ARMIN SAMII HAD been biking for UberEats for a few weeks last July when he accepted a delivery he estimated would take 20 minutes, tops. But the app led him up one of the steepest hills in Pittsburgh, a 4-mile one-way trip that clocked in at an hour. Then he noticed that Uber had only paid him for 1 mile—the distance between his origin and destination as the crow flies, but not as the man bikes.
“I’d only done 20 deliveries, and this already happened to me,” Samii says. “For people who do this full-time, are they going to look this deeply into this statement? Are they ever going to find this issue?”
Samii is a software engineer. So he created a Google Chrome extension, UberCheats, that helps workers spot pay discrepancies. The extension automatically extracts the start and end points of each trip and calculates the shortest travel distance between the two. If that distance doesn’t match up with what Uber paid for, the extension marks it for closer examination.
So far, only a few hundred workers have installed UberCheats on their browsers. Samii doesn’t have access to how couriers are using the extension, but he says some have told him they’ve used it to find pay inconsistencies. Google briefly removed the extension last week when Uber flagged it as a trademark violation, but reversed its decision after Samii appealed.
The digital tool joins others popping up to help freelancers wrest back control over work directed by opaque algorithms, with pay structures that might change at any time. The need has only grown during the pandemic, which has seen companies like DoorDash, Amazon, and Instacart hire more contractors to support spikes in demand for deliveries. The expansion of the gig economy might be here to stay: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the “courier and messenger” sector could grow 13 to 30 percent more by 2029 than it would have without a pandemic. Globally, up to 55 million people work as gig workers, according to the research and advocacy group Fairwork.
The projects stem from practical need. In the US, many gig workers keep track of their miles and expenses for tax purposes. But the projects also grow out of workers’ growing mistrust of the companies that pay their wages. “I knew about gig companies’ business decisions that meant they weren’t paying well,” says Samii. But he says he hadn’t thought the apps might “pay for less work than you actually did.”
The tools are particularly helpful to gig workers because of their low wages, and because it can be hard for isolated workers to share or find information about how the job pays, says Katie Wells, a research fellow at Georgetown University who studies labor. “Things are changed and hidden behind an algorithm, which makes it harder to figure out what you’re earning and spending and whether you’re getting screwed,” Wells says.
Gig workers tend to have their own ways of tracking business expenses. Some delight in spreadsheets; others keep pens and notepaper in their glove box, so they can log miles and gas spending. Still others use apps built specifically to track mileage for tax purposes, like Stride and QuickBooks Self-Employed, which drivers can set up to run in the background of their phones as they pick up passengers and deliveries.
But some workers have been drawn to homegrown tools built by other gig workers—and the idea that they might themselves profit off the information that companies collect about them. Driver’s Seat Cooperative launched in 2019 to help workers collect and analyze their own data from ride-hail and delivery apps like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart. More than 600 gig workers in 40 cities have pooled their information through the cooperative, which helps them decide when and where to sign on to each app to make the most money, and how much they are making, after expenses. In turn, the company hopes to sell the data to transportation agencies interested in learning more about gig work, and pass on the profits to cooperative members. Only one city agency, in San Francisco, has paid for the data thus far, for a local mobility study that sent $45,700 to Driver’s Seat.
Owen Christofferson has been driving for Uber and Lyft in Portland for six years and signed up to use Driver’s Seat when it launched. He hopes these sort of projects help all drivers keep better track of what they’re spending to earn. “It’s actually really, really complicated to figure out what you, as a gig worker using your own vehicle, are putting into this,” he says. “It’s a kind of active disempowerment on the part of the companies, because many drivers might lack the resources or skills to understand their true hourly wage.”
In a statement, Uber spokesperson Matthew Wing said that the company has built its own online tools to help drivers estimate their wages, including tips but not expenses. “If other tools accurately give drivers additional information and confidence in their experience, that’s generally a good thing,” he said.
Some workers have taken their push for data to court. A group of British Uber drivers has sued the ride-hail company in Amsterdam under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which gives EU citizens more control over their personal data. The drivers say their profiles, obtained through a request to Uber, have gaps, including scant detail on how the company evaluates their performance. Uber told TechCrunch that it had responded to the drivers’ data requests in 2019, and that the company’s “privacy team works hard to provide any requested personal data that individuals are entitled to.”
An open source project called WeClock, launched by the UNI Global Union, seeks to help workers collect and then visualize data on their wages and working conditions, tapping into smartphone sensors to determine how often they’re sitting, standing, or traveling, and how they feel when they’re on the job. Once it’s collected, workers control their own information and how it’s used, says Christina Colclough, who helped build the app and now runs an organizing consultancy called the Why Not Lab. “We don’t want to further the surveillance that workers are already subjected to,” she says. “We don’t want to be Big Tech with a conscience.”
Colclough hopes that, eventually, workers might use WeClock to show they’re working longer hours than agreed. For now, the app is being used by 15 freelance UK TV production workers, who say that production companies don’t always pay fair wages for all the work they do. The participants in the pilot use Apple Watches to track their movements while on set.
“I love my job,” says one production sound crew worker, who is using WeClock. (The worker asked not be named, for fear of retaliation in a close-knit industry.) “But I hope this can help expose a little bit of the ridiculous hours we work.”