Ethical Data Use & Uber

We’re flashing back this week to Jodi Kantor’s New York Times story on Uber from a few weeks ago to bring up an example of how we might discuss ethics and data use, one of this year’s themes, with our students. A short sample from the article:

“The whole thing is like a video game,” said Eli Solomon, a veteran Uber and Lyft driver in the Chicago area, who said he sometimes had to fight the urge to work more after glancing at his data.

Sometimes the so-called gamification is quite literal. Like players on video game platforms such as Xbox, PlayStation and Pogo, Uber drivers can earn badges for achievements like Above and Beyond (denoted on the app by a cartoon of a rocket blasting off), Excellent Service (marked by a picture of a sparkling diamond) and Entertaining Drive (a pair of Groucho Marx glasses with nose and eyebrows).

Of course, managers have been borrowing from the logic of games for generations, as when they set up contests and competition among workers. More overt forms of gamification have proliferated during the past decade. For example, Microsoft has used the approach to entice workers to perform the otherwise sleep-inducing task of software debugging.

But Uber can go much further. Because it mediates its drivers’ entire work experience through an app, there are few limits to the elements it can gamify. Uber collects staggering amounts of data that allow it to discard game features that do not work and refine those that do. And because its workers are contractors, the gamification strategies are not hemmed in by employment law.

Kevin Werbach, a business professor who has written extensively on the subject, said that while gamification could be a force for good in the gig economy — for example, by creating bonds among workers who do not share a physical space — there was a danger of abuse. “If what you’re doing is basically saying, ‘We’ve found a cheap way to get you to do work without paying you for it, we’ll pay you in badges that don’t cost anything,’ that’s a manipulative way to go about it,” he said.

For some drivers, that is precisely the effect. Scott Weber said he drove full time most weeks last year, picking up passengers in the Tampa area for both Uber and Lyft, yet made less than $20,000 before expenses like gas and maintenance. “I was a business that had a loss,” said Mr. Weber, who is looking for another job. “I’m using payday loans.”

Still, when asked about the badges he earns while driving for Uber, Mr. Weber practically gushed. “I’ve got currently 12 excellent-service and nine great-conversation badges,” he said in an interview in early March. “It tells me where I’m at.”

You’ll want to click through to play with the interactive tools that compare wait times to the number of idle Uber drivers waiting in the area or other scenarios relevant to the “gig economy.

To explore this with students, you might ask:

  1. What are the ethical principles underlying Uber’s practice toward drivers?
  2. What ethical principles do you assume that your future employer might have?
  3. How does this article impact your interest in using Uber (and how might your age — if you are not old enough to have a driver’s license — affect your answer)?
  4. How does gamification motivate you?
  5. Do you think drivers know Uber is gamifying its app with them? How do you feel about that?