If fossil fuels power our old industrial world, data is the fuel of our digital future.
It offers a chance to shape more sustainable ways of living, such as smart meters that measure water consumption, solar energy supply that is matched to worldwide demand and efficient global food distribution.
In terms of transport, data promises to improve traffic flows, increase vehicle efficiency and fine-tune public transport to deliver the services people really need, among other possibilities.
Yet, scared by tales of identity theft and in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that showed how personal information could be bought and sold for political gain, many of us are still nervous about sharing the details of our daily lives – even if it is to pioneer sustainable transport solutions. So what should we do?
Every move you make
It's true that our travel data is revealing, providing “inferences of innumerable other data regarding the behaviour, habits and lifestyle of an individual”, according to France's National Data Protection Authority.
And if we consider how mobility data in everything from bike-sharing apps to intelligent vehicles includes real-time GPS coordinates, the date and time of journeys and unique vehicle identifiers, we might be forgiven for fearing we've entered the world of the Police song Every Breath You Take.
But does surrendering personal data really mean exposing ourselves to being watched in every move we make? Most likely, the answer is no. Bluntly put, in the construction of digital platforms for sustainable transport, nobody cares about your life but the algorithm. And the algorithm only cares about your life when it's anonymised and aggregated in a soup of millions of other lives. In these cases (as opposed to activities such as e-commerce) you're just another statistic – and that's a good thing.
Companies and organisations are being forced to be more explicit about how data is going to be used thanks to data-protection safeguards, most notably the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation that imposes a robust international framework. GDPR's emphasis on anonymisation, consent and storage limits provides mechanisms that should ease concerns about sharing data for sustainability solutions.
Another source of concern has been the security of your data – to keep it from anyone who might misuse it. But as data becomes exponentially more prevalent in the digital world, technologies such as blockchain and cloud computing are fast making it more secure than it was in the analogue era, where theft was only a filing cabinet away.
In the mobility sphere, the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) is an API that has become a global standard in providing anonymous information from a mobility company to city authorities – de-personalising the data.
Reaping the rewards
With such actions starting to allay some of the public's fears over potential misuse of their data, it should be time to start letting the data flow and see the promised benefits ensue. Imagine a world where you don't pump out CO2 waiting at traffic lights; where supermarkets stock only the food they can be expected to sell; and airlines schedule flights with a granular, real-time picture of travel demand. Shouldn't we actively be getting our data out there to influence this future? Certainly we don't want forward-looking policies determined by imbalanced sharing.
Take Strava, a fitness tracker app that sells data on its 47 million global users to London transport authorities to help them design routes that encourage cycling. It's a highly useful data set, but – as a Financial Times article notes – the demographic elite that enjoys sophisticated exercising apps may not be representative of the average cyclist and, if used on its own, would sway any urban plans.
In the move towards sustainable mobility, it could be time to stand up – or get on your bike – and be counted.