Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Driverless Blog Posts

Friend of the blog Matt Stempeck has a post in The Civicist about Uber’s latest foray into civic activism. Uber has emailed its users in New York City, asking them to register their displeasure with a new rule proposed by the local Taxi & Limousine Commission; the rule would require Uber to share more of its data with the city, like traditional taxi companies already do. The subject line of Uber’s email is “The government wants to know where you’re headed …on every ride.”

Stempeck’s piece is titled Uber Only Wants to Share Data On Their Terms, and if you think the ubiquitous black (market) car service is the good guy here, reconsider. He writes:

[Uber’s] email itself is an unfair and misleading interpretation of the city’s proposal. It’s true that the city’s aggregated taxi data was successfully made public through a Freedom of Information Law request by Chris Whong, and that people were able to de-anonymize certain trips based on then-unforeseen additional data sources like paparazzi photos. But Uber’s campaign misconstrues how government data is collected and used, and implies a level of real-time government tracking of individuals without a shred of evidence that this can or does occur. The level of surveillance suggested by the email would be difficult given that the geographic information that will be collected will be aggregated.

Uber’s own employees, on the other hand, have repeatedly bragged of exactly the type of real-time, fine resolution tracking about which this email warns. An Uber executive boasted of tracking a journalist who was critical of the company with a real-time “God mode” of their system.

Got that? Other taxi companies have to provide this data to the city already, but Uber doesn’t want to. Put that aside for a minute, and bear with me on this privacy bit.

Uber doesn’t care about your privacy or mine, and that’s okay. They’re an international transportation company, not a collective of personal privacy advocates. This sort of aggressive, dishonest spin and faux-grassroots activism should leave a nasty taste in your mouth. Especially from a company with nearly limitless resources; they can afford to drown out the voices of reason nearly everywhere at once.

Especially because of this fun twist: Stempeck points out that Uber is launching a data sharing initiative while it protests the rule which would force Uber to… share its data with NYC regulators. If giving this data to regulators is so bad, why is giving this data to the public better?

Well, you see, Uber will protect the privacy of users on its own data-sharing web site:

“The collected trip data is made anonymous and aggregated, Uber said, which it hopes will assuage user privacy concerns,” Mike Isaac reports for the NY Times. This is the same promise made by New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, which Uber undermines in its email to users.

Moving right on by that delicious duplicity, here’s the move: Uber says there’s no need to pass a law requiring them to share data with the city, because Uber is going to share its data voluntarily on its own site.


In my day job, I’m an open data advocate. I try to convince governments that they should publish their data, to make it harder for any bad apples in government to abuse their roles in the shadows. You know, ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant,’ etc. This has the broader benefit of ensuring that government programs have data to publish, and you can’t manage a program if you don’t measure how it’s performing. Look, I did a whole thing on it already.

The point is, organizations publish their data until they don’t. Take Facebook: as BuzzFeed’s Peter Aldhous reported last month, Facebook Is Under Pressure To Release Data On the Spread Of Fake News.

Researchers who study the spread of misinformation say they’d like to help Facebook get to grips with its fake news crisis. But while Twitter makes data available in bulk through an interface that anyone with some basic coding skills can access, Facebook is not nearly as open. Nowadays, if you want to work with Facebook’s data, you usually have to become a contractor, decamp to its campus in Menlo Park, and agree to the company’s terms on what information can be published. […]

Facebook’s research team was once seen almost as an extension of academia. In the past, the company’s scientists have collaborated with leading academic researchers and published their findings in top scientific journals.

You should read the whole story, but the gist is that Facebook shared its data until it didn’t feel like sharing its data. Now Facebook doesn’t share their data unless you agree to say nice things about them with their data. Well, there’s Uber’s problem, right? If NYC has a rule that says Uber has to keep sharing their data, why, anyone could take that data and use it! They might even say bad things about Uber!

For instance, they could use it to show that Uber Is Quietly Terrible For Women And Black People:

People of color have been dealing with racist cabbies for decades, and according to a new study, that discrimination is alive and well in the world of ride-hailing apps. Not only are black people more likely to wait longer or have their ride cancelled, women in general also are getting taken for a ride—to either boost the fare or flirt. […]

[Black male] riders had a cancellation rate more than twice as high as a profile of a rider who appeared to be white (11.2 percent vs. 4.5 percent). Women didn’t fare much better, with a cancellation rate of 8.4 percent when using the African American-sounding name and 5.4 percent when using the white-sounding first name.

This study was done the hard way, with undergrads taking 1,500 rides in Seattle and Boston over a span of several months and systematically writing down their experiences. I’m fairly sure there are more than 1,500 rides on Uber in a single day in Brooklyn alone, but without access to Uber’s trip data, this is about the best researchers can do.

Or we could just make the taxi company with the slick app subject to the same data-sharing requirements as the taxi companies with the lame apps. Just spitballing here, folks.