Delivery Drivers Are Using Grey Market Apps to Make Their Jobs Suck Less


On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

The McDonald’s on Jalan Salemba Raya, Jakarta’s crowded main thoroughfare, is a magnet for food delivery orders. On any given day, a dozen or so app-based delivery drivers—locally called ojol—wait in the parking lot. Inch by inch, they try to move as close as they can to the center of the lot, desperate to have the matching algorithms recognize their proximity and assign them an order. 

But even more drivers are there virtually, using GPS-spoofing apps to position themselves right in the center of the McDonald's lot while they physically wait under nearby shelters. Using these unofficial apps, known as tuyul, drivers can set their GPS pins at the optimal location they would like orders from, without having to physically drive there.      

In Jakarta, these kinds of unauthorized apps are a common tool-of-the-trade among app drivers working for Gojek, a $10 billion delivery and transport "super app" that is the Indonesian equivalent of Postmates, Apple Pay, Venmo, and Uber. Though Indonesia is by far its biggest market, Gojek operates in more than 200 cities in Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand.

“These are people in need who have to hold on to their jobs on difficult streets," one driver told Motherboard, explaining why drivers resort to using these apps. "They are not doing this for fun but because they have no other option.” 

Like many drivers interviewed, the driver asked not to be identified, fearing loss of work and retaliation by Gojek (The experiences ojol drivers have had with Gojek were collected both as part of my dissertation research at MIT and then later, for this story.)

Over the last six years, a burgeoning underground market for unauthorized, third-party Gojek apps has emerged. Named after a child-like spirit in Indonesian folklore that helps his human master earn money by stealing, each tuyul app responds to specific needs of drivers to help make their jobs less miserable. 

For instance, when older drivers complained they could not read important details of a matched order because the text was too small, a homebrewed application came into the market which magnified the destination, fare and distance of each order offered. This feature eventually spun out into apps that allowed "automatic bidding": each order would be accepted as it was offered, removing the hassle of looking at the phone. To give drivers more control over the orders offered and to avoid rejection-associated penalties, some apps allowed drivers to set filters for order characteristics—setting the maximum distance and minimum pay, for example. 

The GPS-spoofing apps remain the most popular type of tuyul apps, with some having more than 500,000 downloads on the Google Play app store. 

A crowd of Gojek delivery drivers wait for orders on their motorbikes. Photo by Rida Qadri

After Gojek's app was launched in 2015, many drivers needed help with small technical glitches and app malfunctions. Drivers who were more tech-savvy started helping other drivers with technical support. Eventually, these drivers began being known as "IT Jalanan"—or "IT of the Road"—creating a form of localized tech support that was easier to access than Gojek’s own tech support. 

“We don’t have to go to the [Gojek] office and only for a small fee we get help wherever," one ojol driver told Motherboard. Eventually, small tech support tasks like factory resets, reboots, and GPS fixes led to a variety of unofficial apps for varying driver needs. Another driver noted the ease with which IT Jalanan fixes problems and innovates: "Even though it's illegal, the IT of the streets is very agile and smart—it makes our lives easier," the driver said.

These apps can be downloaded in various places. Some app developers have listed them on Google Play. Others have websites where drivers can download the application file directly, and a much larger proportion are sold directly through driver groups on WhatsApp and Telegram. There are two options for payment: a single payment with no "post-sale care," or a monthly membership fee which gives the driver access to an online group for technical support and updates. 

Extensive manuals are shared on how to prepare an Android phone for the unofficial apps. Instructions include how to gain root access on phones, clearing the device's cache, and downloading a host of other applications which prevent detection by Gojek's system. If help is needed with any of these technical requirements, drivers can ask other technically-savvy drivers or get support from the developer. 

While Gojek has constantly tried to ban tuyul, drivers who use the apps argue tuyul helps them do their jobs better, and are better designed to help them tackle the problems they regularly face as drivers. 

Screenshots of unauthorized apps used by Gojek delivery drivers, which allow them to spoof GPS location and filter orders.

Take the GPS-spoofing apps. In a crowded city like Jakarta, the platform’s decision to match drivers based on spatial proximity erroneously assumes that drivers can simply show up and wait in high demand areas. “We can’t wait outside malls, we can’t wait in parking lots, we can’t wait on [the] side of the roads, then how do we get orders?” another driver told Motherboard. 

By prioritizing proximity in matching drivers with orders, the algorithms push drivers to get closer to hotspots of demand. When that's not physically possible, it forces drivers to use clever hacks around this problem. Another driver who spoke to Motherboard often waits outside major train stations in Jakarta, and said that jostling for space with hundreds of commuters, taxi drivers, and street vendors doesn’t make for a pleasant experience for anyone. “Sometimes there are so many ojol drivers outside the train station that their queues take up the whole road," the driver said. "That is unfair to us and the public, preventing cars from passing."

Spending hours sitting on a stationary bike in parking lots is also uncomfortable, particularly in Jakarta’s climate, where rain is never far away. Therefore, many drivers argue that allowing them to bid for orders without needing to be in a precise location helps everyone. 

Helpful as they may be, the unauthorized apps open up drivers to a host of risks. For one, there is no way for drivers to verify whether the services they pay for will actually work, and there's no telling when Gojek will ban the use of an app they purchased. Since tuyul developers can earn millions of rupiah ($1 is roughly 14,500 rupiah), it is in their interest to hype up their products and charge high membership fees. 

Drivers have also used GPS-spoofing apps to create fraudulent orders, called "opik" (a play on the phrase "order fictive"). By creating a fake digital GPS trace, they can indicate to the platform that they completed an order without ever moving. Rings of drivers who have made millions of rupiah scamming Gojek’s system have been discovered and arrested in Jakarta.

Gojek has implemented a zero tolerance policy in response to the GPS-spoofing apps, and the company even runs campaigns to discourage drivers from using them. Drivers have been warned that anyone detected to be using tuyul apps will be suspended permanently. Gojek's security system has also improved over time, finding new ways to detect the use of unauthorized apps and rooted phones. 

Gojek could not be reached for comment on this story.

But while tuyul apps have become harder to download and use, drivers' lived experiences and the conditions which pushed them to download the apps in the first place have not changed. Some drivers would like to put an end to this cat-and-mouse game, and have Gojek recognize that the adversarial relationship doesn't benefit the company or ojol drivers. One of these groups is Gojek on Twitter (GOT), a prominent driver community aiming to make sure “drivers are not slaves of the algorithm.” GOT are like the influencers of the driver world; its founders have collectively amassed more than 50,000 followers on Twitter.  Though they disagree that tuyul are only used to cheat the system, GOT founders understand the double bind drivers face when using tuyul: they reduce hurdles drivers face in their jobs, but their use risks suspension while also giving an unfair advantage to drivers who are willing to bend the rules. GOT does not advise drivers to use tuyul apps, but understands why people would want to. 

A founding member of GOT, who uses the online pseudonym Liam, proposes a system that could be a win-win. Gojek could officially allow drivers to place their GPS spot in areas within a 1-kilometer radius of their actual position. He argues that on a motorbike it would only take a minute or two to arrive at the order location from such a short distance away. Gojek could then ensure that drivers don’t place their GPS position any further than this radius, which would cut down on fake orders. Drivers would also be able to indicate that they actually want to accept orders from that area, a much stronger signal than just physical presence. 

But for this system to work, Liam says, customers would need to change their expectations away from instant gratification. “The customer attitude [is] now, now, now," Liam told Motherboard. "If a driver is two minutes late, they blow up.”

Despite Gojek's adversarial relationship with tuyul, the company has benefited by adopting some of the features originally created by unauthorized apps. For instance, the "automatic bidding" app drivers had developed was introduced into the official Gojek app through a new feature called "autobid." Gojek also briefly introduced the ability for drivers to filter orders, but according to drivers removed the feature when too many drivers started filtering for specific types of orders. While Gojek adopting driver-developed app features shows its responsiveness to driver needs, it also comes with the fear of drivers losing agency over how and how long they can use the features.   

The experiences of Indonesia's ojol drivers are not unique. Across the world, app-based workers are precariously employed via algorithmic systems that give them little control over their daily work, forcing them to constantly fight for agency with tricks and hacks. In that sense, tuyul app developers are responding to segments of the driver population that Gojek either does not reach out to, or hears about too late. 

In other words, they are doing the same thing that causes startups to be hailed as innovative disruptors. After all, Gojek, too, was once just a startup, accused of cheating the system while claiming to make the jobs of motorbike drivers easier and more efficient—why is it any different when drivers try to do the same?