the spokesperson added.
It's also made the life of guards simpler. One guard, who hails from Odisha, spoke to us after we promised not to name him. He said, "Earlier I would call people and they would not answer. Then if the person doesn't go inside, they will shout at me. With this, it comes to their phones right away, and there are no problems. Everyone is happier."
When asked if the maids and cooks in the building are also happier, he paused for a minute, and then said, "Sometimes people will write bad things. But it's also become easier for people to get new jobs. If you work in the building your number is there, people write he is a good cook. It has helped some of my friends."