Uber’s ‘God View’

We are all aware of the digital footprint we are creating when we use social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but less aware of the analog activities such as Citibike and Uber. Companies are collecting massive amounts of our personal data to learn from and to better understand their userbase, but why don’t the users have access to the data they are creating?

Uber is no stranger to controversy or negative press when it comes to invasion of user privacy. This year, employees supposedly had access to a ‘God View’ of every user, allowing unlimited access to the real time locations and personal details of its user base, and even made a misguided threat to expose the trip histories of unfriendly journalists. The Uber Android app has also been shown to collect all sorts of unnecessary data. Congress has had enough, and Uber is putting stricter data controls in place.

The argument for dashing down the barriers of obtaining and understanding our own digital identity is an obvious and necessary one, but one that also seems to still need some proving. One use case could include observing cost per trip by time of day for the habitual users to help manage costs (avoid surge charges) and more efficient usage (maybe find someone to ride-share with). Another use, and my recent fascination, is to observe the data under a geospatial analysis to easily view the most commonly frequented routes. Nate Silver recently shed light on how public transit should be Uber’s best friend, how people are finding efficiency with a marriage of the two services. Nate draws conclusions that in New York’s outer boroughs, this is especially relevant; where the public money has not quite caught up with the private.

My usage data was scraped with the help of Chris Wong’s awesome script.

Given the time I have been in New York and how I seemingly love to constantly move around the city, it is not entirely clear for someone viewing this to find out where I live, but you can imagine how someone who has used the service since inception habitually, to and from work each day, may paint a clear picture of their very private information. My usage in Boston and Chicago were limited since that is before the beloved UberX, when only the more expensive black car service was available, and I was still in college.

Tracking and observing our own lives is becoming more accessible from the adoption of the applications and technology that we use on a daily basis. Facebook, Twitter and Google now provide personal data exports, and Uber, along with many other services, should consider doing the same as part of new data policies.

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