Revisiting the Boston Housing Dataset#


The Boston Housing dataset is one of the datasets currently callable in fairlearn.datasets module. In the past, it has commonly been used for benchmarking in popular machine learning libraries, including scikit-learn and OpenML. However, as the machine learning community has developed awareness about fairness issues with popular benchmarking datasets, the Boston Housing data has been phased out of many libraries. We migrated the dataset to Fairlearn after it was phased out of scikit-learn in June 2020. The dataset remains in Fairlearn as an example of how systemic racism can occur in data and to show the effects of Fairlearn’s unfairness assessment and mitigation tools on real, problematic data.

We also think this dataset provides an interesting case study of how fairness is fundamentally a socio-technical issue by exploring how societal biases manifest in data in ways that can’t simply be fixed with technical mitigation approaches (although the harms they engender may be mitigated). This article has the following goals:

  • Educate users about the history of the dataset and how the variables were constructed

  • Show users how socioeconomic inequities are reflected in the data in ways that can potentially lead to fairness-related harms in downstream modelling tasks

  • Suggest alternative benchmarking datasets

Dataset Origin and Use#

Harrison and Rubenfield 12 developed the dataset to illustrate the issues with using housing market data to measure consumer willingness to pay for clean air. The authors use a hedonic pricing 20 approach, which assumes that the price of a good or service can be modeled as a function of features both internal and external to the good or service. The input to this model was a dataset comprising the Boston Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area 21, with the nitric oxides concentration (NOX) serving as a proxy for air quality.

The paper sought to estimate the median value of owner-occupied homes (now MEDV), and included the remaining variables to capture other neighborhood characteristics. Further, the authors took the derivative of their housing value equation with respect to nitric oxides concentration to measure the “amount of money households were willing to pay when purchasing a home with respect to air pollution levels in their census tracts.” The variables in the dataset were collected in the early 1970s and come from a mixture of surveys, administrative records, and other research papers. While the paper does define each variable and suggest its impact on the housing value equation, it lacks reasoning for including that particular set of variables.

Modern machine learning practitioners have used the Boston Housing dataset as a benchmark to assess the performance of emerging supervised learning techniques. It’s featured in scipy lectures, indexed in the University of California-Irvine Machine Learning Repository and in Carnegie Mellon University’s StatLib, and for a time was included as one of scikit-learn’s and tensorflow’s standard toy datasets (see tf.keras.datasets.boston_housing). It has also been the benchmark of choice for many machine learning papers 13 14 15. In 2020, users brought the dataset’s fairness issues to the scikit-learn development team (see scikit-learn issue #16155), after which the team decided to remove the dataset in scikit-learn version 1.2.

The dataset contains the following columns:

Column name



per capita crime rate by town


proportion of residential land zoned for lots over 25,000 sq.ft.


proportion of non-retail business acres per town


Charles River dummy variable (= 1 if tract bounds river; 0 otherwise)


nitric oxides concentration (parts per 10 million)


average number of rooms per dwelling


proportion of owner-occupied units built prior to 1940


weighted distances to five Boston employment centers


index of accessibility to radial highways


full-value property-tax rate per $10,000


pupil-teacher ratio by town


1000(Bk - 0.63)^2 where Bk is the proportion of Black people by town


% lower status of the population


Median value of owner-occupied homes in $1000’s

The cells below show basic summary statistics about the data, the data types of the columns, and the number of missing values.

Note that the fairlearn.datasets.fetch_boston() function warns users by default that the dataset contains fairness issues.

Setting warn=False will turn the warning off.

To return the dataset as a pandas.DataFrame, pass as_frame=True and call the data attribute.

For more information about how to use the fetch_boston function, visit fairlearn.datasets.

>>> import warnings
>>> warnings.filterwarnings('ignore')
>>> from fairlearn.datasets import fetch_boston
>>> import pandas as pd
>>> pd.set_option('display.max_columns', 20)
>>> pd.set_option('display.width', 80)
>>> X, y = fetch_boston(as_frame=True, return_X_y=True)
>>> boston_housing=pd.concat([X, y], axis=1)
>>> with pd.option_context('expand_frame_repr', False):
...    boston_housing.head()
0  0.00632  18.0   2.31    0  0.538  6.575  65.2  4.0900   1  296.0     15.3   396.90   4.98  24.0
1  0.02731   0.0   7.07    0  0.469  6.421  78.9  4.9671   2  242.0     17.8   396.90   9.14  21.6
2  0.02729   0.0   7.07    0  0.469  7.185  61.1  4.9671   2  242.0     17.8   392.83   4.03  34.7
3  0.03237   0.0   2.18    0  0.458  6.998  45.8  6.0622   3  222.0     18.7   394.63   2.94  33.4
4  0.06905   0.0   2.18    0  0.458  7.147  54.2  6.0622   3  222.0     18.7   396.90   5.33  36.2

Dataset Issues#

While the dataset is widely used, it has significant ethical issues.

As explained in sklearn.datasets.load_boston(), Harrison and Rubenfield developed the feature B (result of the formula 1000(B_k - 0.63)^2k) under the assumption that racial self-segregation had a positive impact on house prices. B then encodes systemic racism as a factor in house pricing. Thus, any models trained using this data that do not take special care to process B will learn to use mathematically encoded racism as a factor in house price prediction.

Harrison and Rubenfield describe their projected impact of the B and LSTAT variables as follows (note that these descriptions are verbatim from their paper). However, many of the authors’ assumptions have later been found to be unsubstantiated.

  • LSTAT: “Proportion of population that is lower status = 0.5 * (proportion of adults without some high school education and proportion of male workers classified as laborers). The logarithmic specification implies that socioeconomic status distinctions mean more in the upper brackets of society than in the lower classes.”

  • B: “Proportion of population that is Black. At low to moderate levels of B, an increase in B should have a negative influence on housing value if Black people are regarded as undesirable neighbors by White people. However, market discrimination means that housing values are higher at very high levels of B. One expects, therefore, a parabolic relationship between proportion Black in a neighborhood and housing values.”

To describe the reasoning behind B further, the authors assume that self-segregation correlates to higher home values. However, other researchers (see 16) did not find evidence that supports this hypothesis.

Additionally, though the authors specify a parabolic transformation for B, they do not provide evidence that the relationship between B and MEDV is parabolic. Harrison and Rubenfield set a threshold of 63% as the point in which median house prices flip from declining to increasing, but do not provide the basis for this threshold. An analysis of the dataset 19 by M. Carlisle further shows that the Boston Housing dataset suffers from serious quality and incompleteness issues, as Carlisle was unable to recover the original Census data mapping for all the points in the B variable.

The definition of the LSTAT variable is also suspect. Harrison and Rubenfield define lower status as a function of the proportion of adults without some high school education and the proportion of male workers classified as laborers. They apply a logarithmic transformation to the variable with the assumption that resulting variable distribution reflects their understanding of socioeconomic distinctions. However, the categorization of a certain level of education and job category as indicative of “lower status” is reflective of social constructs of class and not objective fact. Again, the authors provide no evidence of a proposed relationship between LSTAT and MEDV and do not sufficiently justify its inclusion in the hedonic pricing model.

Construct validity (What is construct validity?) provides a useful lens through which to analyze the construction of this dataset. Construct validity refers to the extent to which a given measurement model measures the intended construct in way that is meaningful and useful. In Harrison and Rubenfield’s analysis, the measurement model involves constructing the assumed point at which prejudice against Black people occurs and the effect that prejudice has on house values. Likewise, another measurement model also constructs membership in lower-status classes based on educational attainment and labor category. It is useful to ask whether the way the authors chose to create the measurements accurately represents the phenomenon they sought to measure. As is discussed above, the authors do not provide justification for their variable construction choices beyond the projected impacts described in the variable definitions. Both measurements fail the test of content validity, a subcategory of construct validity, as the variable definitions are subjective and thus open to being contested. The authors also do not establish convergent validity, another subcategory of construct validity, in that they do not show their measurements correlate with measurements from measurement models in which construct validity has been established. However, given the time period in which the paper was published there may have been a dearth of related measurement models.

Intersectionality also requires consideration. Intersectionality is defined as the interesection between multiple demographic groups.[#11]_ The impacts of a technical system on intersectional groups may be different than the impacts experienced by the individual demographic groups (e.g., Black people in aggregate and women in aggregate may experience a technical system differently than Black women).

Due to the effects of discriminatory socioeconomic policies, including housing policies, in effect at the time the article was written, Black people may have been more likely to be categorized as “lower status” by the authors’ definition. Harrison and Rubenfield do not consider this intersectionality in their analysis. When using a linear model, intersectionality could be captured via an interaction variable, which combines the two fields. In the machine learning context, considering each group separately (i.e., considering impacts on B and LSTAT separately) may obscure harms. Additionally, including only one of these variables in the analysis is not sufficient in removing the signals encoded in the removed variable from the dataset. Because these columns are related, one likely can serve as a proxy for the other. Thus, we recommend great care be taken to account for intersectionality in data.

The inclusion of these columns might make sense for an econometric analysis, which seeks to understand the causal impact of various factors on a dependent variable, but these columns are problematic in the context of a predictive analysis. Predictive models will learn the patterns of systemic racism and classism encoded in the data and will reproduce those patterns in their predictions. It’s also important to note that merely excluding these variables from the dataset is not sufficient to mitigate these issues. However, through careful assessment, the negative effects of these variables can be mitigated.

The next section describes the potential risk in using this dataset in a typical machine learning prediction pipeline.


The Boston housing dataset presents many ethical issues, and in general, we strongly discourage using it in predictive modelling analyses. We’ve kept it in Fairlearn because of its potential as a teaching tool for how to deal with ethical issues in a dataset. There are ways to remove correlations between sensitive features and the remaining columns 18, but that is by no means a guarantee that fairness-related harms won’t occur. Besides, other benchmark datasets exist that do not present these issues.

It’s important to keep the differences between the way Harrison and Rubenfield used the dataset and the way modern machine learning practicioners have used it in focus. Harrison and Rubenfield conducted an empirical study, the goal of which was to determine the causal impacts of these variables on median home value. Interpretation of causal models involves looking at model coefficients to ascertain the effect of one variable on the dependent variable, holding all other factors constant. This use case is different than the typical supervised learning analysis. A machine learning model will pick up on the patterns encoded in the data and use those patterns to predict an outcome. In the Boston housing dataset, the patterns the authors encoded through the B and LSTAT variables include systemic racism and class inequalities, respectively. Using the Boston housing dataset as a benchmark for a new supervised learning model means that the model’s performance is in part due to how well it learns and replicates these patterns.

The Boston Housing dataset raises the more general issue of whether it’s valid to port datasets constructed for one specific use case to different use cases (see The Portability Trap). Using a dataset without considering the context and purposes for which it was created can be risky even if the dataset does not carry the possibility of generating fairness-related harms. Any machine learning model developed using a dataset with an opaque data-generating process runs the risk of generating spurious or non-meaningful results. Construct validity is also relevant here; a dataset may not maintain construct validity across different types of statistical analyses and different predicted outcomes.

If you are searching for a house pricing dataset to use for benchmarking purposes or to create a hedonic pricing model, scikit-learn recommends the California housing dataset (sklearn.datasets.fetch_california_housing()) or the Ames housing dataset 17 in place of the Boston housing dataset, as using these datasets should not generate the same fairness-related harms. We strongly discourage using the Boston Housing dataset for machine learning benchmarking purposes, and hope this article gives you pause about using it in the future.



David Harrison, Daniel Rubenfield, “Hedonic Housing Prices and the Demand for Clean Air”, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 1978.


Ali Al Bataineh, Devinder Kaur, “A Comparative Study of Different Curve Fitting Algorithms in Artificial Neural Network using Housing Dataset”, IEEE, 2018.


Mohsen Shahhosseini, Guiping Hu, Hieu Pham, “Optimizing Ensemble Weights for Machine Learning Models: A Case Study for Housing Price Prediction”, Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Conference Proceedings and Posters, 2019.


Michael E. Tipping , “The Relevance Vector Machine”, 1999.


John F. Kain, John M. Quigley, “Housing Markets and Racial Discrimination: A Microeconomic Analysis”, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), 1975.


Scikit-Learn, “The Ames housing dataset” <>_, 2021.


Scikit-Lego, “Fairness”, 2019.


M Carlisle, “racist data destruction?”, Medium, 2019.


Marshall Hargrave, “Hedonic Pricing”, Investopedia, 2021.


“Metropolitan Areas”,, United States Census Bureau.


Kinmberlé Crenshaw, Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color, Stanford Law Review, 1993, 43(6), 1241-1299.