Uber shifts policy by deciding to share data with city governments
In Uber’s ongoing war with municipalities like New York City, which want the ride-hailing service to provide data on user journeys just like taxis do, the service now has a peace offering: a new standalone data-sharing tool, Movement, that it claims will “help improve urban planning around the world.”
The company launched the Movement website on Sunday, complete with a Silicon Valley-styled promotional video and a demonstration of how Movement works. The service, which will arrive to public use in “coming months,” allows the user to access “detailed historical insights” generated by anonymized Uber rider and driver data. The site includes “case studies” from Australia and Washington, D.C., as well as statements of support from leaders in those places.
Movement is Uber’s latest maneuver in its battles with local governments around the world over the way the service shares data with regulators and government authorities.
In New York City, Uber has been telling its customers to email the city government over the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s request for Uber to share anonymized passenger data with the agency; privacy experts have mixed feelings about the city’s proposal, and Uber has been vocal about the privacy risks of the initiative.
In general, Uber has been reluctant to share internal data with regulators for reasons that extend beyond the security of customer data. The company says it doesn’t want its competitive secrets revealed, and Uber also wants to avoid setting a precedent of complying with rules it doesn’t like. The skepticism Uber has provoked among regulators extends to other companies as well.
Airbnb, for example, in December 2015 released a cache of anonymized data about how people used Airbnb in New York City, but the information could be accessed only by appointment at Airbnb’s office. A few months after the data dump, independent researchers found that Airbnb had purged about 1,500 listings from the set prior to making it public, which the company later admitted in a letter to New York state legislators. At the time, the office of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman criticized Airbnb’s “blatant disregard for New York laws.”
Uber and Airbnb similarly don’t want to share internal data with local governments. Uber, working with its own policy experts and consultants, would prefer to develop in-house tools to share with cities and the public, where it can more effectively control who has access to what information.
It’s unclear from the Movement site whether any independent, outside experts are auditing the data that’s shown to the public. Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this question.
So far, public transit officials have told the Washington Post and the New York Times that the data provided by Movement will be helpful in designing policy and understanding how ever-changing traffic patterns evolve. An official at the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
And although the TLC and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office have taken a more aggressive stance toward Uber (with infrequent success), the City Council may be more hospitable to the company. The Council is reportedly close to finalizing legislation that would set rules for regulating Uber and similar services, before the mayor has finished his four-month, $2 million study of the company.