Cab Rides (and Tips) of the Rich and Famous

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Jessica Alba Sighting - New York
Morgan Dessalles/ABACA USA
The average person might not be that interested in a database tracking the cab rides of millions of New Yorkers, including where they went, the cost of the fare, and how much they tipped. But when you include the details of rides taken by actors like Jessica Alba and Bradley Cooper (who didn't tip at all), a spreadsheet is no longer just a spreadsheet--it's a news story.

Apparently the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission has drivers record a lot of information, including origin and destination points, fare amounts, and any reported tip. Using a Freedom of Information Act request, technical expert Chris Wong received about 50 gigabytes of data from the agency, as he explained.

Another expert, Vijay Pandurangan, analyzed the results. He realized that although all the information was supposed to be anonymized so you couldn't get too many specific details on the more than 173 million individual trips, it was easy to undo the protection and get the actual details, including the taxi number and driver's license number.

Bad enough, but the names of the passengers were thankfully not included. However, on the Internet, all sorts of information can let you walk around blockades. A Northwestern graduate student named Anthony Tockar realized that he could sometimes match ride information with photos of celebrities. If you're someone like Bradley Cooper or Jessica Alba and there is a dated and timed photo of you getting into a cab whose license or medallion number is in view, getting more specifics becomes pretty easy.

In Brad Cooper's case, we now know that his cab took him to Greenwich Village, possibly to have dinner at Melibea, and that he paid $10.50, with no recorded tip. Ironically, he got in the cab to escape the photographers! We also know that Jessica Alba got into her taxi outside her hotel, the Trump SoHo, and somewhat surprisingly also did not add a tip to her $9 fare. Now while this information is relatively benign, particularly a year down the line, I have revealed information that was not previously in the public domain. Considering the speculative drivel that usually accompanies these photos (trust me, I know!), a celebrity journalist would be thrilled to learn this additional information.

Yes, the paparazzi are probably putting data scientists on retainer even now.

At Gawker, writer J.K. Trotter combined cab data with archives of celebrity photos, of which there are obviously many. Trotter was able to find specific cab trip data for the likes of Jessica Biel, Emma Roberts, and Evan Peters.

What is surprising is the number of celebrities mentioned here whose cabbies did not record a tip on top of the base fare: Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Amanda Bynes, Bradley Cooper, and Olivia Munn. Was the database wrong?

Some of the celebrities denied the charges. Spokespeople for Alba and Cooper denied the stories:

"This story is not accurate," her publicist told Gawker. "Jessica always makes a point of giving a cash tip, even if she pays with a credit card." After initially declining to comment and asking us to kill this story, Cooper's publicist emailed us a statement: "Bradley takes the subway when he's in New York and when he takes a taxi he leaves very good tips. No truth to this."

As it turns out, the "vast majority of passengers who paid for rides in cash" are listed as providing a tip of $0. Maybe everyone is cheap. Perhaps some cab drivers record nothing so there is no record to check against when they report their taxes.

Or maybe some celebrities are tight with a dollar and bad tippers. Heaven knows there are other alleged examples, such as boxer Floyd Mayweather or football player LeSean McCoy.
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