Navigating the Digital City During An Outbreak

Dragana Kaurin
Feb 5 · 5 min read

Uber’s response to the coronavirus is a matter of mobility justice

Piet Mondrian, 1942 — Broadway Boogie Woogie, via Wikimedia Commons

On Saturday afternoon, an Uber rider in Mexico City named Norma Sanchez got an unexpected alert through her app, notifying her that her account had been suspended. The message stated that Mexico’s Secretariat of Health (Secretaría de Salud) had contacted the company with information about a user “identified as a possible carrier of coronavirus,” and that the company was taking action to temporarily deactivate the accounts of 2 drivers and 240 riders like her who had traveled in the same vehicles as the potential carrier. After trying to reach them, Norma posted Uber’s notification on Twitter adding, “I’m not even worried about the account anymore, this could cause chaos.” The company finally responded with a public statement, explaining that they were acting on information provided by the Secretariat of Health, yet didn’t disclose what kinds of passenger data was shared between the company and the Mexican government.

While many have heralded this use of technology to stop the spread of the virus as a positive, proactive move by the company, it’s worth recalling that the responsibility of managing a health crisis shouldn’t fall on a private company, but rather the Mexican government. Rumors and misinformation spread alarmingly quickly in the absence of information from official sources in an emergency. In this case, the users didn’t learn of the potential coronavirus carrier from the Secretariat of Health, but rather from a private company that is ill-equipped to handle crisis information and communications.

The most obvious unintended consequences of Uber’s actions might be panic and misinformation, as Norma Sanchez pointed out, which can spread faster than the virus and cause serious damage. But this decision has the potential to cause economic damages, like loss of income for drivers and those riders who live too far from mass transit lines and have come to rely on the ride-share service. Lastly, while there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Mexico at this time, if one of the suspended riders were to use the Mexico City metro instead to get to work, then they would be sharing the transit lines with 4.4 million strap-holders, potentially exposing them to the virus.

Uber has already made a deep impact on shaping access to public spaces and mobility in the digital city. The disruption of city transit systems brought on by Uber has resulted in a reduction of taxi services and public mass transit, as well as investment in extending the transit lines and improving these services for movement around the city. The same people disrupting the systems, and causing immobility for those who can’t afford the premium services, can’t be trusted to make decisions and share information about public health.

Mexico City Metro system, via Wikimedia Commons

Today more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas like Mexico City, where they are increasingly pushed into the outskirts, away from transit lines, and into smaller spaces, as rent costs continue to rise. The digital city suffers from an uneven infrastructure of networks and data flows that cause shrinking of public spaces, but provide frictionless mobility to those who can afford it. It’s important to see this move as a matter of mobility justice and ask who gets to move freely about the city and who is prohibited from shared public spaces on gendered, racialized, and socioeconomic lines.

Regardless of its point of origin, when an outbreak like coronavirus hits urban areas, it’s the poor neighborhoods that get hit hardest. These parts of the city also bear economic damages, as others avoid public areas and markets out of precaution.

In contrast to limiting the mobility of potentially sick people, some city-dwellers in China are navigating their own movements around the city by avoiding neighborhoods with confirmed cases of coronavirus using their smartphone. With two virus-tracking apps, YiKuang and QuantUrban’s browser-based application, they monitor new cases uploaded by volunteers and can see which buses, trains, and airplanes were recently used by carriers of the virus. Here again, the city’s digital and physical spaces are managed and accessed by those with means, who can afford a smartphone, unlimited data, and personal drivers that provide them with more isolated transportation.

“Seeing the map is a psychological comfort,” one user in Shenzhen told Reuters. “You can’t guarantee there won’t be fresh cases, but you can avoid an area that’s already hit.”

Suspending these accounts to prevent the spread of the virus wouldn’t necessarily be a bad move if it wasn’t so clearly reinforcing existing socio-economic asymmetries, without offering support to the suspended users, and if the decision and notification had come from an official source like the Department of Health, who should have also shared information about how the decision was made, and how consequences would be mitigated for the riders and 2 drivers. The question of who is protected shouldn’t come down to who can afford a smartphone and enough data to monitor the cases on the app regularly, or who have alternative options to ride-sharing apps.

In a rush to apply technical solutions to urban problems regarding public health, we must consider who it’s working for, and how to create more egalitarian spaces and services. The right to the digital city should belong to its citizens, not private companies. This requires listening to the people excluded from privileged physical and digital spaces that reproduce restrictions in mobility — people who likely don’t use Uber, but whose lives and mobility are affected by their actions and policies.

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

Dragana Kaurin

Written by

Human rights researcher and ethnographer. Writes about techy stuff, humanitarian innovation, forced displacement, and refugee rights. Nutella expert.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

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