Scooter Rides Have Turned Into a Data Privacy Issue for Cities
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Every time someone rides a shared scooter in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or one of dozens of cities around the world, whatever company operates the vehicle takes note of where they went and how they got there, then sends that information to local officials. The idea is to allow cities to keep tabs on how well scooter companies are adhering to regulations—such as commitments to serve low-income neighborhoods—or to get info on where to plan future bike lanes.
Local governments see controlling such data as key to rebalancing the power dynamics with private mobility companies. The sudden emergence of ride-hailing left private companies such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. in charge of huge troves of data, which at times were used to thwart regulators, as with Uber’s Greyball project. Officials in LA wanted the government to exert more control over bike- and scooter-sharing services when they took off in 2018. That year, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation issued permits with strict rules that required data sharing via new open source software; dozens of other cities adopted a similar approach.
The following year, LA established the Open Mobility Foundation as a forum where local officials and private companies could collaborate on mobility data sharing, with the assumption that such information should be seen as a public resource. If data are collected and uploaded in the same format, cities can more easily apply uniform requirements and work together on regulations.
Critics immediately raised privacy concerns. Uber refused to comply with LADOT’s data collection regulations then sued the agency after it suspended the company’s scooter-sharing permit. (Uber dropped its suit after selling off its bike- and scooter-sharing operations in 2020.) The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation also sued in 2020, alleging that the data collection requirements constituted an unreasonable search and that “LADOT has never articulated an adequate or reasonable justification for the collection of such sensitive location information en masse.” A judge dismissed the case earlier this year; the ACLU and the EFF are appealing.
Concerns are also being raised within the coalition, according to emails obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek through a public records request. Changes to the collection standard were expanding the scope of sensitive data without adding more safeguards, wrote John Clary, a senior supervisor of data and technology services for the city of Austin, in a July email to Robert Spillar, the director of the city’s transportation department.
Austin, a key market for mobility companies, quietly dropped out of the Open Mobility Foundation in August. “We know that the OMF is also concerned about personal privacy and transparency, but it is clear that OMF’s vision for managing shared mobility services and these issues has diverged significantly from our own,” Spillar wrote to the foundation on Aug. 5.
Broad tension remains over who should handle data unleashed by sensor-equipped vehicles and devices, according to Molly Turner, a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “Technology may have made it easier to measure urban life, but it doesn’t mean we’ve reached a collective agreement about what aspects of urban life should be measured, or by whom,” says Turner, an expert in urban-focused startups who’s an adviser to Spin, a scooter-sharing company that’s part of the OMF.
The involvement of private entities in an ostensibly civic project has added another layer of intrigue. When Los Angeles began its work in early 2018, it hired tech consulting firm Ellis & Associates to help develop the mobility data standard. Ellis & Associates was later acquired by Lacuna Technologies Inc., a newly incorporated startup whose business was to sell cities consulting and software services. Lacuna, which had yet to announce its existence publicly, helped finance the OMF and recruited other cities and companies to join the consortium.
Critics, including Lacuna’s competitors, complained that the company didn’t disclose its commercial interests in helping cities regulate mobility operators. “The lines between LADOT, Ellis & Associates, and Lacuna are completely blurred,” Clary wrote in July.
In a phone interview, Clary declined to elaborate. Jascha Franklin-Hodge, OMF’s executive director, says Austin is the only city that has left the consortium, whose membership has grown 30% this year. He dismissed concerns about conflicts of interest. Kate Wood, Lacuna’s chief marketing officer, said in an email that Ellis & Associates was “to continue its work supporting LADOT and the city’s efforts to advance transportation technology.”
Although Los Angeles started with scooter sharing, its ambitions are far broader. The city is seeking to add taxis and sidewalk robots, and eventually even drones and autonomous vehicles, to the types of transportation it tracks. New technology and climate concerns are likely to cause fundamental changes in the ways people get around cities, and planners are going to need “unfettered data” about those changes to deal with safety, equity, quality of life, and other issues, says Connie Llanos, LADOT’s chief of staff and assistant general manager. “We need tools like this,” she says.
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