Technology that puts sensitive data into the hands of humans can be both a good thing and a dangerous thing.
Ridesharing juggernaut Uber has come under fire for misusing its tremendous quantities of customer data. But today it has announced a very real and tangible way that it is using its data for good.
Uber will release anonymized trip information to the city of Boston in the hopes that transportation authorities will be able to make more informed city planning decisions. With the data, authorities will be able to better understand traffic planning to reduce congestion as well as determine where parking is needed most, how and where the city can better time traffic lights, and where public transportation service is underrepresented.
For each Uber trip, Boston will receive the zip code zone for where the trip started and ended, the data and time for where the trip started and ended, the distance traveled in miles and how long the trip lasted in seconds.
“In Boston, data is driving our conversations, our policy making and how we envision the future of our city," says Boston Mayor Mayor Martin J. Walsh in a blog post from Uber announcing the partnership. "This will help us reach our transportation goals, improve the quality of our neighborhoods and allow us to think smarter, finding more innovative and creative solutions to some of our most pressing challenges.”
The partnership comes at an interesting time for Uber, which continues to face regulatory challenges in many cities, Boston among them. Last month, Boston’s City Council held a hearing attended by officials from Uber and competitor Lyft to discuss how ridesharing services should be regulated. A city task force is also exploring the issue.
Uber's critics say the collaboration with Boston is a way of getting a green light from regulators. "Uber shared its data with Boston to get what it wants: special rules to operate there. Uber originally gave trip details to New York City too during its trial phase—now refuses to do so despite the need to protect passengers. Ultimately, Uber will refuse to furnish Boston with ongoing trip data—after it gets what it wants," says Dave Sutton, spokesperson for Who's Driving You?, a campaign by the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association against ridesharing services.
Uber aims to strike similar partnerships in other cities. "We look forward to partnering with cities across the country to deliver data that will help cities achieve their transportation and planning goals without compromising personal privacy," says Uber spokesperson Natalia Montalvo.