During the first year of the pandemic, and amid protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, tech companies such as Google, Yelp and DoorDash started “Black-owned” labelling campaigns to encourage customer support for restaurants and other businesses.

But new research, using cellphone location data, shows that visits to restaurants that identify as Black-owned, compared to those without a label, dropped off after some initial spikes and were inconsistent across 20 U.S cities.

Authors of the study, led by the University of Washington, say the findings raise questions about the effectiveness of such a labelling campaign, and how tech companies and even local governments could better support communities of color, whether through such programs or other means.

“Big tech plays an increasingly influential role in almost every aspect of our everyday life, especially in today’s economic recovery, and the Black-owned labelling campaign appears to be well-intended,” said Bo Zhao, an associate professor of geography at the UW who led the study through his Humanistic GIS Lab. “But what have been the consequences? As allyship to minorities has become a core value of our time, how can big tech become a better and more inclusive ally? This research provides a timely case study.”

Academic research and media coverage have documented how the pandemic has exacerbated social and health disparities. And while the city- and statewide lockdowns of the pandemic’s early months had significant economic impacts, especially on small businesses, less is known about specific businesses, in specific communities, over time.

The new study, published online Aug. 25 in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, is among the first to use cellphone location data to estimate restaurant visits, and to use that data to compare impacts. It is co-authored by Bo Zhao, UW Geography graduate student Steven Bao, along with others from the University of Arkansas, the University of South Carolina, and Oregon State University.

Read the full UW News article, as well as additional coverage in The Seattle Times, South Seattle Emerald, and KING5 News.