Tech

Uber Has Been Lying To You And You Didn’t Even Know

Uber can't get out of the news at the moment.

Whether its expansion into new market, violent protests in France, or PR pandering ice cream give away, there seems to be some kind of magnetic attraction between the disruptive taxi service and media headlines. So, what's today's?

Two analysts from a New York thinktank Data & Society believe that Uber's real-time map - filled with little cabs that are winding their way around the streets in near proximity to you - is a big fib. In addition to "lying" to users searching for a ride, the map that drivers look at is also a dark glass through which to peer at reality, predicting passenger surges rather than reflecting what's going on in reality.

"Drivers are shown a map of 'surge zones,' which ostensibly reflect the demand for rides in different parts of the city at a given time," two researchers with Data & Society wrote in The Slate - but Uber is telling a white lie: "According to its patents, Uber generates surge based on the projected demand of riders at some point in the future. When it works, this system produces low latency—a rider requesting a car can get one quickly. When it doesn’t, drivers can spend precious time and gas in a neighborhood with no or slow demand. The suppliers get to see only what a system expects the state of the market to be, and not the market itself."

The lie grows longer when you start poking around the mechanics of the user map: not all of those cars that you see when you open up the Uber map are really there. "Instead, these phantom cars are part of a 'visual effect' that Uber uses to emphasize the proximity of drivers to passengers. Not surprisingly, the visual effect shows cars nearby, even when they might not actually exist. Demand, in this case, sees a simulated picture of supply."

That car that grabs your request and comes to pick you up? That's real. But all those other little cars moving about, teasing you with the proximity? Probably not there.

So what's the point of this lie? According to Alex Rosenblatand Luke Stark, authors of the soon-to-be-published Data & Society report on Uber's surge pricing system, this map is a "mirage of a marketplace" - an app experience that perpetuates the idea that Uber is just helping riders find divers and vice-versa, while it's actually influencing the flow of drivers to a much greater extent than it lets on. 

According to Rosenblatand and Stark, there's a degree of underhandedness in the way that Uber is presenting itself. While it's used the excuse of being a "software application" in the past to get out of dicey legal waters over whether it needs to operate under the same rules as a cab service, the way in which its algorithms and maps create a market place in which it will always make money means that it's doing a lot more than "arranging" rides at the behest of users.

You can expect more headlines to arrive when Rosenblatand and Stark publish their research paper in the near future.

[Via: The Slate]

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