Uber Shares Its Data with the City of Boston

As part of a 'first-of-its-kind' partnership, the on-demand livery service is sharing data with city officials to help spur urban growth and relieve traffic congestion.



While the city is still hammering out a set of regulations for ride-sharing services like Uber, the on-demand livery company and Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration have come to an agreement on a separate issue: sharing pertinent data is an effective way to help alleviate traffic congestion and spur urban growth citywide.

In a blog post on Tuesday, Uber announced that for the first time ever the company is teaming up with a municipality to provide anonymous information about trip lengths, pick-up and drop-off points, and distances traveled by time and mile to help Boston become more “livable, resilient, and innovative.”

“This is one of the sets of data tools that is going to be hugely helpful for us when looking at transportation [issues],” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s Chief Information Officer. “It’s really exciting.”

The one-year agreement, which was finalized in less than a week, was the idea of Uber officials, said Franklin-Hodge. Although Boston has had conversations with the company about this type of collaboration for “a long time,” Uber ultimately extended the offer.

“The city has expressed interest for some time for additional data from all of the transportation companies operating in the city. Last week, they reached out and expressed a willingness to start a conversation about that. We had a discussion…and it extended over the weekend, and we talked about the scope of data that would be valuable to us,” said Franklin-Hodge.

To address users’ privacy concerns, Uber and the mayor’s office came to an agreement about a specific set of data that meets the city’s needs for policy and planning purposes, without inadvertently leaking personal information about Uber drivers or passengers.

Uber representatives said they will provide city officials with “anonymized trip-level data” that they hope will give them insights into managing urban growth, relieving traffic congestion, and expanding public transportation, according to the announcement on their website.

“Uber is committed to sharing data, compiled in a manner that protects the privacy of riders and drivers, that can help cities target solutions for their unique challenges. This initiative presents a new standard for the future development of our cities,” the company said in a statement.

For Franklin-Hodge, the unique partnership opens up an opportunity to establish baseline travel times between neighborhoods in Boston during specific times of day, and a chance to examine how those change over time.

“To be able to measure the time it takes to drive from one city point to another helps us inform the conversation around both housing density, location, and around transportation planning and other modes of transit,” he said. “It helps us see where vehicular travel is more difficult.”

Because Uber offers a particularly interesting data set, in that its vehicles are on the roads at all times of day, they can better understand how people are moving from place to place.

Walsh said the partnership will also help the city reach certain transportation goals, while improving the quality of the neighborhoods.

“In Boston, data is driving our conversations, our policy making, and how we envision the future of our city,” Walsh said in a statement. “We are using data to change the way we deliver services and we welcome the opportunity to add to our resources.”

Franklin-Hodge said the city will share the data with officials from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and the Department of Neighborhood Development. “The first set of conversations, and the ones we are most excited about, is to sit with these departments,” he said.

While it’s certainly a milestone moment between municipal government and a ride-sharing service that has remained mostly secretive about its data, the partnership has no bearing on the ongoing discussion about regulatory frameworks being in regards to Uber’s operations.

Back in December, the City Council’s Committee on City, Neighborhood Services, and Veteran Affairs held a public hearing with taxi drivers and on-demand car services like Uber and Lyft, to discuss ways to “level the playing field” for operators by possibly introducing a revised city ordinance.

“The conversations about regulations is a separate one from any particular agreement, and there’s a lot of great work underway to figure out an approach to managing transportation hiring services in the city,” said Franklin-Hodge.