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Uber gives Boston the gift of data

Uber gives Boston the gift of data

Uber says its trip data will help in city planning efforts

Boston city officials will be the first to dip their fingers into Uber's pot of data, under new plans laid out by the mobile car-summoning service.

The effort, Uber says, is geared toward city planning in areas that include managing urban growth as well as improving traffic flows and congestion. By seeing how residents travel across a city, for instance, municipalities might have better information for creating or reducing parking zones, Uber says. Uber's data would add to the trip records from traditional taxi and other car service providers that local regulators already receive.

Safer streets could also be achieved by using data to improve city infrastructure, Uber said. Whether the data could help officials make the rides themselves safer is less clear.

Meanwhile, Uber's data may also help to boost the company's political credibility with authorities, as its service has come under scrutiny by regulators the world over. Massachusetts crafted new regulations earlier this month that recognize Uber and similar companies like Lyft as official modes of transportation.

"Today, Boston joins Uber in a first-of-its-kind partnership to help expand the city's capability to solve problems by leveraging data provided by Uber," the company said Tuesday in a blog post.

The information will include dates and times of trips, areas of pick-up and drop-off points, distance traveled and length of rides.

Uber said the trip-level data will be "anonymized," compiled in a way that protects the privacy of riders and drivers. The company did not explain exactly what that meant, and did not immediately respond to comment further.

Even if the data does not include the names or identities of riders or drivers, Uber should take heed. In 2012, Uber used trip data to track what appeared to be one-night stands (which Uber called "Rides of Glory" in this archived Web page), by comparing where riders traveled to at night versus their pick-up spot in the morning.

Last year the company also came under fire over the extent to which employees could access its "God View" tool, which gives a real-time aerial view of the movement of its cars. The tool is only available to employees working in areas like fraud prevention, where it is necessary to have a real-time view, the company said in a December letter to Minnesota Senator Al Franken, after the senator questioned Uber's privacy policies.

Uber said late last year that it would conduct an in-depth review and assessment of its policies.

Uber in its announcement on Tuesday did not identify which other cities might get trip-level data. New York City might be a good contender, given that the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission temporarily suspended some of Uber's bases there after the company refused to hand over trip data. Uber's service still remains fully operational in New York City, the company has said.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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