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Uber’s new tool gives cities a mind-bogglingly detailed view of traffic patterns

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Courtesy of Project Metropolis

Uber Movement screenshot

Today, Uber launched a new tool for mapping travel times, powered by the company’s vast store of ride data. Called Movement, the site allows users to measure travel times between various parts of a city, tracking how those trips get faster or slower over time. Currently only available to registered users, the site is scheduled to open to all users in the coming months.

Movement is designed particularly for city governments and urban planners, who often conduct detailed traffic studies when considering whether to alter lane patterns or build new highways. Collecting the information for those studies can be expensive and time-consuming, so having access to Uber’s data could offer significant savings for some departments. In one pilot report, Uber looked at how Washington, DC’s metro shutdown caused travel times to skyrocket throughout the region.

It’s the first public tool from Uber’s internal team for civic data tools, a group known internally as Project Metropolis. The group is intended to help city governments make more informed transit decisions, leveraging Uber’s massive store of rider data. At launch, the tool contains data on Washington, DC, Sydney, and Manila, among other cities. Uber plans to eventually expand the tool to every major city where the company operates.

Movement’s data comes from Uber’s GPS check-in function, which occurs in the background during the millions of Uber trips taken every day around the world. Each one of those trips gives Uber valuable traffic data, showing travel times not just for the entire ride, but for smaller segments within the total trip. (A ride from 14th Street to 96th Street, for instance, will also produce data on how long it takes to get from 23rd to 42nd.) Taken together, those segments give Uber a clear view of travel times in the city at any given moment.

“As Uber drivers move through a city, they’re constantly collecting information,” project manager Jordan Gilbertson told The Verge. “We’re generating this data, and it’s super valuable to people. There’s no reason not to share it.”

Breaking the data into segments also makes it harder to identify individual rides or segments. If there’s not enough data for a given set of parameters, Movement will gray out the region rather than risk exposing individual data. The system will also only segment data by region and time, not personal details like age or gender that might make identification easier.

The new site arrives as many cities are looking to compel more data from Uber and similar services. In December, the City of New York proposed rule changes requiring all dispatches to provide the address and time for each pickup and drop off. Uber lobbied against the change, arguing it would present an invasion of riders’ privacy.