Mediating Culture and ICT: Conflicts on Location-Based Application of Transportation Services in Indonesia

Author: Dwi Aini Bestari []

Credit: Tomy Wahyu Utama on Flickr

Growing up in still developing Indonesia, I’ve witnessed how the society, especially in urban areas, struggles with the messiness of disintegrated systems between information and transportation; worsening the already horrifying traffic due to uncontrolled numbers of private vehicles. This creates an urgent need of a more secure and controlled transportation system. In the past two years, there has been positive progress in solving these challenges. Location-based mobile applications were developed and used in motorbike services that mobilize people through the city. The idea is similar to that of Uber; the only difference is that it is a motorbike; a vehicle that can at least deal with congestion. These applications were soon used by millions of people.

Despite their success in terms of urban mobility, there are number of issues that have yet to be improved. As a user, I noticed the internet infrastructure, digital knowledge and cultural issues among users and drivers should also be evaluated. In this essay, I argue that we should be skeptical towards technocratic views in treating ICT as merely a set of tools that provides solutions. Rather, in line with Flora Salim & Usman Haque’s argument (2015, 31), understanding the culture and complexity of urban society in a specific context is equally essential.

Location-based Transportation Service: Between Solutions and Problems
In Indonesia, location-based application transportation services such as Gojek and Grab-Bike have successfully swept the public’s attention since their official release in 2015. They have also taken over Uber’s market share, a company that was bigger and arrived earlier. These two local startup companies have greater capabilities to understand the local market and its context (Wailes 2016). Surveys and studies show how these services allow society in an urban area to overcome problems of uncertainties in public transportation system. From a users’ point of view, Fania Darma Amajida (2016) mentions that ‘Gojek is capable of minimizing the risks concerning time, convenience, cost, and security’. In respect to their success, I argue that it is also important to see this phenomenon from critical angle. In fact, several problems occurred and were raised in the actual practice of using them. Deriving from my personal experience and people’s shared experience posted on Gojek’s Facebook page, I will address the issues as infrastructural and cultural challenges.

Let’s take Gojek, one of the most successful apps, as an example. Although it was developed and is now used in several cities in Indonesia, I will focus on Gojek’s dynamics in Jakarta as the first city where it was released and the city where it has most users. The most salient problems for Gojek in its early development would probably be the infrastructure of internet services in Indonesia, the city space and the technical problems of the application itself. Although internet penetration numbers have risen rapidly, especially in urban areas like Jakarta (APJII 2016), the still unequally distributed connection causes some problems for the application. For example, some passengers shared experience about getting lost during their trip because of the unstable connection in some of Jakarta’s corners. A year ago, I myself had to wait for a driver for one hour because he got lost and he couldn’t use his phone’s GPS; a combination of the application’s technical issues and an unequally distributed internet connection in Indonesia. Rob Kitchin (2014, 2) points out that digital infrastructure is an essential element in utilizing ICT for urban development. Meanwhile, the present condition of ICT infrastructure in Indonesia is on the way to be improved by the government.

In a way, the cases above show how users and drivers are very dependent on maps and how a failing ICT infrastructure is capable of disrupting the rides. But it is also interesting to look at it deeper and ask why this is happening. Do people not understand their city? I argue this is also related to the complexity of Jakarta’s urban demography and geography. For example, as someone who used to commute for work to Jakarta, I did not have sufficient knowledge about all the routes to every neighborhood of Jakarta. Thus, I expected a driver to know the city better than I did, but in reality, the drivers come from various locations outside Jakarta as well. In 2015, more than 2500 people signed up as drivers of Gojek; many of them migrating from outside Jakarta and even from outside the island of Java as it was seen as such a promising job opportunity.  This created the issue of drivers that don’t have sufficient knowledge of the city. Besides having a complicated geography, Jakarta is also complex demographically. As the capital city it has been the center of economic activity and development and it is populated by diverse people from various economic classes, ethnicities and backgrounds (Adell 1999, 26). Although Gojek as a company has consistently claimed to set standards for their drivers by giving them training and educating them on how to use their smartphone, the internet and various applications, these problems and complaints remain to exist. The fact that there are a lot of low-income migrants in Jakarta (Kooy & Bakker 2008, 383) that might not have knowledge of the city nor have the technological skills to improve their understanding of its complexity.

Indeed, as Salim and Haque argue (2015), cities are complex, dynamic and messy. Thus, to deal with this messiness, I argue that understanding the dynamic of mobility in urban Jakarta is an urgent issue. Mobility is not simply about moving from one place to another; it involves social, cultural and historical meanings for each person and group (Dourish, et al 2008, 102). In addition to that, Salim and Haque also point that real world application of urban computing should involve understanding of ‘all types of human in the loop’ (2015, 32). Gojek then has to involve not only urban middle class as the potential consumer of their service in its research, but also low-income migrants as their partners.

Gojek vs Ojek: The Ignored Cultural Aspect of ICT
Another aspect of ICT development, particularly in urban computing, that failed to be captured by Gojek was cultural dimension. These two years, there have been cultural tensions between Gojek drivers and the traditional Ojek; the drivers who have no affiliation with any company and work on their own. At first, Gojek’s arrival in the middle of uncertain transportation system in Indonesia gained praise; marked by the fantastic profit the company earned ever since it was released. But not long after that, a series of unexpected conflicts took place between these two groups. From serious fights between the Ojek and Gojek to huge protests, traditional Ojek complained about how the emergence of this application has disrupted their jobs and from their point of view, built unfair competition (Budiari & Amirio 2016). Perhaps, not many people predicted and expected this conflict to happen after seeing how great Gojek was doing after its release. This could clearly be seen by how the Indonesian government prepared no anticipation in either guidelines nor rules regarding infusion of technology in this field (Budiari & Amirio 2016). The same thing happened to Gojek which at that time seemed to be struggling to cope with these conflicts. Interestingly, they asked the traditional Ojek drivers to instead join them; convincing them to use the latest technology and gain a higher income. This can be seen in Gojek’s official poster right after the protests. Gojek’s reactions, I argue, clearly reflected how they simplified technology as solution to complex problems. In brief, they wrote:

‘Gojek do not support any violent actions. The most important thing is we never intended to compete with Ojek Pangkalan [traditional Ojek Drivers]. With technology, we help drivers to get more orders and receive more income. We came to help you develop…. We call all Ojek Pangkalan to join us and enjoy the benefits by being our Gojek Drivers’

What we can learn from the case above is how culture is indeed an important yet often ignored dimension of urban computing. Amanda Williams & Paul Dourish (2006, 39) note that a city is culturally and historically specific. Diversity of individuals and groups contributes to the way people make sense of places and their interconnectedness. Power relations also play a role in this process (Williams & Dourish 2006, 39). While it could turn out that the emergence of Gojek benefits commuters as well as traditional ojek drivers economically, Gojek’s developers should not have underestimated the “Ojek” occupation as just a way of making money. In Indonesia, Ojek as an occupation itself is closely tied to the concept of locality to a certain place; a group of Ojek drivers belongs to a specific location (Thorburn 2002, 622). Traditional ojek drivers work with their own unwritten rules depending on their group. They have their own mechanisms in which they can’t disrupt other group’s areas; a completely different principal with Gojek’s ubiquitous concept: anytime anywhere. Hence, instead of seeing traditional ojek’s reaction as merely violence and ignorance, I would propose to look at deeper cultural and historical meanings of places and mobility to them.

This case perfectly illustrates what Dourish, et al (2008) pointed out as narrowness of mobile & urban computing application. The system designers often perceive the city as merely a site of consumption and a problematic place to be overcome by technology. With this simplified perception, urban computing designers might unconsciously exclude some groups of people from the radar; just like these traditional Ojek drivers who had their own ways of making sense of Ojek, mobility and the city.

‘… they fail to acknowledge the lived practice of urban life, and in particular its diversity and the different urban experiences of different groups. In focusing on abstracted rather than concrete behaviors, on individual consumption rather than collective sociality, and on the pairing between discretionary mobility and urban consumption, this application paints a very partial view of urban living that leaves many people out of the picture’ (Dourish, et al 2008, 101)

Location based application of Transportation Services and their Future Possibilities 
In contrast to Salim & Haque’s argument that design of products and application is often driven by technological opportunities rather than the underlying needs (2015, 32), I would argue that Gojek initially developed a brilliant idea that combined technological opportunities with the city’s needs. Gojek captured mobility not only as a problem but rather as what William & Dourish (2006, 104) referred to as a new opportunity. Yet, in respect to Gojek’s contribution to provide more job opportunities and to help people go mobile around the city, I would argue that its early development has tended to treat the city as a consumption site and perceive its application as technical solution for the traffic problems. As explained in two previous sections, Gojek did not fully prepare for the possibility of infrastructural distraction. Furthermore, it has failed to acknowledge the complexity of diverse people and cultural tensions in a city.

As for its further development, these applications would have to reflect on the problems so far; to develop their own technical application aspect and to widen their perspective in seeing dynamics of culture and people. Now that these applications are developed in other cities outside Jakarta, developer has to carefully learn the context of each different city. One thing I would mark is Kitchin’s point on ICT and its ability to distract us from the real problems (2014, 9). As urban people now rely on location-based applications as their solution to a messy transportation system, this kind of application should not be treated as a real solution. The root problems of this issue lie on structural level of transportation & infrastructure in Indonesia; something that has to also be taken care of by the government. If we are distracted for too long, otherwise, brilliant idea involving ICT would only make problems of transportation system more bearable for people; we are going to be used to it. Furthermore, it can instead create management of manifestations of real problems (Kitchin 2014, 9).


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Budiari, Indra, and Dyland Amirio. 2016. Jakarta Post: Transport conflict widens. March 16. Accessed 30 1, 2017.

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