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Consensus and Subjectivity of Skin Tone Annotation for ML Fairness

Candice Schumann · Femi Olanubi · Auriel Wright · Ellis Monk · Courtney Heldreth · Susanna Ricco

Great Hall & Hall B1+B2 (level 1) #1605


Understanding different human attributes and how they affect model behavior may become a standard need for all model creation and usage, from traditional computer vision tasks to the newest multimodal generative AI systems. In computer vision specifically, we have relied on datasets augmented with perceived attribute signals (eg, gender presentation, skin tone, and age) and benchmarks enabled by these datasets. Typically labels for these tasks come from human annotators. However, annotating attribute signals, especially skin tone, is a difficult and subjective task. Perceived skin tone is affected by technical factors, like lighting conditions, and social factors that shape an annotator's lived experience.This paper examines the subjectivity of skin tone annotation through a series of annotation experiments using the Monk Skin Tone (MST) scale~\cite{Monk2022Monk}, a small pool of professional photographers, and a much larger pool of trained crowdsourced annotators. Along with this study we release the Monk Skin Tone Examples (MST-E) dataset, containing 1515 images and 31 videos spread across the full MST scale. MST-E is designed to help train human annotators to annotate MST effectively.Our study shows that annotators can reliably annotate skin tone in a way that aligns with an expert in the MST scale, even under challenging environmental conditions. We also find evidence that annotators from different geographic regions rely on different mental models of MST categories resulting in annotations that systematically vary across regions. Given this, we advise practitioners to use a diverse set of annotators and a higher replication count for each image when annotating skin tone for fairness research.

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