Sunday February 19, 2017

The man who wants to out-Uber Uber

(Adam Killick)

Listen 5:40

In most cities these days, there's a debate: to Uber, or not to Uber. Is Uber safe? Is it a brilliant example of the sharing economy, or does it undercut the licenced taxi industry?

But if you don't live in a big city, when the subject of Uber comes up, you probably just roll your eyes.

That's because Uber doesn't do well in smaller cities and rural areas with low population density. So it doesn't tend to exist there.

But now there's LibreTaxi, a new service that connects paying passengers with everyday drivers willing to make a buck or two, and there's no middleman.

And it was born in an unlikely placeā€¦ a remote town in Siberia, which has its own roads, but none connecting it to nearby large cities.

Roman Pushkin is a software engineer in San Francisco, but he's originally from Siberia. And when he went back to visit his relatives, he found they were using a very low-tech method of getting around their isolated town: Handwritten lists of phone numbers.

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Roman Pushkin

"When you needed a ride somewhere, you would just phone everybody on the list," Roman says. So he decided to make things a little easier, by building a bot that integrates with the popular multi-platform messaging app, Telegram.

Here's how it works. Say I need to go and get some groceries. I just log onto the Telegram app, and make a request for a ride through the app.

A registered driver picks up my request, and from there we negotiate the fare. No middleman, no credit card, just a one-on-one conversation. And I pay the fare in cash. Or even in apples, as Roman says happened in one case.

Unlike Uber, LibreTaxi dosen't take a cut of the fare. It's just a free, simple service.

Roman says LibreTaxi has also being used extensively in the developing world, where its open-source software has been adapted to uses other than a personal taxi service - like delivering fuel, for example.

All of this sounds great, of course, but even with Uber there have been reports of abusive drivers. So isn't this a kind of wild west of taxi service, where people could get harmed? After all, the site boasts that drivers can sign up in less than a minute.

Roman acknowledges that this is possible, and that he originally designed LibreTaxi to be used among small communities where people knew each other.

But even now that it's being used around the world, he says he hasn't received any complaints of abuse.

So with all that, where's the money in it for Roman? Nobody develops apps, let alone platforms for free these days, do they?

He says he was inspired by Linus Torvalds, who created Linux as a computer science project for free. "And his operating system is now used on billions of computers around the world," Roman adds.

"I want to change this world, and I want to help people."