Uber and why we should be talking about data collection and usage

Last night, here in the echo chamber we call Silicon Valley, the Buzzfeed post about remarks made by Uber’s SVP of Business, Emil Michael, was the talk of the town. It’s worth reading the original post and Sarah Lacy’s, the journalist specifically targeted by Mr Michael, response. The ensuing discussion has focused, as it should, on ethics, on personal responsibility and leadership. But in the end, perhaps Mike Isaac said it best: consumers will choose “convenience over ethics” and that Uber is essentially a “good product” and will be adopted by the mainstream audience.

Maybe he’s right. I agree with the statement that the existing model, calling a cab or trying to hail one on a street corner, was so bad that disruption with a more efficient, user-friendly model, was inevitable.

Even if we put the ethical considerations aside for a moment, take a look at the data Uber collects about its users and more importantly, how it uses it. This morning, for example, Ian Chaffee shared a post from over two years ago that details how Uber analyzed usage data to determine how many “walks of shame” occur in each major US city. They called this the “Ride of Glory” and defined a “RoGer” as “anyone who took a ride between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night, and then took a second ride from within 1/10th of a mile of the previous nights’ drop-off point 4-6 hours later (enough for a quick night’s sleep).” And accordingly pulled and analyzed the data. Creeped out, yet? No, you say, because this data is anonymous, right?

Update: Uber removed the “Rides of Glory” post from their blog last week after I wrote this but the Internet never forgets.

In Buzzfeed’s post, an Uber representative said that “Uber has clear policies against executives looking at journalists’ travel logs, a rich source of personal information in Uber’s possession.” Yet the “general manager of Uber NYC accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so.” Focussing specifically on Sarah Lacy, Mr Michael said that they “could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.”

Now are you worried? That Uber collects this data is one thing, perhaps it is necessary, as claimed by the privacy statement:  “tracking information is collected… We collect this information for various purposes – including to determine the charge for the transportation you requested via our Services, to provide you with support, to send you promotions and offers, to enhance our Services, and for our internal business purposes.” It is the latter that offers Uber an out to using that data in any way they please, not in aggregate or anonymously, but, as they themselves demonstrated, tied to a specific identity.

Now, compare this intense data collection model to the old, inefficient taxi model: hail a taxi from a particular corner at 4am and there is no record of that ride besides a distance and cost in the taxi’s meter. There is no link to any passenger information. Will there become a tipping point where passengers prefer taxis because of the anonymity, despite inconveniences?

Lyft celebrating the Giant's World Series win with orange mustaches. Can they seize the day? Source: Lyft

Lyft celebrating the Giant’s World Series win with orange mustaches. Can they seize the day?
Source: Lyft

Riders might not have to go far. This is a wonderful moment for Uber competitors such as Lyft to make a statement and commitment as to how they use data. Perhaps a separation of personal information such as name, address, and credit card info, and geographical usage patterns? Maybe a pink mustache isn’t enough to differentiate a product, maybe the ultimate difference will be in how user data is collected, stored and used.

I realize it is naive to hope that customers will choose the more user-friendly terms of use and force the entire industry to toe the line and adopt stricter data useage practices. From what I read last night and this morning it seems that there is an arrogance that comes with breaking an established and well-regulated industry that implies, somehow, that decency can be ignored for the sake of disruption. Ride-sharing apps are a great product category and I’d love to see this industry succeed and yes, grow up.


One thought on “Uber and why we should be talking about data collection and usage

  1. Pingback: Data and users: does “trust us” still make sense? | What it all boils down to

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