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How Should Cities Handle New Mobility Data? NACTO Has Ideas

Two associations with expertise in government and mobility have jointly issued a document to answer cities’ questions about how to negotiate contracts with mobility companies, and what to do with the resulting data.

With the popularity of new urban mobility options like ride shares, e-bikes and scooters has come a torrent of related data, and cities are trying to figure out what to do with it. Partnerships between cities and companies like Uber, Lyft, Bird, Lime and Waze have sought to put this data to use for urban planning and other purposes, but up to this point there has been no road map of best practices for them to follow.

Now there is, thanks to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), an association of 82 major cities and transit agencies in North America, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA), an organization of local government attorneys. This week NACTO and IMLA jointly unveiled a 14-page document, titled "Managing Mobility Data," intended to be a framework for cities and their private partners to share, protect and manage mobility data.

The document describes “mobility data” as information generated by activity, events or transactions using digitally enabled mobility devices or services. This includes GPS trace data, individual trip records, telemetry data and user identification, among other things.

With the basic goal of improving public agencies’ access to information and user privacy at the same time, NACTO and IMLA recommend four underlying principles for managing data:

  1. Public good — government agencies should collect data from private partners in order to improve safety, equity and mobility on their streets and sidewalks. Specific recommendations for cities include requiring access to a company’s data as a prerequisite for operating in that city, expanding in-house staff to analyze the data, updating the strategic plan with respect to insurance and safeguards, and creating a standardized open-data format, as Los Angeles did with its Mobility Data Specification.
  2. Protected — geospatial mobility data should be treated like personally identifiable information, in policy and practice. Recommendations include updating data policies regularly, updating privacy and insurance policies, requiring companies to prove they’re in compliance with laws and industry standards and coordinating with neighboring cities.
  3. Purposeful — cities should be clear about what they aim to learn from mobility data. Recommendations include basing data requests on underlying questions they want to answer, developing the ability to audit the data internally, making sure they can retroactively request data if need be, and negotiating with mobility companies to update their user agreements as needed.
  4. Portable — as long as requirements for protection are met, cities should have open data-sharing agreements that allow them to own, transform and share data without restriction. Recommendations include using open standards when possible, reviewing privacy policies with vendors to make sure they’re safe, and doing due diligence when choosing a vendor or platform for data management.
Kate Fillin-Yeh, director of strategy for NACTO, told Government Technology the document is the result of several meetings between NACTO’s 71 city transportation department members and 11 transit agency members since November, combined with input from IMLA.

“With data … there’s a lot happening that’s very similar in multiple cities at the same time,” she said. “The new services are producing a lot of data, they’re operating in multiple cities at the same time, so the cities are learning together and can learn from each other.”

A news release from NACTO includes statements of endorsement from the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, who is also the NACTO president; the general counsel and executive director of IMLA; the chief of strategy and innovation for the Seattle Department of Transportation; the CTO/CIO for the New York City Department of Transportation; and a policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology.

“The privacy issues posed by geolocation information cannot be underestimated, and NACTO and IMLA’s policy guidance is timely and essential as cities and companies gather more and more data about how individuals go about their days,” said Joseph Jerome, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology, in a statement. “All entities that collect geolocation data need to acknowledge their responsibility to protect this information. NACTO and IMLA offer useful recommendations for cities thinking about what technical and policy guardrails to put in place around mobility data, ensuring the ability to use information while maintaining critical privacy protections.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.