Members of the Google PDF 2014 Fellowship and Google Staff

Personal Democracy and Transportation

By Sarah Kaufman

Last week I attended the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual two-day symposium on the intersection of technology and politics, and often the source of much rabble-rousing in online rights. This year’s theme was “Save the Internet / The Internet Saves,” referring to the massive data-gathering of online records by government contrasted with the frequent positive interactions and movements only made possible by the internet’s connectivity.

I had the pleasure of participating in the conference as one of fifteen Google PDF Fellows who, like me, believe in the power of the internet and open data to make our cities and countries better places to live, work and get around. That Microsoft and Google were major sponsors of a conference on individualized web rights speaks volumes about the current push-pull relationship between simultaneous calls for personal privacy and government transparency.

That push-pull exists widely in transportation as well: We do not want our movements tracked, but we want Uber cars on demand. We want real-time information about how many people are in a station, but don’t want our own MetroCard swipes made public. We want traffic data, but don’t want our phones constantly being pinged for motion detection.

When it comes to transportation, we are often being tracked more than it seems, and up to this point, it has worked out to our benefit. Significant sets of transportation data, including procurement practices and taxi trips, should still be opened quickly and in digestible formats to take us to the next level of smart mobility.

However, privatized modes constitute a growing sector of transportation, including Uber, ZipCar and corporate shuttle buses. None of those modes are legally required to disclose data, but imagine if they did: perhaps cities would be more amenable to the working e-hail model, residents of congested cities could be incentivized to car-share rather than own, and road use fees could be charged appropriately to private buses to help pay for public ones. In a disaster, such as after a storm that knocks out a city’s subway system, data on all of these modes would help mobilize the city to ensure that residents can get to home, work and safe spaces.

It’s time to embrace these private transportation providers as important transportation networks while also requiring them to provide open data, for the greater good of urban mobility.

Members of the Google PDF 2014 Fellowship and Google Staff
Members of the Google PDF 2014 Fellowship and Google Staff (photo courtesy of Google)

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