Uber's Movement In The Right Direction

Uber’s new initiative, Movement, is a step in the right direction. Facing criticism, the company decided to open its treasure trove of data to the cities in which it operates. Hidden in the anonymized ridership data are potential insights about the impact of major events, rush hour, lane closures or other factors on traffic flow and congestion.While the details remain to be seen, the website shows dashboards and data visualizations. Uber plans to build out the Movement platform, and will roll it out across cities and eventually to the public.

 

Other transportation apps and rivals have made similar moves. Launched in 2014 Waze’s Connected Citizens Program is a two-way data exchange in which Waze provides real-time incident and congestion data to cities and cities provide real-time and advance information on government reported construction and road closures. Other ridesharing and transport services, Easy Taxi, Grab and Le Taxi, which together cover more than 30 countries, are working with the World Bank to publish traffic information from their drivers as part of the Open Transport Partnership. The Open Transport Partnership seeks to empower resource-constrained transport agencies to make better, evidence-based decisions that previously had been out of reach. For example, a project in the Philippines “grabbed” GPS coordinates from more than 500,000 Grab drivers to monitor traffic in the country.

 

These efforts to share data makes sense. Transport services - either public or private - need to ensure the efficiency of their services. It is in their best interest to work with cities to improve infrastructure and smooth traffic flows. Cities need the kind of data that these operators can provide to help make those decisions.

 

In this context, Uber’s move is welcome. Critics might argue that Uber is merely throwing a bone to the cities as a means of appeasing local leaders as tensions flare up in the taxi wars. That might be partially true. The glass half full crowd says it’s an olive branch. Yet even still, others argue that the new data available on Uber’s interactive dashboards isn’t enough, and still doesn’t even meet requirements of other transport services. The conflict suggest that both sides need to be more clear: cities clear on what their objectives are in gathering data, and ride services in what exactly their objections are to providing the data. Bottom line: Data sharing agreements must be explicit in their objectives, data uses, and the restrictions to use. But still the benefits are still clear.

 

However, data sharing alone isn’t enough. Cities, like commercial firms, are tired of data deluge. Visualizations through dashboards and reports don’t easily connect the dots. According to city leaders in Boston,  the data Uber made available to them through their initial data sharing agreement has been useful to show the volume of Uber rides in Boston and users’ typical wait times, but it hasn’t delivered on the promised help with city planning. Data delivery must make its use easier. City leaders need the ability to better link insights to actions, and to understand the impact of those actions. Imagine, for example, a decision-support tool that predicts traffic flows and the impact that road work might have.

 

That might not be Uber’s day job, but it is the job of an insights service provider. The World Bank’s efforts illustrate how that job can be made easier. By sharing its data, Uber opens the door for either its own insights service or for other insight services providers to grab the baton (or the data) and run with it. Cities need insights services providers. The opportunity is there. Who will ultimately make that move? We’ll stay tuned for the launch of Movement to see how far it goes.

- with contribution by Elizabeth Cullen

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