The Battle of Los Angeles and the case for open transit data standards
The use and ownership of transit data is essential for both public transit optimization and the revenue growth of for-profit transit services. Which is exactly why it’s a big problem.
The first battle of Los Angeles was a false alarm. In February 1942, just 3 months after Pearl Harbour was attacked, an errant weather balloon set off a barrage of anti-aircraft fire over LA. Five deaths (three traffic fatalities, two heart attacks) were attributed to the panic and confusion. This incident loosely inspired the mediocre 2011 sci-fi war movie Battle: Los Angeles (and the less said about that, the better).
Perhaps a better analogue (or soundtrack) to the current conflict in the City of Angels is Rage Against the Machine’s 1999 (!) album, The Battle of Los Angeles (feel free to take a quick run through the nostalgia sprinkler, I’ll wait).
Notorious for having some of the worst traffic congestion in the world, Los Angeles’s Department of Transportation (LADOT) launched the MDS in 2018, a API data standard that gave the city and authorized partners the ability to access data from “shared use mobility providers” (APIs provide a developer-friendly method of accessing data, and are a popular method for standardizing integrations with 3rd parties).
The initial goal of the MDS initiative was to give the city a tool to monitor the use (and misuse) of dockless scooters, but the city has been clear they intend to extend the data sharing requirement to bike sharing, ride sharing services and ultimately, autonomous vehicles. LADOT’s initiative expanded last year when the MDS standard was adopted by the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF), a multi-city initiative to coordinate the development of open-source technology tools that improve how cities manage modern transportation infrastructure.
Canada’s recently launched Open City Network is aiming to do something similar north of the border. OCN is developing an ‘digital public works’ platform, an open-source civic technology infrastructure to support public and private interconnections within a regulated framework.
For civic leaders and community activists that have been paying attention, establishing firm but fair policies governing civic tech and citizen data are clearly needed. A protracted and contentious negotiation between the City of Toronto and Alphabet’s ‘smart cities’ arm Sidewalk Labs has put a spotlight on the dearth of municipal governance around collection and use of citizen data — the red blood cells of a smart city network (Alphabet pulled the project in May 2020 citing “economic uncertainty” that made the project unviable “without sacrificing core parts of the plan…to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community”).
In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, the board chair of Waterfront Toronto suggested private-sector actors like Sidewalk Labs are needed to motivate governments to tackle the hard questions of data collection and governance. “We have to think hard about technological innovation, or it will leave us behind” Stephen Diamond told the Globe. “Governments need to come to the table to address these questions.”
In Los Angeles, LADOT made it a requirement that all shared use mobility providers to provide the city with APIs that conform to the MDS transportation spec, and electric scooter companies Bird and Lime were among the first to comply. But Uber, who operates an e-scooter and bikeshare service under the Jump brand, is currently battling the city in court.
The ride share giant, notorious for flouting regulations and ignoring city regulators unwilling to ‘move fast and break things’, has argued what LADOT is asking for represents a huge invasion of privacy for its users. Uber claims providing LADOT with real-time data amounts to state surveillance of its customers: “…in this manner, LADOT could gather detailed information about a person, such as where they live and work, where they go for social or romantic interactions, and even what time they leave their office each day,” the complaint reads.
What LADOT and the city want is a way to better manage the complex and interconnected private and public transit methods that commuters use to get around. Knowing the start and end point of each bike, scooter and Uber car trip would help the city understand how the complex web of private services are working and ensure private operators are complying with terms of service (for example ensuring equal access to the service in all neighbourhoods, not just the most profitable ones).
What Uber wants is not exactly clear. It’s reasonable to assume that they don’t want to hand over data that the city can use against the company to increase oversight. Uber might simply be objecting to the request on some neo-libertarian principal, believing that cities have no business telling private companies what they can and can not do.
As the battle plays out in court, cities around the world will be watching the outcome. The last few years have seen a significant awakening of municipal governments to the smart cities movement, and the realization that if they don’t start laying the groundwork for governing big tech, they’ll soon cede control over all manner of city operations.
Uber’s playbook has been to drop into a market without so much as a heads up to city officials, then turn public opinion and a rapidly-growing customer base against anyone who (almost always unsuccessfully) tries to regulate the ridesharing behemoth. It’s an ugly strategy, but it works. And maybe it’s exactly what’s needed to motivate governments to think seriously and act quickly to create new standards for civic tech that will inevitably shape the world we all have to live in.
— RS, April 28, 2020