US POLITICS

Uber Is Finally Sharing Some Data With City Governments

The new website Movement provides anonymized data on trip duration and routes

US POLITICS
Uber
Jan 09, 2017 at 3:38 PM ET

Uber launched a new website called Movement on Sunday in an attempt to curry favor with local governments by providing anonymized data on all of their trips.

The mission is to “help improve urban planning around the world.” Movement provides data on urban traffic, vehicle travel times, and specific routes within cities. The data is meant for urban planners and city officials, and they’ve announced that they intend to make the website available to the public in the coming weeks.

Uber is growing at a breakneck speed. In July, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced on Facebook that the company logged 2 billion trips by mid-June.

“It took five years to reach our billionth trip, six months to reach the next billion,” Kalanick wrote on Facebook. “And we’ll hopefully reach our third even more quickly.”

As the company has become, effectively, an extension of many urban cities’ transportation systems, city officials and urban planners have been putting more pressure on the company to provide them with data. They claim this will help cities understand the flow of traffic, audit drivers hours to prevent accidents resulting from fatigue, and understand popular pickup and drop off locations.

For Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the chief information officer at Boston’s Department of Innovation & Technology, having Uber and Lyft in his city is like having another transit line, he told The New York Times. 

“The fact that we’re dealing with a whole new line that we don’t have data on and can’t integrate it into our planning is sort of ridiculous,” Franklin-Hodge said. Uber launched a deal with Boston in 2015 to give city officials data on its rides, but the agreement failed to live up to expectations, according to a Boston.com investigation

Last week, Uber battled out a long-standing conflict in court with the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to avoid revealing their data. The city wants Uber to give the same information yellow taxis are required to provide New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, including “pick-up and drop-off dates/times, pick-up and drop-off locations, trip distances, itemized fares, rate types, payment types, and driver-reported passenger counts.”

Yet, Uber has consistently been reluctant to provide the urban planners with data it has requested, citing user privacy as their primary concern. There is good reason for this, too. Though this information might seem anonymous enough, it is public by the Freedom of Information Act, and can theoretically be used to track a specific person’s travel patterns. In 2014, a team of analysts used the public records on yellow taxis made available by the New York City Taxi & Limo Commission to track celebrities rides and how much they tipped.

In April, Uber released it’s first ever transparency report. In a blog post Uber published with the report, they voiced their criticism of law enforcement requests for information: “But in many cases they send blanket requests without explaining why the information is needed, or how it will be used,” adding that, “It’s why Uber frequently tries to narrow the scope of these demands, though our efforts are typically rebuffed.”

There’s another reason why Uber would be hesitant to share their data. This would be valuable for competitors like Lyft and Grab that are vying for the same customers.

Still, Uber’s consistent claim that they care about their user’s privacy is questionable. In November they started collecting information about users’ locations five minutes after the ride ends, even if the user’s app is closed. The company claimed they were doing this in order to improve their services, but it led to serious concerns about  privacy breaches.

The new site Movement doesn’t actually fully provide the information cities are demanding, though it does, at first, look like an attempt from Uber to cooperate with governments’ demands. Still, it’s hard not to see Movement as a strategic gesture that could help them dodge pressure to reveal data in the future rather than a genuine step towards integrating the company with city urban planning.