Portland, Replica Part Ways Over Data Privacy Concerns

Portland Metro, an elected planning body serving the greater Portland, Ore. region, is no longer working with movement data company Replica, due to disagreements around the level of data the company would share.

Various modes of travel in Portland, Ore.
Various modes of travel in Portland, Ore.
Shutterstock
Portland, Ore., has ended its partnership with transit data company Replica over a disagreement about data sharing.

Portland Metro, an elected regional government serving Portland, Ore., and 23 surrounding cities, began a pilot project with Replica in April 2019 to use de-identified movement data to gain deep insights into where transit riders are coming from, where they’re headed or even which bike paths are perceived as safe.

Replica was spun out of Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet company, in September 2019. Alphabet is the parent company for Google.

Officials with the company reported that Portland Metro had requested disaggregated, raw data — prior to it being processed into the de-identified “synthetic” data — which the company viewed as a compromise of user privacy. 

“And it’s not something we can do, from the position of privacy. This is a bit of the give and take. And I don’t know if it’s right or wrong,” said Nick Bowden, the CEO and founder of Replica. “And because it’s largely a self-policing environment, it comes back to the provider to really have clear, well-stated positions on the privacy side.”

Replica uses de-identified movement data (a process used to prevent the identification of someone) from about 5 percent of the population's mobile devices to glean information about travel patterns, and then creates a simulated model of travel with information about traveler demographics and the reason for the trip. It’s what Bowden describes as a “data platform for the built environment.” 

“We want to provide insight into not just mobility, but economic activity, changes in land-use, population, household demographics,” he said. 

Officials with Portland Metro declined to elaborate on the decision to not move forward with Replica. 

“After review of the draft data, Metro ended its relationship with Replica,” said Nick Christensen, public affairs specialist for Portland Metro in an email. “Metro did not pay Replica for any services. We wish Replica the best with its future work.”

The issue of data privacy and the challenge of remaining anonymous in a world where our every move can be tracked, analyzed and even monetized thanks to any number of smartphone apps has become an issue government at all levels is grappling with.

A federal court recently ruled the Los Angeles Department of Transportation can continue to use user-data related to real-time trips taken on e-scooters to fine tune transportation policy. Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft have been collecting deeply detailed data on users of these services since their inception. 

“I think the issue is certainly present,” said Bowden. 

“I would say, I think for a long time, cities have been put in a really precarious position by folks in the private sector,” he added, pointing to Uber as an example.

Cities and other public-sector organizations have responded by requiring transportation-related companies to turn over some of this data to, in part, better understand modern movement in cities, as well as regulate the emerging modes. However, these developments have opened any number of concerns around data privacy and individual autonomy, and whether the government should hold this data. 

“I think generally, privacy is certainly a thing that we talk about a lot. I don’t know that we’re quite there yet, where the folks in the public sector really understand the implications — like the risk implications of dealing with sensitive data — and that’s OK. This is a new thing.” 

In a recent interview with John Rossant, founder and CEO of the next-generation transportation think tank CoMotion, LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds said, collecting movement data “falls within the responsibilities and expectations that reasonable people have of government — especially in cities where questions over the right of way are becoming very complex and there is a need for government to insure that basic services are met.”

 

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 Sacramento.