How Uber Helped Me Defeat the Airlines

I am an avid user of Uber, a rapidly-growing on-demand private car service that connects average folks like me with idle black car drivers at a fraction of the cost of a traditional private car hire. You launch the Uber app, get picked up within minutes, get dropped off wherever you want, and pay via a credit card stored with Uber, tip included. It's a cashless, affordable luxury experience that makes traditional taxis seem like an antiquated approach to the livery business. My friends and wife are sick of me talking about how great Uber is, and I was vocal in my support for the company in a dust up last month with the DC City Council and taxi industry. But last night in New York Uber helped to really save my skin. Here's how.

I live very close to Dulles Airport in the Washington, DC area and therefore often fly to New York for day trips. This make sense on paper -- it's theoretically faster than me driving 45 minutes to and from Union Station in downtown DC to take the train, even factoring in airport security -- but terribly unreliable. A few years ago I was forced to stay overnight in Manhattan trying to connect back from the West Coast to DC through JFK airport after late-day summer thunder storms shut down all New York airports; I nearly missed a close friend's wedding in South Carolina the next day. Last year I got home at 2:30 am after a canceled flight at JFK forced me to cab back to Manhattan, take a train back to DC, and then cab back out to Dulles to get my car.

Yesterday looked like a repeat. As I wrapped up a two hour meeting at 5:00 pm, I launched the Uber app to request a pick up for a car out to JFK to catch a 7:00 pm flight. I then thumbed through my email on my iPhone to kill the few minutes and was shocked to see a message from United Airlines mentioning that my flight had been canceled. No explanation and no indication as to whether I had or could be rebooked.

As I cussed and fumed, my Uber driver rolled up, so I jumped in and briefly explained that I wasn't sure whether I was headed to JFK or possibly Penn Station, thinking I would have to train it back to Washington. No problem, he said, take your time.

Then I fumbled around looking for a phone number to call United. The driver could tell I was having a hard time finding the number on my phone, so he just rattled it off for me from memory.

This bears repeating: he had memorized the United flight status number. When I expressed my amazement at this, he causally mentioned that he knew the flight status numbers for every airline, and had been driving a private car for nearly 25 years; why wouldn't he know them all?

The call to United yielded the predictable result: being put on hold endlessly with no resolution. My concern was growing: go to JFK or instead hop on a train? But I needed to make a decision immediately if I was going to get a train at a decent hour that still had seats. The rush hour Amtrak trains from NY to DC can be packed.

"Oh," said the driver, "here, use my laptop. I've got internet in the car too." And he handed me an 11" Macbook Air that connected immediately to high-speed 4G internet powered by a Mifi puck in the car.

This also bears repeating: my driver had a laptop and internet for me to use.

Thanks to the laptop, I quickly grabbed a seat on the next Accela train back to DC and was confirmed by the time we reached Madison Square Garden. I'd even charged my phone during the trip down from 59th street in the car's normal three-prong electric outlet, another small luxury for the weary business traveler.

My emergency trip back went off without a hitch, and when I got back to DC's Union Station I of course fired up Uber to take me back to Dulles to get my car. After a crazy day, it felt great to walk past the line of fifty-plus people waiting in the humidity for cabs at Union Station's notoriously long taxi line and hop straight into my waiting black Lincoln Town Car. Off we went, and I got home only about an hour later than I should have had the flight not been canceled.

Comparing Uber with traditional taxis is a flawed thesis, despite whatever the DC Council and taxi commission think. It's an entirely different class and type of service. Do taxi drivers have airline flight numbers memorized? Do they offer a laptop and internet access, or have an electric outlet for charing your phone? Do they even do basic things like accept credit cards? Do they pick you up on-demand? The answer is "no" to all. And that's why Uber rules.

Why I Support Uber

The DC council is set to impose new regulations on private on-demand car service Uber that would limit Uber's ability to offer a new, lower cost service in the District. The proposed rules are a pretty shameless attempt to protect incumbent taxi drivers in the District from additional competition. They are also an offensive and crude response to a situation that should instead be used to motivate greater innovation and reform from DC taxis, not 19th century style protectionism.

Here's why I support Uber, including its proposed new "Uberx" service.

  • As a free and sentient being, I choose to pay extra for what I consider to be a higher-quality service (Uber cars vs. the ordinary dump of a taxi in the District). Why does the DC council think it has a mandate to decide what's more or less valuable in my eyes? Why can't we let the market decide?
  • I can ride around cashless and credit cardless with Uber. While dozens of cities around the world (I travel frequently) are moving towards credit card payments in taxis, in DC it's a rarity to find the brave taxi driver slinging a Square payment system. DC taxis are simply behind the times and need to modernize, like, now.
  • Visiting New York City for the day and riding in the NYC taxis is a stark reminder of just how pathetic the service is in DC. The more Uber can help push DC taxis to innovate, the better for taxpayers, tourists, local businesses....everyone.
  • My last Uber driver had an autograph from Sarah Palin in his passport. How cool is that?!
Look, the bottom line is that the taxi moguls fear competition as any monopolistic incumbent would. I get that; they will lose revenue here. But the public wins, and so does DC's reputation. Why would the council oppose that?

A Working Definition of "Open Government"

I've been spending a non-trivial amount of time lately watching and pondering the explosive uptake of the term "open government." This probably isn't too surprising given Global Integrity's involvement in the nascent Open Government Partnership (OGP). As excited as I've been to witness the growth of OGP, the continued progress of the open data movement, and the emerging norms around citizen participation in government internationally, I've also been worrying that the longer we allow "open government" to mean any and everything to anyone, the risk increases that the term melts into a hollow nothingness of rhetoric. My most immediate concern, which I've been chronicling of late over on this Tumblr, has been the conflation of "open data" with "open government," an issue well-explored by Harlan Yu and David Robinson in this paper. I've also been publicly concerned about the apparent emphasis put on open data -- seemingly at the expense of other open government-related priorities -- by the current UK government, which is slated to take over the co-chairmanship of OGP shortly. (An excellent unpacking of those concerns can be found in this letter from leading UK NGOs to the government.)

But for all my griping, I've yet to put my money where my mouth is and offer up my own definition of what "open government" means. It's time to fix that.

What follows is, at best, a rough working definition of open government that I hope spurs debate and conversation. This is certainly not 100% correct, all-encompassing, or definitive. Nor is it rocket science: this tracks fairly closely with others' thinking, and I suspect it's not too far outside of anyone's mainstream definition (including the Open Government Declaration of September 2011).

At its core, "open government" to me means three things:

  1. Information Transparency: that the public understands the workings of their government;
  2. Public engagement: that the public can influence the workings of their government by engaging in governmental policy processes and service delivery programs; and
  3. Accountability: that the public can hold the government to account for its policy and service delivery performance.

Into those three buckets we can then deposit many of the "open government" initiatives, programs, and interventions that are often invoked on their own as "open government." What's most important here, to me, is that none of these initiatives or interventions in and of themselves constitute "open government" alone. Rather, only when combined with the others do we truly see the potential for "open government" in its most powerful and holistic form.

Bucket 1 (Information Transparency): freedom of information initiatives; open data and Big [Public] Data efforts, including open data portals; procurement, budget, and policy transparency (e.g. voting records, meeting minutes, political finance transparency).

Bucket 2 (Public Engagement): e-government services; open311 and service delivery feedback loops; stakeholder fora and participatory processes (e.g. participatory budgeting, town hall meetings, both online and offline); electoral processes.

Bucket 3 (Accountability): anti-corruption mechanisms (e.g. auditing, ombudsmen); conflicts of interest and influence peddling safeguards.

It goes without saying that the world does not fit neatly into this clean paradigm. Electoral processes are as much a form of accountability as a form of engagement, and the distinction between information transparency and engagement blurs quickly when we talk about something like open311. But hopefully the general construct holds some water.

As for technology? I view technology agnostically in the context of "open government." Some of the above interventions don't work without technology -- think open data, open311, or e-government services. Others work quite well without websites or apps. Technology can certainly be a powerful force multiplier in the context of open government, and it can take interventions to scale rapidly. But technology is neither open government itself nor required for open government to necessarily take hold, in my view.

Rather than dive any deeper into this, I'll stop here to allow for others to correct, add to, or tear this apart. How would you define open government?

Computer Science Should be Required Curriculum

As a kid who majored in a foreign language in college, you'd think I'd have a bias towards the idea that foreign languages should be required teaching for students. I do, but I think the language most essential for the generations coming up (e.g. my kids) is computer science. I'd love to see the basic building blocks of computer science taught systematically from grade school through high school. If taking a foreign language in high school for at least a few years is a requirement to graduate, there's no reason computer science shouldn't also be required. Here are some reasons why:

  • Computer-based logic and processing is increasingly the language of how things gets done in the world. Want kids to understand how the banking system, consumer goods retailing, and logistics all work? Understanding basic databases is a great place to start.
  • English is increasingly the language of world business. With the exceptions of Spanish and French, do you know lots of friends whose German comes in handy regularly? The Chinese government requires English training for their tens of millions of students. That's a clue: English + French/Spanish + computer science is the way forward to be as multilingual as most people need to be in the world ahead.
  • Understanding how computers think helps to beat the system. Annoyed with email spam, hyper-targeted consumer marketing and the like? Computers don't make mistakes, but their algorithms are often simple to master once you understand the underlying logic and data model. Know your enemy.

Am I wrong headed about this?

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In which I embed Map Box into my blog for friends at IMCO :) [iframe src="" width="100%" height="350"]