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Why is Uber making its data open through Uber Movement?

Precise and consistent transportation data is critical for monitoring the performance of a transportation system, recognizing problems, and making decisions. Though, data for transportation planning is traditionally difficult to find, costly to collect, and limited to specific locations and time periods depending on needs.

Ride-hailing giant Uber has given a shot to it by offering city planners and other researchers a peek behind the curtain and open up access to its closed off traffic data.

Known as Uber Movement, the website offers data sourced from Uber trips in more than 450 cities. Planners using Uber Movement will be able to search for average trip times between two points for specific times of day, days of the week, and months, information that could help cities improve traffic flow. Uber Movement’s GPS-extracted information will help city planners to examine traffic patterns and monitor how infrastructure changes like road closures can impact congestion. Routinely tracking such behavior could help city planners make decisions about where to place new lanes to compensate for shutdown road lines during renovation periods. Uber says it’s also looking at releasing access to the data as an API, but is “trying to figure out how to do it in a performant way” at this stage.

A team of engineers and product managers based in Seattle is in charge of working on tools like Movement to finally turn Uber’s years of trip data into the data that is useful to the outside world as well.

Uber MovementReleasing such type of data publicly is also going to raise an alarm from privacy advocates, but the company stresses that it’s ensuring user privacy by only offering up data where it can be successfully aggregated and anonymized. For parts of a city where it determines there isn’t enough data to properly protect driver and passenger identities, it simply won’t return results for queries, Uber says.

Uber Movement is currently available for select cities — Sydney, Washington D.C., Manila — and will be rolled out to other cities in “the weeks ahead”.

What’s in it for Uber?

Uber’s competitive advantage in the ride-sharing industry comes from its ability to map traffic demand. Why would it renounce this authority by making the data open to all? Can this move anticipate heavy data requests in future as well as give them deeper access to city planning that might ease service delivery?

The company has used trip data internally to inform a lot of its business decisions, but it realized this ‘data exhaust’ could be of use to the cities it’s been trying to work more closely with.

“We don’t manage streets. We don’t plan infrastructure,” says Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s chief of transportation policy. “So why have this stuff bottled up when it can provide immense value to the cities we’re working in?”

Uber also has a rocky history with city governments. It has jumped into fights over regulations that would curtail its activities. The latest battlefield is New York City, where Uber is refusing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s demand that it share with the city data on when and where it drops off every passenger.

With Moment, Uber is trying to switch its image from foe of cities to a new friend. This could also help engender closer relationships between Uber and the municipal governments in cities where it operates, which will be helpful as its business matures.

The company says, “Over the past six and a half years, we’ve learned a lot about the future of urban mobility — and what it means for cities and the people who live in them. We hope Uber Movement can play a role in helping cities grow in a way that works for everyone.”