Photo by Tolga Ulkan on Unsplash

Standardizing Public-Private Data Collaborations with Michael Schnuerle (Open Mobility Foundation)

This blog post is part of our ‘Data, Privacy, and the Future of Trust in Public Institutions’ series, which is penned by Garrett Morrow, who was MetroLab’s Experiential Research Fellow during Fall 2020. To learn more about this series and to access other posts in this series, check out our first post here.

Michael Schnuerle of the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF) and I spoke on January 21, 2021 about his background, his history of working on open government issues, and his current work with OMF. Michael began his career in Kentucky where he studied computer science, mathematics, and art design at the University of Kentucky. After his education, Michael began working in web design where one of his projects took government data gathered through open records requests and mapped the data. From there, Michael co-founded the Louisville Code for America brigade where they pushed the city government to create an open data website. From Code from America, Michael was hired by the City of Louisville as their Chief Data Officer where he continued his work with open government data, including analytics and visualizations.

One of the topics we talked about was the silo effect in city government stemming partly from the irregular deployment of data and innovation offices within a city government’s organization. In Louisville, Michael’s innovation office was directly under the mayor’s office and the IT department reported to the innovation office. He believes that this position gave the innovation team a holistic view of the city and its resources from which they were able to launch many new innovative technology policies for Louisville’s residents. In other cities, the innovation and data teams are not in such a beneficial position both directly under the mayor and able to work with IT. Indeed, they may be slotted into the existing departments like IT, transportation, housing, development, or planning which does not give as much access to resources nor the holistic view of municipal government that Michael spoke about.

After his work in Louisville, Michael joined OMF as Director of Open-Source Operations. OMF is a nonprofit focused on developing an open-source specification, called the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), for governing mobility data from micro-mobility vehicles like e-scooters. Additionally, OMF is currently exploring curb management systems to better gather and analyze data from vehicles like delivery trucks, automated vehicles, ride shares, and taxis. MDS was originally created by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation but was handed over to OMF to steward. The goal of OMF is to help cities manage their public right of way in a digital method that is more efficient and more open. Furthermore, the open-source nature allows municipal knowledge sharing and can make real-time management of mobility data easier and freely expandable. OMF also partners with private sector corporations like Bird and Ford, and other foundations like the Knight Foundation and the MetroLab Network.

The main advantage of standardized specifications like MDS is streamlining the sharing of data generated from micro-mobility vehicle use for enforcement and management. MDS also helps cities manage various policy goals as well as equity issues like neighborhood vehicle distribution. Michael also spoke about how MDS is designed to help cities integrate the dataflow into existing municipal systems whether that is the transportation department or the public works department. Ideally, a city would only need one person to manage the data that comes from MDS because it is designed for manageability.

Michael told me that cities have generally been receptive to MDS and a lot of that interest comes from transportation departments who are focused on safety and basic management of the new technology. Additionally, some of the cities are interested in equity issues, but this is mostly secondary to safety. Unlike ride sharing apps, cities have legal authority over micro-mobility vehicles, so cities see opportunity for improved management and a legal entitlement over that form of right of way. As of now, OMF does not solicit cities to adopt their work, but rather cities, foundations, and corporations approach them to join their network which allows for participation in things like OMF’s technology council.

The co-development and co-adoption of standards like MDS may be crucial for large scale positive developments in municipal privacy, accountability, and transparency because knowledge sharing can occur both among cities, and also among good government groups and activists. Additionally, the open-source format of MDS lends itself to cities making derivations of the mobility data more public-facing and accessible by non-public civic technologists. Note that OMF does not have access to any of the MDS data themselves as the data is accessed by the cities, and therefore OMF could not make any data public even if they wanted to. Since the OMF serves as a knowledge sharing facilitator, cities may more easily find models for making data public and where to be careful with privacy issues.

The open nature of OMF’s work also lends itself to work more with universities and positions the organization as a potential partner with universities to field questions from municipalities. However, as of now, OMF does not have that much involvement with universities, but that is part of why they joined the MetroLab Network. Michael spoke of the beneficial arrangement the City of Louisville had with the University of Louisville and University of Pennsylvania to recruit students and faculty to work on municipal issues. For example, Louisville brought in students from a master’s program in urban spatial analysis to work with Louisville on various projects, including mobility-based projects.

While cities or nonprofits partnering with universities to work on local projects is not novel, Michael expressed surprise that universities were not trying to work with organizations like OMF to help co-develop and refine new data specifications like MDS from a foundational level that could include policy areas other than mobility. For example, more technical students could help develop data specification tools while policy-minded students could help work on privacy or governance focused details. In other words, organizations or cities that are developing standardized data specifications like MDS could fruitfully cooperate with universities at the ground level to improve the final specification output.

It is difficult to talk about MDS without talking about the current lawsuits between the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the ACLU in one lawsuit and Uber in a separate lawsuit. The lawsuits stem from issues of who should own the data and privacy issues about the city government accessing a subset of the data mobility companies keep on operations. Privacy concerns are about the government potentially using personally identifiable information to surveil their residents via micro-mobility data. While these legal issues are far from over, with all civic technologies that draw upon public (or potentially privately owned data) there will be legal issues, and cities need to continue to use data protection, minimization, and privacy practices when managing internal data.

Garrett Morrow is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Northeastern University. His dissertation looks at the politics and public trust of smart city policies, data, and algorithms. During Fall 2020, Garrett was also an Experiential Research Fellow with us here at MetroLab. His work was funded through the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern. Garrett can be reached at morrow.g@northeastern.edu.

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MetroLab Network

MetroLab Network

35+ city-university pairs bringing data, analytics & innovation to city gov’t thru research, development & deployment. Launched at #WHSmartCities 2015