To date, the U.S. still does not have a nationally coordinated contact tracing program that would help manage the spread of the coronavirus. The White House, in fact, has made clear that it would oppose any federal legislation that funds programs for contact tracing and testing.
Could the private sector help to drive contact tracing efforts? Pardon the pun, but ridesharing giant Uber says it is doing just that — and already has been doing so on the sly.
Since this spring, Uber has been sharing worldwide data that is related to infectious diseases, including COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with public health departments. The way Uber works with public health authorities (PHAs) is that if such an agency requests data to which it is entitled by local law, Uber has a process in place by which it will release information on both Uber drivers and passengers.
As Reuters recently reported, Uber executives met with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local public health officials in January, when the disease was first beginning to spread outside of China, to sort out how the ridesharing company could help with data collection efforts.
Uber now manages a portal that so far has filed requests from 40 locations across the United States. Worldwide, the company has fielded 560 requests on those potentially exposed to COVID-19 across 29 nations.
Such information is crucial for contact tracing efforts, as it can help local officials notify people they may have been exposed to the coronavirus in the event someone infected with the virus used or provided Uber’s services. But Uber is also doing its part to stop the spread, as it will block users from using its app for 14 days if they are confirmed to have contracted the virus.
At first gut-check, privacy advocates may object to the sharing of such data, but Uber has made it clear that it will only share its users’ data with government officials if there’s a definite link to public health risks. And in the absence of any guidance from the federal government, state and local public health officials are scrambling to build viable contact tracing systems – and they need as much help as they can get as local budgets have been left in shambles. Scoring such data from the likes of Uber and its competitors can help track those who have been infected with the coronavirus, get them the treatment they need and prevent them from spreading it to others.
Uber would never admit this publicly, but there’s an additional benefit for the company: Becoming a proactive partner in the fight against COVID-19 could help burnish the company’s reputation in the long run. There’s no shortage of stories outlining the company’s struggles on all fronts, from its shortcomings on diversity in the workplace to its efforts to thwart local governments from regulating its services. At a time when investing tied to environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors shows no signs of going away any time soon, some investors in this space have been skittish about including Uber within their portfolios.
At a time when the U.S. has steepened the curve instead of flattening it, Uber’s action now could become a future case study of how a company can respond to a crisis with the tools it already has at hand.
Image credit: Andras Vas/Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.