Catching a taxi can be a key part of urban existence, and yet a somewhat inconvenient one. No-one relishes waiting in taxi queues, and most of us have been let down by a black cab driver at one point or another. Nonetheless, in our increasingly densely populated towns and cities, the necessity of the cab ride isn't going away anytime soon.
In such a context, there is obviously a massive marketplace for anyone who is able to make hailing a cab more convenient. And given the ubiquity of mobile devices in modern cities, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with a taxi service which operated via mobile platforms.
Uber's rapid rise
Uber has become the most prominent of these services, achieving a growing popularity among businesspeople, politicians and the general public. The company was founded in March 2009 and has rapidly gone viral and become part of contemporary urban lingo. More and more people are beginning to understand the expression and new verb to ‘Uber’ somewhere.
The ride share and taxi service company headquartered in San Francisco, California has grown rapidly in size on the back of some aggressive and innovative marketing, and the company which utilises a smart phone application to receive requests for vehicles before summoning drivers was valued at $40 billion in December 2014. It already operates in 45 nations, and more than 200 cities worldwide.
If this sounds like a stratospheric rise to the top, then this impression is not far wrong. However, although Uber has been hugely successful, it hasn't experienced an entirely unimpeded escalation to prominence. What the company is attempting to do is logistically complicated, and it has experienced a few difficulties with regard to negative publicity.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this was an issue which arose in India, when a driver employed by the company was accused of raping a female passenger. This led to the service begin banned in Delhi, at least temporarily, and other nations have since followed suit in outlawing this taxi application, despite the fact that Business Insider concluded that ordering a taxi from the company is probably safer than hailing a black cab in the street.
Uber is also reviled by traditional taxi drivers to some extent, with 10,000 cab drivers recently descending on Trafalgar Square in London to protest against the mobile app. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association in the UK has accused Uber of running illegal taxi meters, and the firm has also received cease and desist letters from the Virginia’s department of motor vehicles in the United States.
Meanwhile, Uber is facing legal battles to safeguard its future, as France recently became the latest country to signal its intention ban on one of the taxi app’s main services, as French drivers also take to the streets to protest against the company’s “unfair competition.”
If this wasn’t enough quibbles for one company to deal with, perhaps the prickliest issue that Uber has had to contend with thus far has been the way it deals with data. This is, of course, an extremely important issue, as it is effectively one of the most important aspects of trust between a customer and its consumers. The sensitivity of personal data has also been highlighted by such issues as the phone hacking controversy related to NewsCorp in the United Kingdom, and revelations revealed by Edward Snowden related to the NSA in the United States.
The New York Times reported that the way Uber is dealing with data is far from reassuring for its customers, pointing to one blog post in particular in which the company effectively boasted about being able to track customers’ extra-marital affairs. The blog post was quickly removed, but some other less than ideal behaviour from Uber was also highlighted by the New York Times, and overall the issue has not exactly aided the image of the company.
This would be a significant problem for the taxi company under any circumstances, but it is also of particular importance considering the fact that Uber deals with some very high-profile clients, including a variety of Congress personnel in the United States. For such people discretion is obviously extremely important, and the issues highlighted by the New York Times will not exactly count in favour of the company.
The importance of privacy and discretion in tourism cannot be understated. Travellers form a real bond with tourism-related companies, and expect when they hand their personal data over that it will be dealt with extremely sensitively. Failure to do so will not only harm the relationship between companies and customers, but it can also generate negative publicity which significantly damages, or in extreme cases destroys, the image of a brand and business.
The issues experienced by Uber provide a critical case study of lessons that can be learned by other companies involved in the tourism industry with regard to aggregating data sensibly. Using private information in a sensitive and responsible way is not only critical to the image of your company and the relationship that you establish with customers, it can also be considered an ethical and moral necessity.