Jojo Aboaf ’22 is tackling this question in his independent project that investigates nationality bias in the realm of international surfing competitions.

October 8, 2019

From Surfing Waves to Sifting Data: Jojo Aboaf ’22 is Trying to Assess Bias in Surf Competitions

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Do members of the judging panel in surf competitions give surfers from their own countries higher scores? Jojo Aboaf ’22 is tackling this question through an independent project that investigates “nationality bias” in international surfing competitions across the globe.

Originally from New York City, Aboaf has surfed for 14 years and has always loved watching professional surfing competitions. However, he noticed that although surfers from all over the world participated in these competitions, the scoring panels were often filled by judges from only a handful of countries.

“Surfing is an art in some form in that it is subjectively measured. The rubrics that the judges use are very broad,” Aboaf said. “The embedded problem [is] that this subjective scoring mechanism [allows] no quantitative way to give a surfer a score.”

“I wanted to evaluate if there were other factors involved in judge scoring other than simply their subjective take on the wave [and if there were] biases that aren’t easily recognized,” he continued.

According to Aboaf’s initial calculations, not only did the scoring panel reflect traces of bias, but the application processes and interviews did as well.

Aboaf also noted that “correlation does not equal causation,” and said that other factors, like event location, might also be relevant to his results.

He created his model by collecting data from the World Surf League website sifted through thousands of data points and web pages using a web scraper — an automated software that extracts data from websites.

In 2018, there were 6,600 waves ridden over the course of the entire competition circuit, Aboaf said, and was able to get information on 6,300 of the wave time frames using his software. Although Aboaf is very tentative on making decisive conclusions because he is “a third of a way in[to]” his project, here’s what he says he’s found so far:

“Most of the people who surf internationally in competitions come from the US, Brazil, Australia, South Africa, Portugal and France,” Aboaf said. “The judging panels are made up of that same core, compact group of countries.”

As he delved deeper into his research, though, Aboaf uncovered “nuances in statistics” that contradicted his earlier predictions and further enriched his findings.

“The data might tell you that an Australian judge on average gives Australian surfers higher scores than non Australian surfers,” he said. “[But] you also have to analyze how Australian judges perform generally speaking because Australian judges could just like to give higher scores.”

“No matter what the outcomes are,” Aboaf said, “there needs to be an emphasis on diversity on judging panels.” From the hiring processes to the review boards, Aboaf deduced that “promoting diversity in those contexts … reduces the chances that biases have true effect.”

Aboaf hopes to publish his findings in an academic journal and inspire Cornell students to take a critical eye to existing systems.

“So often we … take what’s present and [accept it] as the status quo. There needs to be more scrutiny,” he said. “Being a little skeptical can help alleviate issues in policy.”

A transfer student from Boston College, Aboaf encouraged students to take advantage of Cornell’s databases and resources. He challenged those who are “spending hours watching Netflix” to pursue passions outside of their major and minor.

“Academic interests don’t have to be curricular focus,” he said. “Cornell students do have a lot of time outside of academics, I don’t doubt that for a second. It’s just a matter of how you spend it.”