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Help us make Uber safer, the company asks Joburg’s IT industry

By Lesley Stones
Johannesburg, 16 Aug 2019

The lack of public transport in South Africa has seen Uber make life far easier for millions of travellers, as well as create jobs for thousands of drivers.

But occasionally, Uber hits the headlines for the wrong reasons, with drivers attacked for their car, their money or their cellphone, or  passengers accusing a driver of assault.

Since Uber boasts that safety is its top priority, the company staged a Tech4Safety Summit in Johannesburg on Friday, where IT experts debated how the app could be made even safer.

“We can’t do this alone, we need to work with experts in the field, and this event is about how to partner with the community to bring safety to our users,” said Sachin Kansal, Uber’s global senior director of product.

Uber’s rise has been phenomenal, growing in nine years to more than 100 million users in 700 cities across 60 countries. Its four million drivers have handled an astonishing 18 billion trips, and it’s expanded to deliver food through Uber Eats and cargo through Uber Freight.

Kansal said Uber has introduced numerous safety features over the years and is continually honing them. Some have even been specifically developed for South Africa because of the country’s high crime rate.

“Safety is our number-one priority and we are raising the bar on safety for our riders, drivers and the communities we serve. We have hundreds of people at Uber all around the world who think about safety, including me. There are a lot of safety problems that we can solve by throwing human resources at it, but if you want to scale your safety solutions, you have to start with technology.”

Emergency button

Devising solutions is a continual learning curve, which starts with talking to drivers and passengers about their concerns. South African drivers had stressed that if there was an emergency, they needed to get help fast.

Unfortunately, the crime rate in SA is much higher than the global average so it can impact our drivers and users. Law enforcement is spread thinly and may take time to respond, so we had to work with private security companies,” Kansal said.

Both drivers and riders now have instant access to an emergency button that alerts the nearest local security company on their behalf, built into the Uber app itself. Then Uber realised it needed to transmit details about the car, driver and its location automatically as the emergency button was pressed.

“If you use the button to call security, two things will happen – you will be able to talk to them and, in the background, we send them all the necessary information. When it’s an emergency, every second counts and we’re using technology to shave off every second we can because it can be a matter of life and death,” he said.

The Share Your Ride feature to let someone track your movements was once cumbersome to use, but refinements now let you share all your trips automatically with chosen people, or set it up to only share trips at night. Drivers can also share their location with family or friends continually for extra peace of mind.

New security measures

Many female users have told Uber they don’t like to be picked up or dropped off outside their home, so riders can now specify a drop-off location like a cross-roads rather than an actual home.

South African drivers were also wary about cash trips because  of the risk of being mugged. “If a person wants to use cash and hasn’t given us their credit card details, we actually don't know much about them,” Kansal added. “So today, you have to give us your Facebook identity and we run checks to make sure you are legit, and only then can you take a ride using cash.”

The app also tells the driver it’s a cash ride, giving them the opportunity to turn it down.

One innovative feature asks drivers to take selfies at random times, and face recognition algorithms check that the face matches the driver on record. If it doesn’t match, the driver is logged off until their identity is confirmed.

Other measures have been introduced to improve road safety, including a speed limit alert that shows the speed limit for each road and flashes an alert if the driver exceeds it.

To combat fatigue, the app tracks their driving time and makes them log off after 12 hours for a minimum of a six-hour rest.

Partnership with Country Duty

One organisation that Uber has partnered with locally is Country Duty, a South African, Twitter-based community activist campaign. Country Duty was founded by lawyer Tumi Sole, and has grown into a team working around the clock to monitor and publicise political and social issues of concern. 

When fires gutted township shacks, Uber worked with Country Duty to let people call an Uber and put their donations of clothes and blankets into the car for delivery to the needy.

Another campaign saw Sole and his crew tweet the contact details for MPs ahead of a vote of no confidence in former president Jacob Zuma. That let people contact the MPs and urge them to vote using their conscience.

“We know a bit of public pressure helps,” said Alon Lits, Uber’s GM for Southern and South Africa. “If people knew of a social issue that needed more attention or a person who needed help, they could contact Country Duty to mobilise that help.”