This morning, a host of U.S. cities and organizations — including Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami-Dade County, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City DOT, New York City Taxi and Limo Commission, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. — announced their participation in the newly formed Open Mobility Foundation (OMF), a nonprofit coalition that seeks to improve intercity transportation infrastructure with open source software tools. Escooter startup Bird also said it’ll join as a founding member.
Founded in part by the Rockefeller Foundation, OMF partnered with open source software and standards body OASIS and is supported by such advisors as the NewCities Foundation, an international philanthropic organization dedicated to improving life in metropolitan areas. It will chiefly govern the Mobility Data Specification (MDS), a project originated at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) that manages shared escooters and other “micro-mobility” programs. (It has already been adopted by over 50 cities in the U.S. and dozens internationally.) It will also serve as a public-private forum to engage experts, companies, municipalities, and the public on issues ranging from pedestrian safety and privacy to equity.
“The Open Mobility Foundation is meeting a critical need for cities across the country during a time of profound disruption in transportation,” said NewCities founder and chair John Rossant. “As urban communities begin to be impacted by new modes of mobility and technology, we need to ensure that the solutions we create are smart, safe, and equitable — and that we’re ultimately building a better urban future for all.”
OMF’s goals are fourfold: increasing safety, ensuring equity, improving quality of life, and protecting privacy. It will develop tools that help cities protect residents’ safety by managing new transportation modes, and it aims to ensure that new forms of transportation aren’t inaccessible for lower-income citizens. Furthermore, OMF says it will provide solutions that curtail the impact of new transportation options on sidewalks and limit contributions to roadway congestion. It also plans to help cities analyze public transportation data while adhering to privacy and data standards.
“Working collaboratively with cities, we can design and implement responsible tools to improve everyday transportation for residents and visitors while integrating with modernized city transit management,” said Bird chief policy officer David Estrada. “Our investment in the success of OMF is just one of many examples of an ongoing commitment to partnering with cities to help make their transportation, environmental and equity goals a reality.”
Some of the tools will presumably look like MDS, which comprises a set of APIs that enable cities to collect data from private transportation providers to inform traffic management and policy decisions. A Provider API lets companies funnel data about vehicles (like escooters) to the city, including route start and end locations (on a 24-hour delay), while an Agency API allows cities to furnish companies with enforcement information, like alerts regarding illegally parked vehicles.
MDS was first released in May 2018, after six months of development, and companies began using it in September 2018. So far, on-demand electric scooter and bike company Lime and transportation analytics firm Remix have expressed support, but Uber last year voiced concerns about whether data collected through MDS would be shared with other government agencies. Uber isn’t the only one — SharedStreets, an organization developing a digital map of city streets, recently joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation and nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology in asserting that MDS had failed to take steps to reduce privacy risks.
In an effort to placate these and other critics, LADOT has since issued guidelines regarding MDS’ data-handling and pledged to limit the collected information’s accessibility through public records request. But it seems clear OMF will have its work cut out for it.