Transport

A Free Uber-Like App Finds Rides for People in Rural Areas

LibreTaxi can bring ride-sharing to places Uber and Lyft can't reach.

<p>Courtesy Lena Boiko<span></span></p>

In a remote village in central Siberia, a two-day's journey by ferry on the Ob River from Akademgorodok in Novosibirsk, a thousand people eke out a living deep in the conifer and birch forests of the taiga. There are no highways to the big city, only the ferry, and the roads that connect the scattering of houses and farms are a neglected network made of dirt and frost-heaved cement.

Although isolated, the people are mainly self-sufficient. They till the land, raise cows for milk and cheese, fish the river, tend bees for honey and harvest the abundance of berries and mushrooms that appear almost at once during the brief summers.

This is where Roman Pushkin was born and where he lived until age seven, until his parents moved with him two thousand miles to the west, to Moscow. Eventually he made his way to San Francisco, where he works as a software engineer. Now and then he returns to his village to visit relatives and friends, and brings them stories of technological innovations that have not yet reached their inaccessible hamlets.

Ten years ago, he told them about cell phones, and they said how much they could use them. Now they have one cell phone tower, as well as a 3G internet connection. A couple of years ago, he explained how Uber works, the phone app that lets anyone with a car sell a ride to anyone who needs it. They told him they could really use that, too.

Few people in Pushkin's home village, which he prefers to keep anonymous, own a vehicle and for those who do own some wheels - mostly motorbikes, all-terrain vehicles and a few cars - offering a lift to their neighbors is a common practice. But making the connection can be a cumbersome process. Those who need a ride must call people from a list of those offering one, until they find the right person going in the right direction.

Although people could adopt Uber in remote areas like this one, most drivers don't own the kind of newer vehicles that meet Uber's regulations. And for riders who may be too poor to own a credit card, signing up is impossible.

Pushkin, who had already created a free online course for Russians to learn computer programming, resolved to develop a free ride-sharing solution.

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That solution is LibreTaxi, a free, open-source software program that Pushkin wrote to be used with Telegram, a messaging app that is also free and open source. It works on iOS, Android, the web, all desktops and even works with Apple Watch.

Using the program is simple: Open the messaging app and press the button to locate a driver. Enter the location and destination. Drivers in the area will receive a notification and when a driver accepts, the rider and the driver can connect by phone to negotiate a price. Unlike Uber, the cars don't have to be new and the accounts are not connected to a credit card. Payments are made in cash.

"If people know each other, they do it free," Pushkin told Seeker.

Once confirmed, the rider presses a button to finish the search.

About 100 people are now using the app to get around the Siberian village, mostly younger folks who are going to work or visiting friends. But after Pushkin started talking about his new app on Facebook, Reddit and over social networks in Russia, he registered more than 10,000 users in less than a month.

A Siberian farmer calls to his dog. Credit: Courtesy Lena Boiko

One person who found out about it was Senegalese entrepreneur Fode Diop, who discovered it while reading Hacker News.

"When I saw LibreTaxi, I said, 'Oh my God, this is what I've been thinking about for so freaking long. This is amazing. This is world-changing,'" Diop told Seeker. "Automatically I clicked on it and sent it to all of my friends."

Diop, who has been living in the United States since 1994, says he had been thinking about ride-sharing solutions for his home country for some time.

"If people had a better way to get around, I think that would really help alleviate poverty," Diop said.

In Senegal, almost half of the 14 million people living there subsist on less than $1.25 a day. According to a 2011 report by the Chronic Poverty Research Center, poverty in Senegal is concentrated in rural areas.

"If you are poor, you don't go outside a 10-mile radius of where you live because it's very expensive for you to get around," Diop said. "It's very expensive for you to even go find a job or go explore other opportunities or maybe go to a school in a different area."

Diop is returning to Senegal in a few months to institute a new educational program to teach computer programming to kids in their native language. He recently launched an Indiegogo campaign around this project. Once he's there, he plans to customize LibreTaxi for use in his country. The fact that LibreTaxi doesn't require a credit card is a definite plus in a country like Senegal, where only about 7 percent of the population has a credit card, Diop said.

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But paying by cash could introduce some risk. Cash doesn't offer the kind of identification verification that credit cards offer and a wad of bills may be too enticing for thieves to resist.

"There has to be a way to vet the drivers and there has to be a way to vet the riders," Diop said.

One solution could be a blockchain technology like the one that makes bitcoin possible. In a blockchain transaction, a driver's verification, the payment - a form of peer-to-peer digital currency - and the confirmation of the service would all be handled at the same time.

Senegal could be an excellent location to roll out a version of LibreTaxi that has blockchain technology, since the country announced last November that its national currency was going digital. And because a blockchain-based digital currency - also called a cryptocurrency - has no need for a bank, there are no fees, making it affordable to anyone, even the poorest of the poor, earning $1.25 per day.

"I think this is absolutely a must-have for LibreTaxi," Pushkin said.

Because his program is open source, anyone can make changes, including adding blockchain. He would just have to approve it. But Pushkin said that was the next step for him.

"I'm looking forward to adding blockchain support to the app in near future," Pushkin said.

Pushkin, who applied to Uber a year ago and was rejected, said he has been surprised by all of the gratitude he's received since releasing LibreTaxi.

"I never had this conscious purpose in my head to help people," he said. "It turned out that I'm helping people.

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