Zip Code Trip Data Ruled Publicly Accessible in Washington State

June 8, 2018

In 2014, Uber and Lyft traded data to the city of Seattle in exchange for the ability to keep more of their drivers on the road. However, in 2016, when a researcher from Texas requested the data under the state of Washington’s Public Records Act (PRA), the companies raised concerns that the city would be releasing trade secrets, thus violating the companies’ rights under the state’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA).

This complex case rose all the way to the state of Washington Supreme court. Last week the court ruled that the companies’ data are not categorically excluded due to the UTSA, and needed to be released. The decision was based on the determination that the data do not fall under the description to “clearly not be in the public interest, and would substantially and irreparably damage a person or a vital government interest.” The court acknowledged that zip code information for trip data does constitute a trade secret for the companies (who do not share this information with each other), but that the PRA trumps the UTSA in this case as releasing zip code information would not bring about irreparable damage.  The question as to whether zip code level data constitutes trade secret has been brought up time and time again in various industries in various locations with mixed results depending on context and state and local laws.

The data in question include quarterly reporting from each company on:

  • Total number of rides
  • Percentage of rides completed in each zip code
  • Pick-up and drop-off zip codes
  • Percentage of rides requested but unfulfilled
  • Collision data
  • Number of requested rides for accessible vehicles

Seattle requested the data in order to “analyze overall transportation network company (TNC) impact on transportation systems and infrastructure.” The city also wanted to investigate potential service disparities such as redlining and discrimination based on impermissible factors, including race and religion. Since the data for rides requested but unfulfilled can be tied to zip codes, when it is combined with demographic information, it allows for analysis of potential discrimination. In fact, this is why the Texas researcher requested the data in the first place.

Beyond the information discussed in the case, the TNCs are not actually providing a plethora of data for best practices in the analysis that Seattle (or other cities, agencies, and researchers) wish to undertake. This is because while the data can help add insight into vehicle miles travelled (VMT) by ride hailing cars, it only shows the VMT when a passenger is present, and not the deadheading VMT with no passengers in the vehicle. TNC companies may not even be able to collect accurate deadheading data. The data are not easily parsed as drivers switch between apps, leaving one app latent while providing a passenger a ride through a different app.

Assuming that the TNC passengers may otherwise be in single occupancy vehicles (though some may be switching from transit modes or taking a trip they wouldn’t’ have taken at all), knowing the VMT could help a city understand travel patterns, shared fleet models, and parking needs. However, without the deadheading VMT of drivers while they wait for and access passengers, the effects on congestion and air quality remain unknown.

The fear of the PRA and similar state and federal public records laws will, unfortunately, keep TNC companies wary of sharing data. Apprehension of competitors being able to reverse engineer market shares and strategies around practice and incentives for driver volume and location lead the TNCs to keep data an under wraps as possible. and While this state-level decision sets precedent in Washington, similar cases could still go either way in other states. Dissenting opinions on the Washington case questioned elevating the PRA over the UTSA and emphasize the public benefit to allowing private companies to better control access to trade secrets as well as the right that private companies have to their trade secrets as private property.

Nevertheless, allowing for data analysis by Seattle as well as outside researchers is a step towards understanding the impact of TNCs on the transportation system as well as providing greater accountability. However, much more data are needed for the kinds of robust analyses researchers are seeking to do.

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