What can Uber learn from a 19th century travel agency?

A recent protest against Uber in the Chilean capital Santiago. Image: Getty.

App-based ride company Uber has been battling the “establishment” around the world, from traditional black taxi drivers in London to regulators in Australia.

But Uber is far from the first upstart travel company to rock the status quo. More than 150 years ago, in Victorian Britain, the Thomas Cook travel agency faced vilification before skilfully winning over its critics.

So how did the original travel disruptor pull it off? The circumstances behind the rise of both companies are vastly different, but there are lessons in the way a former cabinet maker and temperance preacher navigated his company from outcast to mainstream in about 15 years – not only by dulling criticism, but by actually winning the public over to his side.

Having started from modest beginnings in the mid-19th century, Thomas Cook’s travel agency brought continental European travel to the middle classes through what we now call package holidays. This enraged the elite, who indulged in “Grand Tours” of European capitals that often lasted months, and who called themselves “travellers” rather than mere “tourists”.

Leading newspapers condemned Thomas Cook as an “unscrupulous man” and branded his customers “barbarian hordes”. They were cheered on by an upper crust who worried about pristine attractions being overrun by people who were, according to Blackwood’s Magazine, “low-bred, vulgar and ridiculous”.

Anyone for Egypt? Image: yosoynuts/Flickr/creative commons.

Fighting Fear

Thomas Cook refused to be vilified, and effectively fought back against this scaremongering by defending both his business model and his customers in a manner that was steely but not abrasive. He was unapologetic about his activities, and set out to show that they were far from harmful to British society.

Cook used his monthly journal, The Excursionist, to depict his opponents as a “misguided minority” who lacked “genuine nobility” because they sought to deny other people a form of cultural enrichment. He said his tours helped to improve peaceful global relations through closer contact among nations. And Cook argued that his tours allowed respected but poorly paid professions, such as clergy and teachers, to travel abroad:

There is no class of men to whom a good tour could be more beneficial than to hard-working ministers.

He also adopted some of the practices of the “Grand Tours” – including offering greater freedom to customers by allowing them to check into hotels individually rather than as a group.

Steadily and rapidly, the “stigma” and bad press attached to Thomas Cook and his customers evaporated. In return, Cook helped the media by providing valuable news tips – gleaned from his customers – about countries that seem so close now, but were then so far away.

“Danube route open.” Image: Roger W/Flickr/creative commons.

So just a decade after the Daily News condemned Cook’s “swarm of followers” and “barbarian hordes”, the newspaper batted down rumours that the Danube had been closed to passenger traffic by reporting:

Messrs. Thomas Cook and Son have received the following telegraphic reply: ‘Danube route open. No fear of its being closed.’

Before long, newspapers began praising Cook for offering “invaluable services” and joining the ranks of public benefactors.

Turning Enemies into Allies

Today’s disruptors, of course, don’t face identical challenges to those handled so deftly by the arriviste Thomas Cook. Not all of Cook’s tactics will transfer successfully to the internet age.

Yet we’ve already seen some recent moves that have echoes of those used by Cook a century and a half ago.

This month, Uber appointed former EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes as an advisor to work more closely with governments around the world to advance its arguments. Thomas Cook sought support from high places, too; his son John even organised a package tour of the Holy Land for Prince Edward and Prince George.

In another echo of Cook, Uber argues that its service brings simplicity and democratisation to a highly structured system that served a privileged few. Previously, a limited number of licensed taxi drivers and people lucky enough to find a cab in a downpour could prosper; now many drivers and customers can, in theory, benefit from more choice and competition.

Like Cook, Uber could try to be more collaborative, too; to present its services as an innovative alternative to licensed taxis rather than their replacement. An Uber that is part of a complementary taxi ecosystem will combat the image that it presents a mortal threat to the black cabs of London or the yellow taxis of New York.

Rank and file face a challenge. Image: Garry Knight/Flickr/creative commons.

Thomas Cook is now listed on the London Stock Exchange, and is part of the FTSE 250 index as one of Britain’s largest companies. It has become part of the establishment it once challenged. In the end, that kind of success boils down to staying power. After successfully shedding its stigma, Thomas Cook was able to show good long-term value for money, and Uber will need to do the same.

Uber already has taken some steps towards fostering a gentler image, using its ride sharing service to donate clothes for refugees, and suspending surge pricing during a big US snowstorm early this year. If the stigma is to be entirely removed, Uber probably needs to offer a convincing answer to criticism of that system, which allows fares to skyrocket during periods of peak demand in what some see as a grave exploitation of customers.

Just seven years after it was founded in San Francisco, Uber’s history is still being written. But there is an intriguing parallel with the journey of Thomas Cook and his once-upstart travel agency, and it is now playing out with a new high-profile disruptor in a new century.

Christian Hampel is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.