University of Washington researchers want to help Uber and Lyft protect data and share it with cities

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Seattle traffic along 2nd Avenue. (Flickr Photo / Oran Viri)

Cities where Uber and Lyft operate have a data problem. The University of Washington wants to provide the solution.

Companies such as Uber and Lyft are sitting on mounds of valuable data about where and when riders move around cities. Transportation officials are eager to get their hands on that information but the companies have been playing hardball out of fear that the data will be subject to public records requests under transparency laws.

UW professor Jan Whittington. (UW iSchool Photo)

Enter the UW’s Transportation Data Collective. Think of it as a vault where the city and tech companies can store sensitive information that is protected by the University of Washington. Although the UW is a public university, its research is not subject to public records requests, allowing it to function as a neutral third party.

Seattle officials used the technology to collect data from the three companies that operated dockless bike-sharing service during the city’s year-long pilot in 2017.

The UW is in talks with cities around the country interested in using the Transportation Data Collective, according to Jan Whittington, director of the UW Urban Infrastructure Lab. Her team is also in talks with private firms but she declined to go into detail.

Whittington and her team originally set out to find out what was preventing data sharing between cities and tech companies. They discovered that more research into protecting data — particularly from a privacy perspective — was needed.

“Looking at it through this lens, we realized that advancement in privacy protecting analytics was necessary and that … could be the work that’s needed to bridge the mutual interests of the ride-sharing companies and local government,” she said.

Uber and Lyft do make some of their stats public but what cities are really interested in is zip-code level data that can inform city planning and mobility policy decisions.

Several non-profit and private organizations have cropped up to act as data storing intermediaries between the two parties, like the SharedStreet’s platform. But Whittington believes universities can be more effective.

“There are a number of private firms popping up into this space wanting to act as this third-party intermediary but I question the validity of that model,” she said.

Whittington expects the Transportation Data Collective to be a model for universities and cities across the country. UW’s technology is also set up to be used anywhere that private firms and governments want to share sensitive data.

She describes the collective’s role at the University of Washington as a “neutral third party with plenty of capacity to take on the advancement of the analytics necessary to meet their mutual needs.”

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