Aug 14, 2019

Mobility data could give cities new tools to improve equity

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As mobility data is amassed from ride-hailing, dockless bikes and e-scooters, cities need tools to responsibly track, store, and analyze it.

The big picture: With cities collecting that mobility data, in some cases as a condition for transportation companies to operate, they are facing a new challenge: how to be responsible stewards of this influx of data.

What's needed: It's imperative that cities anonymize data and store it securely — but it's also important for cities to be transparent about what data they're collecting and make it available for analysis by city officials, residents, academics, and other stakeholders.

What's happening:

  • The city of Los Angeles developed the Mobility Data Specification which establishes how data could be uniformly formatted and shared among multiple stakeholders.
  • A group of cities, including LA, and private and non-profit organizations recently partnered to form the Open Mobility Foundation, which aims to use new mobility technology to improve safety, equity, and quality of life while adhering to strict privacy and security practices in how data is collected and managed.

Between the lines: These programs establish best practices around user privacy and transparency, and foster the use of data to ensure equal mobility access to all residents, even when data is initially collected by private companies.

  • If companies and cities adhere to the Mobility Data Specification, which is promoted by the Open Mobility Foundation, then cities could compare their data analysis and make common policy decisions in a collaborative and transparent way.
  • Cities could also use mobility data to plan infrastructure updates that could expand mobility options and accessibility, and ensure that available mobility services are equitable and that no neighborhoods are left behind.

What to watch:

  • Efficient and accurate data collection will be crucial for enforcing policies around mobility services, including the number of vehicles or devices allowed in a given city.
  • As mobility data is combined with other data sources such as census findings and retail data, cities could begin to make planning decisions and investments differently.

Sudha Jamthe is director of DriverlessWorldSchool and teaches AV Business at Stanford Continuing Studies.

Go deeper

Government wants access to personal data while it pushes privacy

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Over the past two years, the U.S. government has tried to rein in how major tech companies use the personal data they've gathered on their customers. At the same time, government agencies are themselves seeking to harness those troves of data.

Why it matters: Tech platforms use personal information to target ads, whereas the government can use it to prevent and solve crimes, deliver benefits to citizens — or (illegally) target political dissent.

Go deeperArrowAug 26, 2019

Cities track citizens' sentiment through social media

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Monitoring social media feeds is a common practice for major brands and companies trying to keep up with consumer sentiment and tastes. City governments are now tapping into those data streams to keep tabs on residents' chatter and complaints about what's happening around town.

Why it matters: Twitter and Facebook posts, when combined with other city tip lines and data collection tools, can be a gold mine of information about what citizens really think.

The big picture: Social media creates a wide-ranging sensor network of sorts that helps cities direct resources to what residents actually care about. But it can also be surprising for users who don't expect city staff to be paying attention.

What's happening: Zencity, a Tel Aviv-based Microsoft-backed startup, sells an AI-powered sentiment analysis tool designed to track citizen opinions so cities can gauge how they are performing. Zencity works with 75 communities and collects more than 1.5 million social media interactions each month.

  • "Cities need to know if they're doing a good job, but they don't have a feedback loop," said CEO Eyal Feder-Levy, citing low response rates to city surveys and low attendance at traditional town hall meetings. "This is the basic concept of meeting people where they are."

How it works: Zencity provides a dashboard that aggregates data points including social media posts, local news stories, messages received by cities' 311 portals, and online feedback forms. Zencity collects more than 1.5 million interactions each month, Feder-Levy said. AI is used to identify and sort trends, anomalies and public sentiment.

For example: Houston works with Zencity to gauge how residents are responding to changes in city services, such as a recent garbage pickup schedule change and a project equipping free WiFi on public buses and trains.

  • "A lot of the products and services we're rolling out don't have measurements attached," said Jesse Bounds, Houston's chief information officer. "We can look at usage for a metric for success, but what we wouldn't have is whether customers care, whether they're excited about it. We need to prove out the value of all these investments in our smart city infrastructure."
  • In Cary, North Carolina, a town of about 160,000, local officials used Zencity data to monitor how residents felt about the fleet of electric scooters that quickly appeared on sidewalks. Mixed feelings from residents led the city council to allow e-scooters but reserved the right to change the ordinance if needed.

The big picture: Cities naturally want to take advantage of the troves of information citizens are sharing on social media, but some people may not expect city administrators to "listen to" them when blowing off steam about a traffic jam or venting about a snow plow.

Privacy tensions bubbled up when law enforcement agencies were found to be using social media to monitor protesters and activists in 2016. After criticism, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram changed their policies to prohibit using their data for police surveillance.

That's where the distinction between passive monitoring and personal tracking is key, says Kelsey Finch, senior policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum.

  • "When we think of public monitoring, people jump to tracking individuals, which feels more targeted than tracking aggregate sentiment," she said. "It feels very different when people can put you in jail versus coming out to fix your pothole. People for the most part like to be lost in the crowd and the sense of security that comes along with it."

Many social media monitoring services, including ZenCity, aggregate data to show broad trends, heat maps and topics without singling out specific users. If city staff wants to drill down to an individual comment or comment thread, names are whited out.

Keep ReadingArrowAug 14, 2019

The rise of the C-suite in city halls

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

From Oakland to Chattanooga tech-focused C-suite roles are rising in popularity among city halls.

Why it matters: As the private sector raises expectations for fast and reliable services, the public sector is working to adapt, adding roles like chief technology officer, chief information officer, chief data officer, and chief analytics officer.

Go deeperArrowAug 28, 2019