Cities, mobility companies agree to 7 guidelines to keep rider data private

Uber, Lyft, Spin, Bird, Lime and other mobility companies have been working with cities to develop a set of guidelines over how to protect riders’ data.

The Privacy Principles for Mobility Data, which were presented at the annual North American Bikeshare & Scootershare Association (NABSA) conference on Thursday, marks a new level of cooperation between cities and companies that have previously clashed over transit data.

The guidelines were developed through a collaboration of more than 20 cities, privacy advocates, technology companies, mobility service providers and organizations like NABSA, the New Urban Mobility Alliance (NUMO) and Open Mobility Foundation (OMF).

New technologies have both enabled and enhanced the transportation ecosystem, and with those new technologies come scores of data on how people move. Cities, understandably, want a piece of that data so they can create policies and regulations that are informed by how private businesses are operating in the public right of way.

Regulators learned too late after the advent of ride-hailing how difficult it would be to get private companies to share much-needed data about how services are used and the impacts on communities, labor laws and climate goals.

“The history of ride-hail in cities is one in which city governments largely were cut out from having regulatory oversight over the services as they were deployed and often didn’t even have the most basic data about how those services were operating on public streets,” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, executive director of OMF, during the NABSA conference.

Uber was founded in 2009, and Lyft just three years later. It took until about 2018 for Uber, for example, to give into sharing data regarding curb use, traffic speeds and general transit data in order to help cities plan how to use the limited and shared spaces better.

“When micromobility hit the scene, we saw cities across the country get ahead of it and say, ‘Instead of coming to companies after the fact, let’s be proactive,'” Angela Giacchetti, OMF’s member engagement manager, told TechCrunch. “So they got more information from operators on the basics, like where they’re deploying vehicles in the public right of way, where the vehicles are being parked, how is it putting stress on the infrastructure, where do we need more safety infrastructure?”

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation started that trend back in 2019 when it introduced the “mobility data specification,” (MDS) a data-sharing format created so that transit agencies can collect vehicle data from scooter and bike companies while also sending them information, like where to put geofences based on street closures. LADOT made sharing via MDS a requirement for scooter and bike-share companies, and the ride-hail industry fought back on behalf of its scooter subsidiaries, largely because they saw cities having access to company data as a slippery slope. If they have to share their scooter data, next it will be their ride-hail data, and that would put companies like Uber and Lyft in a position where they might have to actually work with cities to prioritize the community rather than their own business.

Uber, Lyft and privacy advocates like the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation objected to LA’s use of MDS during a public comment period, arguing that the LADOT doesn’t answer how it intends to de-identify data or how they will use the information.

Now that things have simmered down a bit and everyone has had a chance to talk things through, many of the same stakeholders have come together to build strong protection frameworks that ensure we’re not sacrificing essential privacy rights as our lives, and our movements, become more digitized.

Anytime there’s a situation in which data is being shared, especially data about movement is being shared, between a private sector entity and the public sector, there’s a need for guardrails. There’s a need for clear guidelines around how to protect privacy, what uses and types of data are appropriate. So that really is the core of why we’re doing this work.”

The seven principles are:

  1. We will uphold the rights of individuals to privacy in their movements.
  2. We will ensure community engagement and input, especially from those that have been historically marginalized, as we define our purposes, practices, and policies related to mobility data.
  3. We will communicate our purposes, practices, and policies around mobility data to the people and communities we serve.
  4. We will collect and retain the minimum amount of mobility data that is necessary to fulfill our purposes.
  5. We will establish policies and practices that protect mobility data privacy.
  6. We will protect privacy when sharing mobility data.
  7. We will clearly and specifically define our purposes for working with mobility data.

Of course, setting these guidelines is only a start, and will require momentum and accountability to ensure both governments and operators are adhering to the standards.

“Based on my work with bikeshare programs and also working with cities on privacy I think the absolute biggest challenge is the fact that even when cities implement these types of principles there is very little transparency and trust with how the data is being used with/from the public,” Tamika Butler, community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer, told TechCrunch. “But the big picture: I love these and think they are important, but the real work comes from implementation, accountability and transparency. It has to go beyond being performative with statements, pledges and sign-ons. The process of how these principles are delivered and implemented is what matters. And then how do we support cities to do this work and not allow them to be villianized by operators who don’t have the same public interest at the heart of their capitalist business models.”

Giacchetti agrees that there’s not yet a prescriptive way to use these principles, but says they were created to be engaged with and enacted within each organization that endorses them. The creators of the principles are inviting organizations from both the public and private sectors to endorse and engage with the principles, and ultimately use them to inform transportation policies and mobility data practices.