Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Who Owns Your Mobility Data?

http://www.citylab.com; January 7, 2018


Hello Everyone:

Yours Truly is back from a restful three-day weekend.  What a weekend it was.  Where to begin? Oh right, the president's potty mouth exclamation on Thursday.  This was followed up by the president asking an aide what are they in response to being told that not all welfare recipients are African Americans.  Then there was the epic false alarm in Hawai'i. For 38 minutes, the good people of the State of Hawai'i thought their beloved home, and a popular tourist destination, was under nuclear missle attack.  Thankfully, it turned out to be a case of human error.  The person in charge of pushing the right buttons, mammothly failed at his or her task.  Although an article by Don Norman in today's Fast Company (fastcodesign.com; Jan. 16, 2018) blames faulty design for human error.  Where was the president?  You guess it, playing golf.  Real leadership (sarcasm alert).  Blogger had a chance to briefly chatted with someone on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, who told Yours Truly that it was the most terrifying 38 minutes of her life.  She thought the world was coming to end.  Rather than using his Twitter feed to re-assure the public that it was a false alarm, the first tweet issued by POTUS was on fake news.  The second tweet was more on topic.  After that weekend, Blogger needed the additional rest. Alright, on to today's subject: mobility data.

David Zipper asks in his CityLab article "Whom Owns Urban Mobility Data?" "How, exactly, should policy makers respond to the rapid rise of new private mobility services such as ride-sharing, dockless shared bicycles, and microtransit?"  Lyft, Zip Cars, bike sharing, and so forth have become facts of urban life.  Mr. Zipper argued in his article "Private Mobility Services Need To Share Their Data. Here's How" (citylab.com; July 2, 2017; date accessed Jan. 16, 2018) "in order to answer that question city leaders will need accurate and detailed information about all urban trips-however the traveler chose to get from one place to another."  That data needs to be shared by the private mobility companies, being used by a growing number of urban dwellers.

Last year was annus horribilis for private mobility services-just ask Uber.  Disastrous images (theguardian.com; Nov. 24, 2017;  date accessed Jan. 16, 2018) of dockless bicycles, tossed aside on the sidewalks in China, left American officials testing this model for bike sharing (nacto.org; Aug. 13, 2017; Jan. 16, 2018) madly dashing about to ensure that their cities avoid the same fate.  Let us not forget Uber's scarlet red-faced admission that it paid a $100,000 ransom (nytimes.com; Nov. 21, 2017; date access Jan. 16, 2018) to hackers who stole 57 million user account data, destroying the company's credibility as a guardian of passenger privacy.  Further, a widely share study, Disruptive Transportation: The Adoption, Utilization, and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States  (itspubs.ucdavis.edu; October 2017; date accessed Jan. 16, 2018), authored by researchers at the University of California-Davis "refuted several optimistic hypotheses about ride-hailing's societal benefits: It found that companies like Uber and Lyft are spurring urban congestion, siphoning public transit riders, and failing to entice many people to give up their cars."  No big surprise that public transit agencies, such as Washington D.C.'s WMATA (washingtonpost.com; Dec. 3, 2017; date accessed Jan. 16, 2018), have launched their own investigations to find out if declining ridership is linked to the growth of ride-hailing apps.

David Zipper writes, "Beyond these broad issues, there are a number of specific questions that can't be answered without access to trip information from Uber, Lyft, and Limebike,..."  Without this data, for example, it is difficult for policy wonks or the general public to decide if it is more beneficial to "convert a parking meter to a ride-hailing drop-off, or ensure pedestrians aren't obstructed by heaps of dockless bikeshare bikes on the sidewalk."  However, data transparency is not the mobility services' strong suit.  They generally have refused to open their data vaults to the public sector.

However, the line between public and private forms or urban transportation is beginning to blur. Mr. Zipper reports, "American transit agencies are partnering with ride-sharing companies to offer late-night service [blog.lyft.com; Oct. 18, 2017; date accessed Jan. 16, 2018], move people to bus or rail stations 9'first mile/last mile' solutions)  [Ibid], and manage paratransit [washingtonpost.com; Sept. 16, 2016; date accessed Jan. 16, 2018] for riders with limited mobility."  The ride-hailing company's partnership with the public transit agencies put them in an awkward position if they are forced to share data with the governments that pay for them.  Mr. Zipper recalls a Texas transit official say to a ride-hailing executive, 

If I'm paying you to move a passenger, the data for that passenger isn't yours...It's mine

Mr. Zipper asks, "When will policy makers be able to access the data they need to manage streets and sidewalks in the public interest, and how will they get it?"  It is a basic question and the answer may come in form of "a data exchange that anonymizes rider data and gives public experts (and perhaps academic and private ones too) the ability to answer policy questions."

This idea is gaining traction.  In 2016, the World Bank established an OpenTraffic project (worldbank.org; Dec. 19, 2016; date accessed Jan. 16, 2018), initially developed strategies to aggregate traffic information gathered from commercial fleets.  A small group of private companies-Grab and Easy Taxi-offered their support when OpenTraffic began.  This past autumn, the project was folded into SharedStreets (sharedstreets.io; date accessed Jan. 16, 2018), "a collaboration between the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the World Resource Institute, and the OCED's International Transportation Forum to pilot new ways of collection and sharing a variety of public and private transport data."  The founder of SharedStreets, Kevin Webb, forecasts a future where cities and private companies can use SharedStreets to remedy problems such as street safety, curb use, and congestion.

Mr. Zipper opines, "That's a laudable goal, by Shared Streets will have to solve several challenges in order to become a go-to resource."  Case in point, it is difficult to get the full picture of urban mobility unless big companies like Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing, Ofo, and Mobike get on board; thus far none of hem have pledged their support.  He also notes that "tech behemoths like Google and Apple-collectors of massive datasets about individuals' movement-can be involved."  Maybe they can still be a source of revenue that SharedStreets can mine ("at present the intiative is being incubated with philanthropic support")

Finally, there is the all important question of privacy.  Uber's hacking scandal severally damaged the popular ride-hailing company's credibility as a guardian of customer data, however, "new mobility services do have a point when they push back against handing over rider information to the government."  It is fair assume that some of customers will not be so excited at the prospect of public agencies accessing their personal ride information.

Mr. Webb said, "SharedStreets will handle those concerns by collecting aggregated data that is rich enough to allow for deep analysis while still hiding information about individual rides."  The new mobility service companies can take further steps to protect their riders by converting trip information to "synthetic populations" (staff.vbi.vt.edu; May 9, 2016 and July 10, 2016; date accessed Jan. 16, 2018) of artificial data predicated on rides people actually completed.

Nevertheless, [until] the new mobility service information comes, albeit aggregated, and possibly artificially modeled, there is a need to ensure its accuracy.  "After all, companies like Uber and Lyft have a vested interest in the question policymakers pose abut their impact on city streets.  Data validation-especially for modeled data-is crucial for such an exchange to be trusted."

Many unanswered questions still remain, but the movement to allow cities access to trip data is taking hold.  David Zipper states, "Indeed, it's hard to see how the elusive idea of a 'smart city' is attainable without shared set of facts about how people are moving within an urban area."  SharedStrees, along with a group of universities (uwtdc.org; date accessed Jan. 16, 2018), startups, and major tech companies are quietly developing methods to fill in the information gaps in the collective civic knowledge.  Mr. Zipper observes, "Most of those efforts aren't public yet, but I expect several to launch in 2018."  For those who subscribe to data-driven management of sidewalks and streets, it is reason to be excited and vigorously advocate for.