Would You Share Private Data for the Good of City Planning?

Henry Grabar at NextCity: “The proliferation of granular data on automobile movement, drawn from smartphones, cab companies, sensors and cameras, is sharpening our sense of how cars travel through cities. Panglossian seers believe the end of traffic jams is nigh.
This information will change cities beyond their roads. Real-time traffic data may lead to reworked intersections and new turning lanes, but understanding cars is in some ways a stand-in for understanding people. There’s traffic as traffic and traffic as proxy, notes Brett Goldstein, an urban science fellow at the University of Chicago who served as that city’s first data officer from 2011 to 2013. “We’d be really naive, in thinking about how we make cities better,” he says, “to only consider traffic for what it is.”
Even a small subset of a city’s car data goes a long way. Consider the raft of discrete findings that have emerged from the records of New York City taxis.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by Paolo Santi, showed that cab-sharing could reduce taxi mileage by 40 percent. Their counterparts at NYU, led by Claudio Silva, mapped activity around hubs like train stations and airports and during hurricanes.
“You start to build actual models of how people move, and where they move,” observes Silva, the head of disciplines at NYU’s Center for Science and Urban Progress (CUSP). “The uses of this data for non-traffic engineering are really substantial.”…
Many of these ideas are hypothetical, for the moment, because so-called “granular” data is so hard to come by. That’s one reason the release of New York’s taxi cab data spurred so many studies — it’s an oasis of information in a desert of undisclosed records. Corporate entreaties, like Uber’s pending data offering to Boston, don’t always meet researchers’ standards. “It’s going to be a lot of superficial data, and it’s not clear how usable it’ll be at this point,” explains Sarah Kaufman, the digital manager at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation….
Yet Americans seem much more alarmed by the collection of location data than other privacy breaches.
How can data utopians convince the hoi polloi to share their comings and goings? One thought: Make them secure. Mike Flowers, the founder of New York City’s Office of Data Analytics and a fellow at NYU’s CUSP, told me it might be time to consider establishing a quasi-governmental body that people would trust to make their personal data anonymous before they are channeled into government projects. (New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission did not do a very good job at this, which led to Gawker publishing a dozen celebrity cab rides.)
Another idea is to frame open data as a beneficial trade-off. “When people provide information, they want to realize the benefit of the information,” Goldstein says.
Users tell the routing company Waze where they are and get a smoother commute in return. Progressive Insurance offers drivers a “Snapshot” tracker. If it likes the way you drive, the company will lower your rates. It’s not hard to imagine that, in the long run, drivers will be penalized for refusing such a device…. (More).”