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Cities Have New Tool to Improve Transportation Data Privacy

The Mobility Data Collaborative, in partnership with the Future of Privacy Forum, has created an assessment tool to help cities and other organizations protect the data collected within the transportation sector.

A person paying for a ride on an e-scooter with their smartphone.
New forms of mobility, and the growth of movement and other data generated and collected by the thousands of bikes, scooters, ride-hailing vehicles and even delivery bots, has led to new concerns around personal privacy.

As such, the Mobility Data Collaborative — made up of public- and private-sector organizations, in partnership with the Future of Privacy Forum — has developed a new tool to help cities navigate the shifting world of transportation data.

“The main goal of this is to enable mobility data sharing, but in a responsible way that takes into consideration individual privacy, which may or may not be regulated by privacy laws, depending on the jurisdiction,” said Chelsey Colbert, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum. “It also takes into consideration community interests and community equities, and encourages that transparency to the public.”

The Mobility Data Sharing Assessment (MDSA) functions as a form of operator’s manual to offer guidance and resources to organizations collecting and analyzing mobility data.

“Our approach was: this is the reality, this data is valuable. It’s really wanted by a lot of different organizations. At the same time, it’s sensitive,” Colbert explained. “But what can we do to provide that practical, pragmatic set of resources that enables that sharing, but puts in some guardrails, puts in some guidance for organizations to consider.”

The proliferation of mobility providers has accelerated the need by cities to both manage and integrate these systems into a comprehensive transportation ecosystem.

Pittsburgh, Pa., recently launched Move PGH, a mobility-as-a-service initiative that that brings together various mobility providers and modes under one system. The idea is to make it easier for residents and others to move through the city using all of the different transportation modes available.

“You had all of these somewhat siloed, but adjacent, systems. But you really didn’t have an integrated and holistic system. They weren’t tied together. They weren’t working together as a system,” reflected Karina Ricks, director of the Deptartment of Mobility and Infrastructure in Pittsburgh, offering the dilemma facing many cities. “It was left to the user to cobble together the trip that they would take.”

And as cities begin the process of developing mobility-as-a-service programs like Move PGH, they will likely need some guidance around how to manage the large amounts of transportation-related data they are inherently being handed, said Colbert.

“I definitely see this as something that’s going to grow, and more people are going to want to have access to this data,” she added. “So, I really hope this is a first step in helping to facilitate that, but also considering privacy and other ethical considerations.”

Harriet Tregoning, director of the New Urban Mobility alliance (NUMO), also underscored the emerging mobility landscape during a recent “listening session” organized by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

“Understand that transit is a part of people’s mobility, but may not be all of it,” said Tregoning. NUMO is a member of the Mobility Data Collaborative.

“Agencies need to think about all the people that use transit, and how they can make all their travels smoother, easier and more affordable, through partnerships and other mobility providers,” she added.

And similarly, transit agencies and city officials need to think about how to ensure the data privacy of this expanding cross-section of transportation users, said Colbert.

“The way that I see mobility data and mobility data sharing, this is definitely something that’s going to grow in more importance,” she added. “You can’t escape the importance of data. It’s really the foundation for mobility innovation going forward.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.