Uber's data trove could drive changes in travel

Uber Movement shows data for four cities - the Washington metro area, Boston, Manila (left) and Sydney - with dozens more to be added soon.
Uber Movement shows data for four cities - the Washington metro area, Boston, Manila (above) and Sydney - with dozens more to be added soon.PHOTO: REUTERS

Sharing of info with city planners seen helping to improve traffic flow, among other things

SAN FRANCISCO • The combative ride-hailing giant Uber is extending an olive branch to cities - in the form of data that transit wonks have coveted for years.

The San Francisco-based company recently shared a vast trove of transport data that it said local officials could use to help cut down on commute times and improve traffic flow. The data, on a public website that shows the time it takes to travel between neighbourhoods in various cities, is derived from Uber's extensive logs of trips taken by millions of its riders each day.

The timing of the data release - which will be launched on a website and called Uber Movement - coincided with another fight over data that Uber is engaged in, in New York. It is blocking New York City officials' efforts to collect drop-off times and locations from its drivers - a move the city says will enable it to determine if drivers are working too many hours but which Uber says violates passenger privacy.

Besides the New York City fight, Uber is also sparring with cities worldwide on issues ranging from self-driving cars to working conditions for its network of freelance drivers. Sharing data could help build some goodwill in cities, said Ms Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which is working to establish a shared data standard for cities where ride-sharing companies operate.

But it continues a pattern that has proven irksome to regulators - that firms such as Uber decide when and what data to release, on their terms, in defiance of cities' requests for specific sets of information.

"One of the things that have been frustrating to cities is that they see this as a service that's making use of public right of way, public facilities, and isn't necessarily giving back on just basic openness," Ms Bailey said. "It's definitely a step in the right direction," she said of the data release. "But there's still (some way) to go for cities to feel like they're getting more than basic information."

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One of the things that have been frustrating to cities is that they see this as a service that's making use of public right of way, public facilities, and isn't necessarily giving back on just basic openness. It's definitely a step in the right direction.

MS LINDA BAILEY, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, on the data release.

Still, city planners say they are excited by the new data's possibilities, including the ability to analyse travel patterns during major traffic disruptions, such as the presidential inauguration, sporting events and concerts - and plan for them.

Uber Movement shows data for four cities - the Washington metro area, Boston, Manila and Sydney - with dozens more to be added soon, Mr Andrew Salzberg, Uber's head of transportation policy, told reporters in an interview at the company's headquarters. (Uber operates in about 450 cities worldwide.)

Because the data is historical, a transit official could use it to examine how a subway closure or hosting a large convention affects congestion, Mr Salzberg said. "As vehicles move within a city, we're collecting this constant stream of data," he added. "Some of this data is treated as digital exhaust, when, in fact, it's immensely valuable."

In an interview, transportation officials with the Washington, DC Transportation Department praised the release, calling the data another "puzzle piece" to the city's urban transit network. About 30,000 Uber drivers navigate the DC region, but transportation officials are limited in what they know about the travel patterns of those drivers and passengers.

The Transportation Department culls data from sources such as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (people's entrances and exits are logged), Capital BikeShare and the DC Department of For-Hire Vehicles.

Global Positioning System signals from the city's bus system, for example, were crucial in planning improvements to the 16th Street bus corridor, which has faced challenges of overcrowding and delays for years, they said. DC officials have been working with Uber for the past several months, preparing for the data release, and say the information could prove useful as soon as the Jan 20 inauguration. "It's a major disruption on the system," Ms Stephanie Dock, a research programme administrator with the Transportation Department, said of the inauguration.

Uber's data, she said, "helps us... understand how the system overall responded - helps us think forward to the next four years, where we'll do this once again".

The traffic-monitoring app Waze also began sharing data with regulators in Sydney, Los Angeles and other cities several years ago.

Uber Movement reflects a shift in strategy for the ride-hailing giant which, historically, has been more interested in using its data trove for marketing than for the public good.

Several years ago, at a launch party, it touted God View, a real-time map in which the company tracked the flow of Uber rides as people moved throughout New York City. (Uber took the feature down after complaints that the site violated people's privacy).

The company also tracked people's sexual escapades, releasing data about one-night stands (Uber has since taken its Rides of Glory post off its website).

Today, Mr Salzberg's team aims to partner cities around the world. The team, which was created a year ago, has worked with various cities, including Summit, New Jersey. The city teamed with Uber to offer US$4 (S$5.70) rides from people's homes to a local train station, helping to - at least temporarily - stave off the need to build a parking garage.

But the tie-up goes only so far.

Uber's move underscores a new power dynamic emerging among technology companies, researchers and governments. Technology companies, from Uber to Facebook, hold growing stores of data about user behaviour, and officials and academics want access to it. They believe it contains valuable insights that could benefit the public.

The challenge for the public interest is that many technology companies will share data only on their terms, said Mr Allan Fromberg, deputy commissioner for public affairs for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. Home-sharing start-up Airbnb has been in similar fights over data sharing with New York and other cities.

Companies such as Uber see their data as valuable assets in their competition with rivals such as Lyft, according to Ms Bailey, who said such information is crucial to understanding how to improve in their markets. But cities have a claim to some of the data that is in the public interest, she said. "Just thinking about 'how can we better manage traffic in the 21st century?' Absolutely, this data is necessary and should be provided," she added.

Mr Gabe Klein, who headed the DC Department of Transportation under then Mayor Adrian Fenty, said it is possible that Uber is throwing cities a "bone" with the timely release. Still, he said, Uber and similar companies may become more transparent as they realise how crucial open data sharing can be to establishing public-private partnerships in their quest for profitability.

In the meantime, he said, cities should state their intention openly. "I think cities need to be very clear about what they want," he said. "When you're not totally clear about what you want, it's much easier to get 'rope-a-doped'."

Some city officials accept that Uber is the custodian of its data, and for now, they are limited to what the company is willing to release. "It's their data," Ms Dock said. "So we're working with them to talk through what would be valuable to us."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Uber's data trove could drive changes in travel'. Print Edition | Subscribe