Uber’s Data-Sharing Welcomed, But City Regulators Still Want More

Uber has become an intensely admired, sometimes reviled, and fabulously wealthy company in just a few short years by sticking to an uncompromising playbook.

When it wants to expand into a new city, the next-generation taxi company tends to move first and deal with regulatory and legal concerns second. Competitors and government officials who object can find themselves dealing with the company’s users, who quickly become dedicated to Uber’s super-slick improvement on the ossified cab systems plaguing many cities.

So it was surprising to get word this week that Uber, the take-no-prisoners hero of regulation-busting entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and beyond, was voluntarily handing over some of its prized data to city officials in Boston.

The new partnership has been hailed as a major step for the fast-growing company, which has raised more than $1 billion in private investment cash. By sharing data about its ridership, Uber is giving city planners insights into traffic patterns, road conditions, and more, and perhaps contributing to a thaw in its relations with local regulators.

But it didn’t come without some prodding.

In early December, Boston City Council members pushed Uber and chief competitor Lyft for basic information on the scope of their operations in the area.

They got no concrete answers—Uber said only that it had thousands of drivers who had completed millions of trips in the past several months, while Lyft’s representative said she was unaware of the company’s user or driver numbers.

Council members made it clear that they were keen to require more stringent background checks, data-sharing, and some kind of fee system for smartphone-based car-for-hire services like Uber.

The hearing came after a run of bad headlines for Uber, including a series of questions about whether its local representatives were misusing data about users. Later that month, an Uber driver was charged with sexually assaulting a passenger during a late-night trip in Boston.

By early January, Uber had changed its tune on sharing data. The company contacted Mayor Marty Walsh’s office last week to propose the first-of-its-kind data access.

“Uber reached out to us and said, `Hey, we’ve looked at our approach to this and we think there’s some data that we can release that could really be helpful to the city from a planning perspective and a transportation analysis perspective, and we’d like to make that available to you,” says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s chief information officer.

That offer kicked off a series of negotiations, Franklin-Hodge says, that stretched from last Friday through the weekend, resulting in the policy announced Tuesday.

The data that Uber is sharing with the city will provide a very interesting glimpse into the growth and use of the company’s service.

According to Uber’s announcement, it will send the city quarterly updates that show trips taken by Uber drivers, including details about how long the trips took, when they occurred, the distance traveled, and the approximate pick-up and drop-off locations.

Individual user and driver information won’t be disclosed, including the specific locations at the start and end of Uber trips.

The company said it also will help the city with technical support “to interpret and utilize the data.” Franklin-Hodge said the city needs distill the trip location data a little further, turning it from zip codes into official Boston neighborhood zones, which is how most of the city’s urban planning work is divided up.

“For example, I live in South Boston. The zip code is 02127—people have 02127 stickers on their cars, everyone knows what that means,” Franklin-Hodge says. But in most parts of the city, zip codes are a little more obscure. “So we worked with them to get to a point where they were comfortable providing data on a neighborhood level, addressing any privacy concerns as well as any concerns about the specificity embedded in the data.”

Uber has been much more reluctant to share its data before, which has not pleased regulators in other areas, including New York and its home state of California. This week’s new data-sharing program with Boston appears to represent Uber complying with those demands a bit further—the company said it will offer the same kind of access to any other U.S. cities that are interested.

Boston City Councilman Tito Jackson, who was among the officials pushing for more data from Uber at that contentious December hearing, says the new data-disclosure policy unveiled this week is “an encouraging step.” But regulators want to see more, Jackson adds.

“The other piece of information that I would like is the aggregate number of drivers. It’s a different conversation if there’s 1,000 vs. 10,000 or 30,000 or 40,000,” Jackson says.

Uber also isn’t giving the city the same level of data that it can already collect on regular taxis, which are required to be equipped with GPS systems that city officials can access. Jackson noted that there are other issues to deal with as well, including pressure to strengthen Uber’s background checks for drivers and a fee system for Uber drivers that might put them on a more even footing with cab drivers, whose jobs come with a long list of built-in expenses.

“We need all of this information and insight to make the most intelligent decision about policy that will protect riders, protect people who get in an accident, and also policy that will protect and ensure proper working conditions for the drivers,” Jackson says.

The council wasn’t involved in the new data-sharing discussions with Uber—those happened at the mayor’s office only. But the information will likely help Jackson and his colleagues get an idea of the scope of Uber’s operations.

“Our primary focus on this is on transportation planning and urban planning,” Franklin-Hodge says. “But it will certainly also inform to some extent the other conversations that Uber is having with the city.”

Despite being in the hands of government officials, the Uber information also won’t end up being used by any members of the public—a key concern of the private company, which guards its data as a prized competitive secret.

“We don’t, at this point, intend to make the data available to the public,” Franklin-Hodge says.

That’s a change from the way the city treats the same kind of data derived from taxis, which has been shared with researchers and other tinkerers interested in analyzing urban transportation. Uber’s data, at least for now, is staying in City Hall.

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