The outcome of key battles about developing smart cities will depend on who owns the data. There is no reason why it has to be private companies – Evgeny Morozov for the Guardian
As regulators from India to France continue to crack down on Uber, the popular taxi-hailing app, the company has embarked on a charm offensive. All of a sudden, Uber’s once combative and tone-deaf executives laud the importance of regulating their industry. They also seem to grasp why the company makes for such an easy target: it’s just too nasty. Thus, during the recent Juno winter storm in the US, Uber agreed to halt its controversial practice of surge pricing, whereby passengers see prices for journeys skyrocket because of increased demand.
But this is not the whole of it. In a genius publicity gambit, Uber has also offered the city of Boston – once its staunch opponent – access to the troves of anonymised data about its journeys, all with the hope of easing traffic congestion and improving city planning. And – a sheer coincidence, of course – Massachusetts, Boston’s home state, has recently recognised taxi-sharing platforms as legal modes of transport, lifting one of the main barriers faced by Uber.
Here Uber is following in the footsteps of smaller startups that make their data available to urban planners and city halls – and the latter are keen to claim that such data would make planning more empirical, participatory, and innovative. Thus, last year Strava, a popular smartphone app for tracking running and cycling, struck a deal with Oregon’s department of public transportation, with the officials paying a hefty licence fee to access data about routes taken by the app-using cyclists. Strava’s data is to be used for improving bike lanes or designing alternative routes.
Uber’s emergence as a useful data repository no urban planners want to miss is in line with the broader ideology of solutionism espoused by Silicon Valley. Technology companies, having grabbed one of the most precious contemporary resources – data – now have the leverage over cash-strapped and unimaginative governments, pitching themselves as inevitable, benevolent saviours to the dull bureaucrats inside city administrations.
Cities that cosy up to Uber, however, risk becoming too dependent on its data streams. Why accept Uber’s role as a data intermediary? Instead of letting the company hoover up extensive details about who is going where and when, cities should find a way to get this data on their own. Only then should the likes of Uber be allowed to step in and build a service on top of them.