UK Gambling Company Partners With Harvard on Addiction Identifying Algorithm

London gamblers are having a hard time curbing their addiction with the onslaught of round-the-clock gambling opportunities. With the websites of bookmakers, those who love to gamble can legally bet on anything from casinos to sports. And the machines in betting shops can devour 300 pounds in mere minutes. The less than 1% of British adults with gambling problems have plenty of outlets, some of which are accessible from their phone, for their vices.

But is the anywhere, anytime gambling culture that has revolutionized the gambling industry over the past 15 years really creating more addicts? The companies are pressured to at least act like they are making an effort to tackle the problem. Several online betting companies such as William Hill, Ladbrokes, Gala Coral and Paddy Power are self-policing their activities. One such self-policing deed has been to advertise more responsibly. They are advertising on TV when there are likely to be fewer children watching, and decreasing shop-window promotions.

“The challenge for companies is how they are going to persuade the regulator and a more skeptical public that they really care and it’s not just cosmetic, or just enough to keep either the regulator or politicians off their back,” says Philip Graf, chairman of industry regulator the British Gambling Commission.

Companies are caught between increasing their clientele and keep existing customers coming back, and not jeopardizing their revenue by cutting out the would-be addicts for whom gambling is just a hobby they are trying to keep from becoming an addiction. However, actively helping may mean the difference between gamblers who can afford to bet for years to come, and ones who can’t.

“Obviously, it is a challenge for companies who are trying to make money; they wouldn’t want to do things that would be overly restrictive of their consumers,” says Dirk Hansen, CEO at gambling addiction support group GamCare.

In the United States, five Harvard scientists have spent the past decade creating an algorithm for identifying gambling addiction behavior, for online gambling company Bwin.Party. The algorithm should be able to address customer issues before their habits become unchangeable. Since September, Bwin has conducted trials of the algorithm on its website, analyzing total spending and gambling frequency, as well as win-loss responses to average stakes.

“The research has identified the behaviors associated with gambling problems and then identified what the predictors are,” says Howard Shaffer, addiction division director and Psychiatry Professor at Harvard Medical School.

When someone gambling starts to accumulate the behavior of an addict, they get warning messages, limits on their playing time, and even account closures and charity referrals. According to Bwin, this trial involves 3,000 users and has already resulted in several hundred interventions. If it proves to be successful overall, it will be implemented next year. The two biggest legal uk betting sites in Britain, William Hill and Ladbrokes, are working on similar algorithms.

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