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When Uber Bares Its Hoard

With cities eager for data, how little do the gig-lords have to give?

It’s no secret that the taxi-disrupting executives of Uber do not look fondly on the city governments they have to work with (or around). City bureaucrats, with their rules and regulations, are adept at only one thing, according to Uber: “holding back progress.” And if it’s not the government blockading innovation, then it’s “entrenched interests [who] often try to turn the clock back.” So it might come as a surprise that Uber has decided to begin sharing its data with cities.

Last week the company launched Uber Movement, which is not, it turns out, a low-impact aerobics class held in the backseat of a Honda Accord. Instead, it is a platform—tagline: “let’s find smarter ways forward”—that will allow a growing list of cities partial access to data derived from Uber drivers’ GPS and accelerometers.

As Ubers—hundreds in any given hour, in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Sydney—crawl around the street grid like radio-collared ants, they beam information to Uber’s database about each trip’s location, speed, and pick-up and drop-off time. The smartphone app is an effective tracker, recording data about Uber drivers and riders for analysis.

In other words, Uber has for years been building a data hoard that likely holds all kinds of insights about traffic patterns that could prove useful to urban planners and developers. Uber Movement promises to offer them a glimpse; users of the platform can examine travel times, allowing them to measure the impact of events like sports games or road construction. To preempt privacy concerns, all the data shared will be anonymous and aggregated, according to Uber.

The New York Times says that Uber’s initiative “extends an olive branch to local governments.” But there is much more at stake than that euphemistic metaphor would suggest. Uber executives are not just giving over the data, as if it were a peace offering born of their largesse. The data is not just an olive branch; it is bait that lures cities into partnerships formed on Uber’s own terms.

The company has dabbled in outreach in recent years and has hired former political operatives, indicating it would treat its quest for urban dominance as a “political campaign.” Until now, however, Uber’s modus operandi has been one not of finesse but of brute force—of ignoring regulation, growing rapidly, undercutting competition, stonewalling governments, and deploying “launchers” that set the stage for Uber’s expansion into new markets.

Uber Movement, then, represents a shift in how the company deals with city governments. After eight years of data collection (sometimes, it seems, for data collection’s own sake), Uber executives must realize that their army of cars is on track to learn more about a city than the city knows about itself. They must also see how badly city leaders yearn for data—and how this yearning will only grow as data-driven models gain sway in urban governance. Political scientist Harold Lasswell once said that politics is about “who gets what, when, how”; he also said that “one skill of the politician is calculating probable changes in influence and the influential.” Uber, it seems, is becoming less of a strongman and more of a politician.

Of course, Uber has long signaled its ambition to replace public transportation and make itself indispensable to urban travel. That the company is making headway on this front was made clear last year when officials in Washington, D.C., suggested that the city would consider contracting with Uber to solve its ambulance shortage. D.C. is now one of four pilot cities signed on to the Uber Movement data-sharing platform, with the promise of dozens more cities added soon. By intertwining itself with the hopes and vulnerabilities of cities around the world, Uber edges closer to becoming a digital platform that is Too Big to Fail. Once Uber has cities gripped in a handshake, it will be easier to go in for a long embrace.

Uber Movement is a partnership that requires feigned ignorance on both sides. Cities welcome the data but fail to ask hard questions about how it was initially collected and stored. Remember, this is the same company that refused to fire a top employee, New York general manager Josh Mohrer, when he used an aerial “God View” of Manhattan to track the exact location of a reporter he perceived as a threat. This is the same company that, as of last month, tracks its passengers for up to five minutes after they’ve disembarked, even if they’re no longer using the app. This is the same company that asks drivers to submit to meaningful supervision of their movements while on the job but continues to insist that they are “gig” workers, not employees.

Meanwhile, the newly honey-tongued ambassadors of Uber pretend that their data-sharing initiative is the magnanimous act of a company that has already arrived—that they are giving back to communities instead of preparing to take even more. Even as the company fights new regulations in New York City that would require it to disclose data about driver shift lengths, it plays up the generosity of its decision to share a sliver of its data trove via Uber Movement. Uber doggedly insists on sharing data only on its own terms, thus maintaining strict control over “who gets what, when, how.”

Uber executives object to a more open, civic-minded ethos of partnering with cities, citing privacy concerns, both their customers’ and their own. Their data, they say, is a crucial asset that allows them to compete with rival companies like Lyft. City governments and urban planners, however, are not competing companies; they are, at least in theory, stewards of the public good. In economics terminology, the data currently commanded by Uber is a “non-rivalrous good.” Using the data in the public interest would in no way prevent Uber from also using the data for its private interests. Or maybe it would—in which case, we’ve discovered something revealing about the company’s investment in keeping public infrastructure weak.  

Perhaps some city leaders have forgotten that they could, if they wanted, continue to press Uber to be more transparent in its data-collection and labor policies. They could even expropriate Uber’s data—mandating that it be shared as a condition of operating in their cities, for instance.

As they catch more flies with data than with disruption, Uber may be entering a new tactical phase, but the company’s policies are not inevitable; nor are they immutable. As far as Uber is concerned, public opinion has never been its problem—the public can be won over easily with rock-bottom fares and an app that never sleeps. The taxi drivers are the ones who make trouble (“asshole[s],” cofounder and CEO Travis Kalanick called them in 2014), along with city governments. But as more and more city officials invite the privatizers in only to beg for their scraps, it might be time for the public to start paying attention. Otherwise, who will scrutinize Uber’s bid to exploit austerity by colonizing public services?