Highly touted Boston-Uber partnership has not lived up to hype so far

–Robert Galbraith / Reuters

It was hailed as a milestone for both Boston and Uber in January 2015, when the increasingly ubiquitous ride-for-hire service agreed to share data with City Hall on trips conducted in the city.

The goal of the agreement, the first of its kind for San Francisco-based Uber, was made clear in a news release and media coverage: The trove of ride data would give Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration unique insight into how people get around Boston, supporting its transportation policy and city planning goals.

“The data provided by Uber will help policymakers and city planners develop a more detailed understanding of where people in the city need to go and how to improve traffic flows and congestion to get them there,” Uber said in a blog post announcing the deal. Company and city officials spoke along similar terms in interviews.

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But emails uncovered by Boston.com through a public records request show that the agreement has failed to live up to those ambitions so far. The emails — as well as an interview with a senior city official — show that the city has not always been on the same page as Uber, and that it has struggled to use the data for planning purposes.

Frustration shone through from the city in November, just 10 months after the agreement was signed.

Alice Brown, a Boston Transportation Department official, asked Uber that month whether the city could share data with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency. The terms of the agreement limited the city’s ability to share information without Uber’s permission, Brown wrote.

Sarah van Vliet, an Uber employee based in San Francisco who no longer works with the company, replied.

“I’m not actually sure that the data we provided to Boston will be particularly helpful from a planning perspective,” she said, before telling the city it could not share the data due to “some privacy kinks.”

That prompted a response from the city’s chief information officer, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, who sent a sharply worded message to two higher-ranking Uber officials.

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“I was under the impression that supporting our planning efforts was one of the main reasons Uber opted to share data with us in the first place,” he wrote. “I can’t help but feel that the tone of Sarah’s email suggests a distinct disinterest in working with us on issues that matter to the City. … Perhaps it’s time to regroup to determine if there’s a path to us continuing to work together?”

Despite that remark, the city and the company ultimately renewed the agreement for a second year in January.

But in an interview, Franklin-Hodge acknowledged that the city has struggled to use the data for its original goals. He said the data has been useful to show the volume of Uber rides in Boston and users’ typical wait times, but it has not done much to aid in city planning.

He’s held that position for several months. Last October, Uber invited Franklin-Hodge to a conference in China to be a guest speaker with a “focus on the Boston-Uber deal and its potential benefits to the city and society.” Franklin-Hodge replied that he couldn’t make it. Uber asked if somebody else from the city could go in his place.

“At this point, probably not,” Franklin-Hodge responded. “While the data has been very useful in understanding the growth of [transportation network companies] and their service profile in the City, we’ve not had a lot of big success in putting the data to use in a more planning-oriented context. ”

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In an emailed statement, Walsh spoke similarly, saying the data has given the city useful information about Uber’s activity in Boston. He did not address the planning challenges described by Franklin-Hodge in the statement.

“Although we are only in the early stages of our data-sharing partnership with Uber, we have been encouraged so far by the opportunities to better understand the scope of their operations within our city,” he said. “We welcome the opportunity to partner with other government agencies and private sector companies to build on our successes in using data to improve the quality of life for our residents and deliver the best possible services to the people of Boston.”

The data sharing agreement calls for Uber to hand over trip data on a quarterly basis. In an effort to protect user privacy, the data does not show specifically where users’ trips began or ended, instead limiting both pick-up and drop-off locations to zip codes.

Franklin-Hodge described two challenges in using the data so far.

The first is the nature of the data itself: By limiting information about the trips’ start and end locations to zip codes, there isn’t much to glean.

For example, he said, the current data sets do not allow for analysis of how proximity to public transit affects Uber usage, or how a new building affects transportation patterns, because the city’s zip codes are too large to arrive at serious takeaways. (The emails show that the city agreed to the zip code limitations as the agreement was drafted in early 2015.)

The second issue, Franklin-Hodge said, is that Uber has seemed reluctant to cooperate at times.

“There have been times in our interactions with them that people have been more oriented toward saying no on the basis of privacy rather than having a partnership-oriented conversation,” he said.

Franklin-Hodge attributes that attitude toward company concerns about the privacy of both the company and its users. Rider privacy issues have previously been a problem for Uber, and the company was fresh off a privacy controversy when it signed the Boston data deal.

“They’re still learning a bit about the right ways to work with the cities,” he added. “I think the intent is there to be partners around some of these transportation policy planning questions. … But my sense is they are trying to balance that with their concerns about privacy and some of the proprietary nature of the information.”

Franklin-Hodge said the city has met at least twice with Uber representatives since he sent the agitated email in November to discuss how to better use the data. But finding solutions has been “on the back burner” in the last few months, he said.

He hopes the company will eventually provide different types data that is more useful while still protecting riders’ privacy. For example, he suggested, instead of providing information on every trip with little specificity about their locations, the company could group the data together to give a more specific but still anonymous sense of traffic patterns.

Uber said it has an internal team working on ways to better interact with cities, but declined to say whether the Boston agreement — still the only one of its kind — would change to fit those specificity needs.

“Over the last year, we have been proud to partner with the city of Boston to assist in their city and public transit planning,” the company said in a statement. “We hope to continue our work with the city of Boston to help ensure shared data helps achieve our shared goals of less congestion, safer streets and greener neighborhoods.”

Franklin-Hodge said it doesn’t cost the city anything to receive the data, and that there’s some worth to learning about the scale of Uber’s operations in Boston. Still, the city would like to be able to learn more.

“I think we’ve gotten some value out of it, but we have more work to do in evolving the partnership to get to the point where we’re getting everything we hoped to get out of it,” he said.

And as for the issue that spawned his angry email — did Uber ever give the go-ahead for Boston to share the data with MAPC?

“At this point, no,” Franklin-Hodge said.

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