In spite of its ubiquity, “data” is still an intimidating, catch-all word for many of us who realise our daily online footprint feeds the small and big machines of everyday life. Even when we use online maps, order rides, rent bikes and scooters, and commute while using these mobility apps, our location and time stamp is collected. In some parts of the world, it might even be collected as we wait patiently at the light of a particularly busy intersection or get on a bus; in the future, autonomous vehiles might “eye” everything within and around them, including us.

The information our data is providing holds the key to a new mobility future, be it public- or private sector-led. It helps determine the right number of trains at rush hour, or the right location for a bike dock that helps us move more effortlessly. “Data” is almost a code name for the promise of a world that can become truly efficient and seamless, and can make our lives much better – if used by the right entities in the right way.

A mobile world

Mobility is a key part of this promise. A new mobility future is about more than moving from point A to point B; it is about everyone being able to get to their dream job, getting the kids safely to school, being able to squeeze in the gym on the way, and making doctor’s appointments on time. But this vision will not be realized easily for everyone; accommodating different physical and mental needs, those of the young and lower socio-economic classes, to name a few, will require a concerted effort. Mobility’s toll on public resources such as street space, air quality and global warming would also need to be addressed before it can offer true sustainability to our cities.

Well, if you have data on local average household income, on the cost of insurance, and cars and gas prices, you can start by figuring out the actual footprint of mobility on society. Then if you have data on public transit routes, route performance (including delays, cancellations and accidents), and stations for micro-mobility solutions, you can know whether more sustainable and effective alternatives are available. By overlaying this information with more data on where hospitals, fresh produce, schools, large employers and parks would be, we could increase the outreach of sustainable and more affordable mobility options. Finally, by becoming a champion of the open data movement, like London and Helsinki, a city could combine user information with data from private mobility providers, then allowing mobility users to negotiate the perfect commute for them and the greater good.

Given the number of possibilities, it is no surprise that cities around the world have become one of the driving forces in data-driven mobility solutions. Many have already started to develop standardized requests for data from mobility-service providers, including New York City and Los Angeles. Finland has possibly developed the new era of data regulation the furthest so far through the Act on Transport Services, which mandates open software standards for essential data for all stakeholders, and ticketing and payment for all passenger-transport service providers. The aim of the act is to enable user-centric mobility services for all, while also aiming to guarantee a level playing field for all stakeholders and more complete intelligence throughout the whole transport system.

But the question begs: are our cities ready for the potential data they can access? Lack of personnel and ability to compete in this regard with the private sector poses a key challenge. This is one reason why the private sector has come in to fill in a lot of the gaps in terms of designing, developing and launching data-driven solutions for the mobility sector. There is a cost to this contribution, though: the data gathered to make new products and solutions work, and optimize existing infrastructure, comes with a high price tag. In fact, datasets can be bought, rented, sold or shared for commercial purposes. Can they guide us to a sustainable travel future?

How should your data drive sustainable new mobility?

The price tag put on all this data is no more than a guess. A guess of what us, the users, are willing to trade in. Data is a financial asset that does not yet have a mature pricing framework that includes the many externalities of travel – the societal, economic and environmental spillovers of mobility. It is incumbent on all of us – the users, the individuals – to make an informed decision about the value that should be assigned to our data. The decision to include factors that have failed to be folded into current mobility costs: air quality and resulting health risks, street space and the resulting depletion in quality of life, climate change and resulting threats to mankind, to name a few.

In 2014, a qualitative study offered a cookie to any stranger walking down a New York street in exchange for personal information like date of birth, a copy of their driver’s license, or an address. Three hundred and eighty individuals traded in their personal information for a cookie that day. Over half agreed to have their picture taken, and 117 people allowed the researcher to take their fingerprints. The researcher did not even provide a reason for asking for the information. Are we any more educated and ready to have a global conversation, five years later?

The proposition with which we are now presented is not exactly a cookie. If you knew that the collective value of mobility data generated by the swiping of our fingertips could translate into a life-changing profit for the public good, reduce carbon emissions significantly, or give a baby access to healthcare, would you give yours up? Don’t answer just yet and take a minute to understand what you are giving up, and what you should have a right to expect in return. Then practice until you are back in the driver’s seat.

Contributing author: Krista Huhtala-Jenks, Head of Ecosystem & Sustainability, MaaS Global