Data breaches and misuse of personal information became commonplace over the past few years.
So as mobility companies further blur the line between providing technology and transportation services, how they use the troves of data they collect on customers has become a growing concern among privacy advocates.
At TransportationCamp DC 2019, a new data standard that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation has developed, the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), helped to spark a conversation around the tension between cities and dockless mobility companies like Lime, Bird, and Jump.
Generally, public agencies feel the dockless companies are sandbagging information that could improve their transportation networks. Meanwhile, the companies feel overly villainized for not wholesale handing the personal information of their customers over to governments that are less able to protect the privacy of individuals.
Because MDS includes GPS traces of customer movement, representatives from dockless companies argued that sharing such comprehensive data with public agencies – even those outside of law enforcement – would put people at risk due to the ease with which anyone interested enough could pair GPS traces to other public information to identify people. This includes providing law enforcement with the ability to over-police already vulnerable populations such as undocumented migrants, and also for individuals to prey on customers by taking advantage of public-information laws that force agencies to share their data.
In addition, some in the session argued that companies are not as greedy with the data as many people think. They simply think it’s counterproductive to hand over vast quantities of data to cities that have not yet figured out what they want to do with all of that data. Until an agency can articulate what they want to answer, digging through the information will drown them instead of help.
Learning as they go
In contrast, those who argued for more open-data sharing with cities suggested that they and their communities have a vested interest in understanding precisely where people go with dockless vehicles. Doing so helps officials know how to wrangle the vehicles and address the backlash a few outspoken residents have about those options.
This is especially important for efforts to strategically place resources like scooter corrals based on demand. One participant provided the example of residents complaining that scooters “litter” the sidewalk on their block, and knowing just where these end up, if they do at all, would allow an agency to carve out a space to clean up said litter.
Though cities originally struggled to articulate what they hoped to discover with dockless data, they are beginning to learn as they dig around, and are developing policies that address the uncertainty of future micromobility. In addition, using the data has helped forward-thinking agencies become more articulate about the questions they hope the data will allow them to solve.
A third path
The idea of using third parties to host and analyze data surfaced multiple times in a session focused on data sharing. There are already companies and universities that act in this capacity, such as Populus, which led this discussion, or the Center for Urban Transportation Research and Small Urban and Rural Transit Center on the university side. Formalizing this relationship could protect users while still answering the questions cities have.
Though the sides remained wary of each other, they managed to bring the conversation around to the overarching idea of who the best steward of valuable, sensitive data could be. Since there are very real privacy concerns and very real benefits to letting public agencies work with hyper-specific mobility data, companies and cities are interested in finding a way to press forward.
Photo of a woman riding a Lime scooter in Columbus, Ohio by Joe Flood on Flickr’s Creative Commons.