Why The Argument Over Ownership Of Mobility Data Is Both Silly And Essential
by Gabe Klein
Climate change on-one hand…and data sharing, security and privacy on the other, may seem like problems that exist in distant worlds from each other, but let’s take a harder look. They are both existential threats to our way of life; physical destruction of our ecosystem, or cloud-based destabilization of our political system and polarization of populations (just to start). In the world of transportation, small, electric vehicles could be a lifeline to lower CO2 emissions in our densest urban places, but data protocols and associated misunderstandings threaten to derail the scaling of these crucial solutions that would provide people with lower cost, sustainable transportation solutions from private sector companies, into publicly run cities.
Today, the U.S. Conference of Mayors will pass a resolution “Supporting the Development and Adoption of an Open Source, Mobility-Focused Platform for Management of Cities’ Public Right-of-Way,” or The Open Mobility Foundation and the Mobility Data Specification.
How did we get here?
When Google introduced Gmail 15 years ago, on April 1st, 2004, they started a data revolution; beta-testing and quickly proving that people would gladly trade access to their most personal information in exchange for very high quality, and free services. I am not judging btw, this was a brilliant bet and has changed the workplace in innumerable ways, spawning dozens of new verticals including social media and thousands of start-up businesses with free-to-consumer, ad-based and data monetization revenue streams, from Facebook to Waze. What was not contemplated was the Pandora’s box of geolocational data + first-party and third-party data targeting, and in-app monetization (what apps in 2004??), the resulting data privacy issues, surreptitious breaches and uses of 3rd party data including the 2016 election fiasco… that would slowly take hold over the next two decades.
In 2019, we seem to take for granted that data produced by citizens, but on a private platform, is then “owned” by the company that grants access to the citizen and provides them a service. In the simplest of terms, in a moment of extreme, and wonderful innovation, Silicon Valley assumed ownership of a powerful asset. I don’t fault them for this, particularly when you are pioneering change in soon-to-be very competitive industries, and no one is really paying attention. It’s much like finding a new island and planting a flag and claiming ownership as countries did in days past. Having recognized that, and all of the unintended consequences in the last few years, it is now time for a new approach to “data stewardship” vs. “ownership, and as the EU’s GDPR shows, the time has come and industry, local and national governments and NGOs recognize this too.
The Mobility Opportunity and Challenge at Local Government’s Door
2018 was the “year of the scooter” for mobility enthusiasts, as the latest transportation craze took hold and a net-positive one at that… millions of trips that could have been taken by car, ridehail (car) or other means, were taken by small, electric, 2-wheeled scooters or bicycles. Like Uber /Lyft and 1st-gen dockless bikes before them, many of the companies dumped copious amounts of product on the streets to test the waters and see how local jurisdictions would react. Unlike Uber/Lyft, the companies owned the asset and could not utilize the personal ownership model to provide obfuscation of ownership in an unmarked vehicle… and cities quickly realized that the ridehail model was an anomaly, not the norm. If these “micro-mobility” companies wanted to operate in public space, they would have to work with local government, and this is a good thing if we want a long-term sustainable business and transportation option for citizens.
The public-private balance of power is a very important piece of maintaining good relations between the government and private sides, as well as maintaining a relentless focus on the public’s/customers interest. People I like and respect have made the argument to me in multiple forums that “local government does not have the bandwidth or resources to manage complex data vs. the private sector.” To which I respond in a few ways:
- This is demonstrably false if we look at history (medical records, tax returns, social security numbers, etc.) coupled with regular breaches of private systems
- If you are right, we are in tremendous trouble as a society
- A third-party organization is needed to support the development of open-sourced software that provides scalable mobility solutions for cities
In June of 2018, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation released its Mobility Data Specification (MDS) API standard (application programming interface) between shared scooter or e-bike providers and the city, with the purpose of standardizing basic data exchange regarding vehicle starting point, end point, and trip route in 100 foot increments. Our firm, Cityfi had the opportunity to work with the city, interface with the private firms and see behind the scenes as to how this was rolling out and being received, and it was fascinating.
Pretty universally, and because the LA had also released a “Strategic Implementation Plan,” initially focused on autonomous vehicles that referenced a future state that could include some level of “routing” and “control” over the transportation system exerted by government (as is done today in analog fashion), there was a fair amount of palpable fear and uncertainty on the part of the private sector, particularly the service providers and their representatives in the data privacy world. Some of this is legitimate, I mean, how often does local government stand up and assume a posture that we will ‘take control of the system’ for the societal good? Ironically, the language that had been used was cribbed directly from the 1980’sATSAC traffic signal system in LA, (Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control (ATSAC) System) which was instituted to do just that btw, but added a “big brother” vibe to the storyline in 2019. Data privacy concerns were suddenly being bandied about Twitter and other venues with grave concerns being expressed by companies and privacy advocacy groups about the potential to re-identify individuals by triangulating personally identifiable information, also based on cities voluntarily publishing detailed individual trip data (which cities should not). In the meantime, 75+ cities and countless mobility providers embraced and adopted MDS as a standard for data exchange facilitating information to turn into scale of service.
My feeling then, and my feeling now, is that this is obfuscating what’s really important. First, a trove of primary data is generated by citizens and fed into a private companies database. A small derivative data feed relating to vehicle origin and destination is being requested by cities for the purposes of managing the system, regulating safe operation for citizens, and enforcing adherence to regulations prescribed by local legislators on equity of access and geographic limitations and caps.
If this is some terrible breach of a citizens privacy, why is the generation /origination of this data in the private sector, and limitless monetization and sharing with other private companies… just fine? A recent Washington Post piece found that in one week, an iPhone had over 5400 “app trackers “ guzzling data including the user’s real-time location. And this from Apple, a woke company that proclaims responsible data sharing and privacy to be job #1.
The Real Deal (In My View)
So let me try to break this down to its simplest form and separate the hype & fear from the reality:
- National governments and local governments are not the same, and not seen as equal threats to individual autonomy by citizens. States are also not as trusted as municipal government. Just look at the polling data.
- There is significant mistrust of the private sector in terms of the collection and sharing of personal data, and some transportation companies have the lowest ratings by the public.
- New mobility businesses will ultimately not be able to scale to their mainstream potential (like the personally owned automobile has) if cities are not permitted to move in lockstep into a digital future that allows them to provide their core functions of safe operations and consumer protection.
- Cities need detailed data about mobility operations at a vehicular (vs. person) scale. Is this a threat to the businesses? No, quite the contrary, but it is a threat to the culture and model of companies that do not understand the mandate of local government or the concept of local democracy as being the most accountable representatives of citizens.
- There is a difference between — shared mobility and owned mobility data outputs. Cities are not interested in ingesting data on single occupancy vehicles and their drivers, but they are on shared vehicle movements and travel patterns including for individual consumer safety and protection, with data standards and protocols in place for aggregation when needed and data disposal post utilization.
- There is a difference between using data for planning purposes vs. real-time operations of the system. We are moving into a new era with micro mobility, drones, autonomous vehicles and we operate primarily on an analog system of signals and stop signs. If we want to innovate and scale on the private side, we cannot be limited by a byzantine set of regulations or 20th-century infrastructure.
- State preemption of local control almost never has the intended outcome for businesses or citizens that are desired by the companies that push for it. AB-1112 in California is an example of a bill that was intended to create some reasonable baseline standardization, and has spiraled out of control into a prescriptive data screed and if passed, will kill the growth of micro-mobility in California just as national 5G preemption has had the unintended consequence of holding back the Telco’s from bringing us amazing 5G speeds in a timely fashion (further, MDS is being widely adopted in Europe, where they have GDPR coming into play)
- We need to move past the double-standard that approves of no-holds-barred innovation from the private sector, but complains when cities move too slow (I complain about this) and then also complains when the same cities try to respond at private sector speed (This btw is often because a companies business model and growth plan depends on catching cities flat footed initially, and then the same companies complain later when they need government to scale and the response is mistrust and a vehicle cap).
- Data privacy is absolutely crucial, and a very serious set of complex issues, but it also needs to be weighed against public safety, individual rider security and protections of civil rights. Further, the private sector does not have a corner on this market or deciding what people need or want. Ultimately people generating the data should and will be in the driver’s seat, as they are beginning to be under GDPR in the EU.
What is the solution?
The public and private sectors are merely stewards of individuals data and need to take to heart that they are both there to work for citizens and the greater good of society while taking note that local government is the most accountable and trusted by citizens in this equation. The Open Mobility Foundation, with a big tent for many other organizations and entities, is the beginning of a public-private solution; an international coalition of cities, governed by cities, and partnered with the private sector can assure standardization of data practices that help private sector providers to scale faster, bringing economically and environmentally sustainable transport solutions to people. But I am also here and now calling for an end to the pretense that there is some Beijing style authoritarian plan on the part of city governments that want detailed trip information from shared mobility operators to manage the transportation system in the 21stcentury. We know that data collection at its origination is where data protocols are most impactful. It is misleading, inflammatory and threatens to stifle innovation from startups and cities alike to claim that local government’s meager data requests pose a threat. More importantly, this approach continues the pattern of leaving fossil fuel companies as the biggest winners, a classic distraction technique while the planetary ecosystem falls apart. Public and private entrepreneurs know that we can do better.