You, Me, Data and the City

Data in the life of Australian cities

To mark the 50th anniversary of Hugh Stretton’s Ideas for Australian Cities, Inside Story commission me to write a piece on digital technology in Australian cities today. Many thanks to Inside Story, and to CAL, for the opportunity to reflect on the relevance of Stretton’s work to today’s digitally infused urban experiences.

This is an introductory excerpt below. The full article can be found at Inside Story.

It’s time to head to the airport. Bag packed, call the cab. Better make it an Uber — at least you know exactly when your car will arrive. And your driver’s behaviour is being graded out of five stars, which I’ve found means the trip is more likely to be convivial. I often find myself deep in conversation with Uber drivers, in a way that’s rare in a taxi. Perhaps we’re both performing for the algorithm, or at least made to feel safer in the knowledge that each of us has a stake in the conversation going well.

I wait seven minutes before the car arrives. My driver this time is Australian-born, and we get chatting pretty quickly. I learn he’s driving Ubers on the side while doing his MBA. While we talk, we also negotiate with the digital map that lurks on the dashboard, giving us instructions on where to go. I have my own favourite routes through the local streets that get me to Sydney’s airport, but the map, fed by data obtained from all of us going about our daily business, has its own ideas. I tell my driver about a photographer friend of mine, also an Uber driver on the side, who likes to run two versions of Google maps when he’s driving, one within the Uber app and one straight from Google. My friend says the Uber route is just slightly longer, and therefore more expensive, most of the time. That seems hard to be believe, my driver told me, but yeah, maybe.

My driver and I get to talking about Uber’s opening up to public shareholders earlier this year, which saw the company attract a lower sharemarket price than was anticipated, mostly because of revelations by the company that it was struggling to make a profit from ride-sharing. My driver was pretty well informed about all this. “For Uber, long term, it’s about the data, not the ride-sharing,” he explained to me, not knowing quite how obsessed I was with the company myself, and with the rise of data-driven urban platforms more generally. I nodded and agreed. Yep, it’s all about the data.

We’d probably been reading similar stories about Uber in the news recently. Dara Khosrowshahi, the chief executive, seems to be running a PR campaign about the company’s ambitions to become the “broker of human movement” — specifically, of “people, food, and freight” — in cities. Kind of like the Amazon of transportation, he has been saying. When it was first launched, Uber created a new marketplace for ride-sharing by better connecting people who needed a lift somewhere with people who could trade some, or most, of their spare time for extra money. Uber Eats, launched in 2012, has likewise provided a simple way for people to order takeaway food, by connecting these people with others in their city who would happily deliver it to them for a small fee without having to be tied to one particular restaurant. Uber Freight is coming too, an app that “matches carriers with shippers” in a way that presumably will aim to beat systems people use now to get their freight where it needs to be.

I wonder aloud, to my driver, what kind of “broker” of human movement Uber is. Is it really so “data-driven’? Isn’t this still, really, about human capital, and how it’s being put to use? Uber spends a lot of money on incentivising drivers, “shippers” and food deliverers to use its platform to generate their own income, perhaps swapping what they’re already doing for this gig, or perhaps squeezing it into their spare time to make some extra cash. The amount of money Uber spends on marketing and user incentives is why they don’t yet make money on their ride-sharing business, despite the considerable fees they charge drivers, food deliverers and restaurants to use the platform. Being big, being part of more and more urban interactions taking place across every city around the world, is what matters most here. I put it to my Uber driver: Isn’t that just classic rent-seeking behaviour?

The difference here is the data, he explains to me. He says “dayta,” like an American, not “darta” like most Australians. You can’t work in tech or business these days and get away with “darta.” Uber can make all kinds of uses of the dayta created by users — which means, he explains, their brokerage service is not non-productive, in that classic rent-seeking sense. They’ve accelerated into self-driving cars, and they can also use all that dayta they’re generating to capture a granular sense of how cities really work.

Yes yes, that dayta.

It’s one of those conversations that pokes around some big topics, but won’t jump fully in. My Uber driver and I know we’re only going to be speaking for a few more fleeting moments before I jump out of the car with a cheery goodbye, trying not to slam the door too hard lest I damage my rider rating. Good luck with everything! I say.

Once out of the car, the Uber app hits me with a rating request. How was your ride today? I enthusiastically tap on the five-star option, and choose “Great conversation” to describe why my trip was so great.

The experience I’ve just recounted is not quite true — it’s more an amalgam of many different Uber trips I’ve taken over the past few years, and the conversations I tend to strike up with drivers. During much of Uber’s life in Australian cities, I’ve been reflecting on how platforms of this kind have been affecting the way we live in cities together.

Despite all kinds of misgivings about the kind of company Uber is — a massive, US-based outfit that fleeces the very people it seeks to “partner” with to sell its technology, and puts taxi drivers like my neighbour out of a job — I’ve become fascinated by the kinds of interactions it and similar companies have introduced.

There’s a sense of heightened sociability between strangers that seems to occur, perhaps because we’re protected by that threat of algorithmic-generated banishment if either party takes a misstep. Or maybe it’s the kind of people who have been quick to take up Uber as a transport option. As an iconic company of the “gig economy,” Uber often attracts people who aren’t looking to drive cars for the rest of their lives — which means you get to chat with people like my Uber driver, who also happened to be studying for an MBA and thinking about the future of data platforms.

Uber is also, in many senses, the realisation of a quite radical idea advocated for many years by sustainability planners. What if we could get people to stop thinking of transport through the lens of the privately held motor vehicle and instead encourage people to share their driving experience? Couldn’t this cut the number of cars on the road, and free up space for other kinds of uses?

Like the car-sharing company GoGet, founded by sustainability advocate Bruce Jeffreys, Uber advocated its way into our cities as an innovative way to get people to move around them differently. Assets once considered purely private could become shared resources. Instead of ownership being the goal, we could reduce consumption and shift towards an economy based on access.

Apart from GoGet, these companies haven’t focused on creating cities that use fewer of the planet’s scarce resources. For Uber, creating a technology platform to improve human movement was more a way to grow a company quickly — really quickly, faster than any company before, generating huge benefits for its business leaders, investors, and shareholders.

For a company like Uber, the future of cities, and how we live in them, is primarily about the possibility that digital infrastructure built today will stick around as a foundational platform for future generations, in cities all around the world, to use as their first choice. Time to go to the airport? Better Uber it. Getting people around the world to use your company name as a verb to describe some of the most basic things we do in cities is, really, the ultimate, multi-billion-dollar goal. Want to know where you’re going? Better Google it.

Those who think about cities and digital innovation are often people like my Uber driver, busy coming up with start-up business ideas in this brave new world of tech-driven urban interaction. Many, it seems, focus their minds on new ways to do takeaway food. After all, people are time poor, but they also need to eat. Why not better service the needs of those who not only lack the time or wherewithal to cook, but would also prefer not to have to actually go fetch their order?

The success of digital food delivery apps has probably caught your attention. Australia is, it seems, becoming “an Uber Eats nation,” as one journalist puts it, with online food delivery services now worth 12 per cent of all sales in the $44 billion cafe, restaurant and takeaway food industry, and one in three adults living in Australian cities reporting use of food delivery apps.

No wonder, then, that moving around our major cities now seems to involve a lot of interaction with bike-riders carrying large square boxes of food to the time-poor customers. A relative of mine has told me that university campuses, like University of Sydney and UNSW, are hotspots for these delivery services, as many overseas students prefer the ease of using an app to order their lunches rather than having to negotiate campus food options.

Australian digital entrepreneurs are hoping to cash in on the trend. Two founders of a company called Kloopr have created an app that allows anyone travelling from point A to point B to become a delivery driver. Just think: you might be able to earn a bit of money on your way home, just by checking if one of your neighbours has ordered take-out. Others, like Bring Me Home, let you buy and pick up discounted surplus food from nearby cafes, restaurants, bakeries, groceries and supermarkets. This company is targeting Australia’s food waste problem in a way that’s also attractive to those who would prefer not to cook tonight or go out.

In other words, today’s digital platforms have made Australian cities attract spaces for disruptive new ideas about how to connect people differently. Most Australian citizens are now equipped with their own GPS receiver, bundled into the shiny, glowing, advanced computational device they carry around with them everywhere, otherwise known as the smartphone. On that phone are likely to be abundant maps, apps, recording devices, listening devices, maybe fitness trackers, maybe also air quality monitors. The phone many of us are carrying with us may also be listening to us in various kinds of ways — whether through the tiny microphones used to listen in on conversations (who knew?!), or by “listening” in the sense of analysing the information we churn through as we go about our daily business.

The translation of myriad kinds of urban interaction into data points for more sales is what attracts the brightest and the wealthiest to thinking about all kinds of new ideas for Australian cities. How can all this information be used to build new businesses, sell more, but also make our cities “smarter,” more responsive to infrastructural breakdowns, “closing the loop” between human interaction (or malfunction), infrastructure, services, and utilities?

Those people who come up with the best and brightest ideas for using data to make Australian cities work better are showered with investment money to help them scale as fast as possible. One such company, Neighbourlytics, offers “the data you need, to create cities people love.” Founded by two Australian women, this urban platform offers “simple ways to collect and understand rich digital data about what makes places thrive” by using social media data to capture community sentiment about a place. It’s particularly useful for real estate companies and city leaders who want to “see places through local’s eyes.”

Countless other digital platforms are also vying to change how we learn about, manage, govern, experience, connect and interact with each other in cities. For each, it is the data — the dayta — that drives innovation and new ideas about Australian cities. If data is the new oil, cities are the new goldmines, ripe for data-mining machine-learning, behavioural nudging and, ultimately, value-extraction.

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