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Smart cities: how can companies and cities improve urban mobility and ensure user privacy?

Digitisation is transforming every corner of Europe’s economy and society, and urban mobility is probably where the data-driven (r)evolution is the most visible in our daily lives. Data, including personal data, is increasingly fueling this (r)evolution and we now observe a steep increase in city governments’ demand for user data from mobility service providers to help with their traffic management and city planning. But as cities become smarter, it’s important that the ways in which user data is shared comply with data privacy and security laws.

A few years ago, app developers began to integrate local transport authorities’ APIs to help commuters plan their public transport journeys. Today, new private services are complementing public transport at the touch of a button, whether it’s to rent a car, bicycle, or electric scooter, and these services often generate a fair amount of user data. 

Just like app developers have benefitted from projects such as the open data project run by Transport for London (TfL), there’s no denying that local authorities could greatly benefit from accessing user data to better understand transport patterns and adjust their mobility and urban planning.

In fact, data sharing between mobility service providers and city governments is one of the hot issues that is being discussed this week at the Digital Transport Days in Helsinki. 

And just last week, CCIA and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) gathered high-level stakeholders in Brussels to anticipate this discussion with representatives from mobility service providers, the European Commission, European Parliament, city representatives, the European Data Protection Assistant Supervisor and Member State representatives.

And this is what they had to say:

First, city authorities often don’t have the resources to collect data, so using data from private mobility providers is a tempting alternative. Cities can use user data for several reasons, including real-time traffic management, enforcement of regulations such as low emission zones, travel information services and understanding evolvement of travel behavior for urban planning. 

That said, the way in which data is shared should always respect user privacy, and data protection laws and norms. Some cities have adopted strong data governance policies which are also supplemented by GDPR. But other cities are starting to look into the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) standard as the way forward. MDS, a standard developed by the Los Angeles transport authority, has attracted significant concerns over its lack of privacy and security safeguards and the conflicts it creates with privacy legislation to which mobility service providers are bound. 

As cities across Europe look to existing data sharing schemes or even develop their own scheme, dialogue and cooperation between service providers, cities and users on this issue becomes critical to ensure that data sharing schemes respect user privacy and service providers’ legal obligations, and add value to public authorities.

As the European Commission is preparing new plans for sustainable and digital transport in Europe, we hope last week’s event was the start of a constructive discussion among all relevant players in the months to come.

European Union

DisCo is dedicated to examining technology and policy at a global scale.  Developments in the European Union play a considerable role in shaping both European and global technology markets.  EU regulations related to copyright, competition, privacy, innovation, and trade all affect the international development of technology and tech markets.