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London launch of Citymapper Pass raises data misuse concerns

Travel tech firm Citymapper has announced a London travel pass designed to rival the Oyster card. Dubbed the Citymapper Pass, it will act as a travel-specific alternative to an ordinary bank card for contactless travel. However, there are concerns about the company’s motives. Priya Kantaria reports

Image: Faizal Ramli / Shutterstock.com


he Citymapper Pass has launched in the UK capital in March this year, with an international rollout to follow. The company says on its website that “unlike Brexit, we’re not waiting for May”.

Citymapper says it’s adding “new partners every week,” but initially will cover public transport, Santander’s bicycles and rides in its Citymapper Ride taxis.

Wired reported this time last year that Citymapper had intended to launch a responsive smart bus that would change its route according to demand. But Transport for London (TfL) had other ideas, with regulations limiting buses to the “dumb” unadaptable model.

Omid Ashtari, president and head of business at Citymapper told Wired: “We don’t see enough encouraging frameworks that allow private entrants to actually play in this field.

“I don’t want to single out TfL here - it’s a global phenomenon. There’s a clear distinction between what cabs can do and what buses can do; currently, the cab frameworks are the easiest way.”

Where’s the life-hacking, time-saving, life-revolutionising aspect?

Data concerns surround the Citymapper Pass

But there are bigger concerns than ease of transport and following the regulations. A Twitter user called J A Earley, who works in Parliament, has voiced the fear on everyone’s mind: data misuse. He suggests that Citymapper’s source of income from the scheme is unclear:

Gizmodo says the subscription will be £5.10 cheaper than TfL’s provision and only works within zones 1 and 2, but even that saving could bring on users in large numbers.

Earley suggests, looking ahead to when the Citymapper Pass goes global, with the card working in every city and across every travel option, “the only way Citymapper can make serious money is through wielding the political power it will accrue from its dominant position in the marketplace”.

“It will eventually turn on the consumer, regulators and the public realm to carve out a lucrative niche,” he adds.

Apparently, this situation is TfL’s own fault, because they handed over the data to the private sector, including firms such as Citymapper, open-sourcing so that a mapping and routing service could be created that would beat whatever TfL could produce.

Craig Unsworth, co-founder and chief executive officer at Upgrade Pack adds to the scepticism around Citymapper’s plans.

“This proposition from Citymapper feels odd,” he said. “If this pass is successful you’d think TfL would just imitate it. Being a physical card it doesn’t seem that different from carrying a normal payment card – or dare I say it, an Oyster card. It also goes against the digital-first trend. The concept seems to be aimed at the Revolut and Monzo generation, but the tech play doesn’t feel big enough to hit the innovation levels that this generation has now come to expect.

“In terms of loyalty, Citymapper will have to add extra hooks in to drive engagement and usage. There’s no real data win for the user, the financial savings are nominal, and it’s an extra piece of plastic to carry around.

“Where’s the life-hacking, time-saving, life-revolutionising aspect? What will drive loyalty and usage? As for the data set, this actively gives full knowledge of everywhere you’ve been, patterns of travel and common locations to one company. Whilst you could argue people already do that, the usual ‘collectors’ of that data are Apple, from your iPhone, your bank, when you use your debit card or government-owned TfL – all of which are trusted more than a private company.”

How will Citymapper make a profit?

According to the Evening Standard, a TfL spokesperson said that “Citymapper has now confirmed that we will be paid the existing fares as usual for all journeys on our services as part of their proposals for a subscription service bundling together a number of transport options.”

The paper also said the subsidising of the travel card cost, which is meant to attract users, will be covered by Citymapper.

Citymapper president Ashtari told Verdict: “We have never sold any data and do not believe in selling a user’s pass or app data to make money.”

He added: “Brexit is a topic for another day.” But both comments beg the same question: if not now, when?