The Nestify ads on the tube are disgusting, and TfL should stop taking the company’s money

Oh, FFS. Image: author provided.

Note: This article was updated at 2000hrs on 30 July to add a comment from Transport for London. 

I was not, in all honesty, sure whether to publish the image at the top of this page. Partly because I’m a terrible photographer, as you can almost certainly tell at a glance; partly because I am, in effect, giving free publicity to what can only be described as a truly appalling ad campaign. But there’s unfortunately no way of talking about this without showing you what I’m talking about, so there the image stands.

Some background on this. Nestify is not a lettings agency, in the traditional sense of those parasitic companies that sit between landlords and tenants, sucking as much money as they can from both while providing the absolute bare minimum in terms of actual service. It’s something new: a company that sits between landlords and lettings platforms like AirBnB, who in turn provide tenants. That, you will notice, is a whole new layer of middleman. Why this is meant to be a good thing, rather than just another thing that bumps up the costs for tenants and diverts the money from landlords (poor lambs), I’m not exactly sure.

Anyway. Nestify promises a bunch of services – “professional photography”, “guest relations, “24/7 key exchange”, and so on – to take the pain out of putting your home on AirBnB and bumping up your rental income by a whopping 34 per cent*. That “*” represents the fact it’s what happened with some specific two bed flat in central London. That makes me wonder why the company isn’t using an average, except not really because the answer’s incredibly obvious, and I would bet my right kidney the average isn’t nearly so flattering.

In that last paragraph, I’ve instinctively been using “your”, because it makes it easier to write. Except, the odds are, it isn’t “yours”, is it? As of 2016, the last year for which figures seem to be available, 29 per cent of households in inner London were in the private rented sector (PRS), and another 33 per cent in social rent; just 38 per cent were owner-occupied. That means that a clear majority of inner Londoners don’t have property to rent. Nestify isn’t talking to them – even if it is getting uncomfortably close to talking about their homes.

What’s more, you’ll be stunned to hear, those figures have been moving steadily in one direction. Back in 2006, just 24 per cent of inner London households were in the PRS, while 39 per cent were owner-occupied. The share of Londoners who might look at a Nestify ad, read the “you” as addressed to them, and think, “Oooh, higher rents! Great!” has fallen, slightly. The share who will read the “you” as refering to their bastard landlord, who might even now be thinking, “Oooh, I can jack up the rent”, has grown, significantly.

If all this sounds very familiar, it’s because it is. At the end of May, Nestify’s rival Hostmaker ran an extremely similar campaign, promising landlords an extra 30 per cent on their short term rents. The result was an outcry from tenants and a petition organised by campaign group Generation Rent.

Hostmaker rushed out a statement apologising for the “misguided” tone and promised to remove its ads. Barely two months later, Nestify is doing exactly the same thing. Whether the result will be a similar outcry remains to be seen. We can but hope.

The company would no doubt respond – it’s difficult to be sure, because it’s thus far ignored my repeated requests for comments, but I’m guessing – that this is not an attack on tenants. These campaigns are not aimed at homes in the PRS, but at owner-occupiers hoping to make a few quid from the places they actually live.

But the housing market doesn’t work like that. There are a finite number of properties, and if landlords think they can get more money from short-term lets than long-term tenancies, more of them will pull out of the PRS altogether in favour of going full AirBnB. That will leave tenants fighting over even fewer, even more expensive rented homes.

This is not a theoretical problem: in some big tourist destinations, short-term letting sites have hurt locals so badly that city governments have moved to crack down. In 2016, Berlin introduced a blanket ban on renting entire apartments, rather than individual rooms, through AirBnb. Last year Barcelona introduced a licencing scheme to make it possible to regulate the sector, while Amsterdam has limited the number of nights homes can be rented out for. All such policies are intended to nudge homes out of the short-term lettings sector to leave them available to locals.

Earlier this month, even Manchester announced pilot plans to make it impossible for purchasers of homes on a new estate to cash in through short-term lettings. Yet despite pressure, TfL continues to take money from companies like Nestify, whose entire business model is built on making it harder for Londoners to find homes.

It shouldn’t. Ads like this are an insult to the huge number of Londoners whose rents are too high, who live in poor quality housing, who live in fear of being turfed out at short notice by landlords who think they can get a few more quid from somebody else. Transport for London is a service for all Londoners. It should act like it.

Update, 2000hrs. Transport for London has provided the following comment. “This campaign was booked several months ago. It has now ended and the adverts are being removed. Any proposed future advertisements of this nature will be properly reviewed to ensure any concerns are fully considered as part of the approval process for advertising on our network.”

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave

The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.