Yes, Big Data is watching you, including when you hail an Uber car on the way home from the bar. But while the controversial car service has used that information in creepy ways in the past–like charting out potential one-night stands, just for fun–it can also be used for good. In Boston, Uber is sharing anonymous data about rides to help the city plan for better transportation.
The data is anonymous–the city won’t know anything about individual riders or the exact locations they travel. Instead, they’ll be looking at the broader patterns of where people go throughout the day, and since Uber has a massive volume of that data, it can yield useful insights about how the city might redesign roads or plan for new housing.
“We think that the data that we’ll be getting provides a really interesting window into transportation patterns in the city,” says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief information officer. “It’s a way to see how long it takes to get between different neighborhoods in the city at different times of day or different days of the week. It allows us to look at the impacts growth, development, and changes to the transportation system can have.”
Uber is just one source of transportation data for Boston. The city is also collecting data from public transit systems, traffic sensors embedded in the street, data about traffic speeds, and data about biking from Hubway, the city’s bike-sharing program. Together, the data helps create a clearer picture of what’s actually happening in the city, so the city can make better decisions.
“Mayor Walsh has made it a goal to have a city that runs its operations and that develops and implements its policies in a data-driven fashion, so that we’re really looking at hard facts on the ground to help guide and inform the decisions that we make,” Franklin-Hodge says.
As tech startups brimming with new data continue to proliferate, the city expects to keep getting better information for planning. Sharing is also happening in the other direction–as cities continue to open up more of their own data to startups, those startups can better start to solve urban problems themselves.
Boston is the first city to use Uber data, though Uber says that more cities will likely follow. And as long as privacy concerns are respected–as Boston has done–that’s a good thing.