Ecological movements

Last month, 15 cities — Los Angeles included — created something unprecedented: their own standards body. A year after launching the Mobility Data Specification (MDS) — a suite of APIs to manage bicycles, scooters, and other forms of “micromobility” — LA’s effort to use code and concrete to regulate went viral. More than 70 cities around the globe started to use it, surpassing LADOT’s mandate to run it. So, we asked for a little help from our peers.

Together with New York, San Francisco, and a dozen other cities, we followed in the footsteps of other open-source projects (like Linux) and brainstormed a non-profit foundation to guide the deployment and development of MDS. Quickly, others saw the significance of our efforts. The US Conference of Mayors, representing over 1,400 cities, adopted a resolution to support a city-led open source non-profit. Once we drafted bylaws, we invited companies like Bird, Spin, and Microsoft, along with organizations like The Rockefeller Foundation, New Cities, and Metrolab Network to join us. We then partnered with OASIS — a non-profit consortium with more than 5,000 members globally — to house what we call the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF).

Our goal isn’t to bring startups to heel, or shelter MDS from efforts to legislate it out of existence, or to game the public realm for the benefit of private companies. It’s about a much larger vision for a new platform to manage urban mobility in all shapes and sizes. This platform — built on open standards and software and designed by and for cities — helps us achieve important city goals like increasing safety, equity, and health outcomes, while lowering emissions, and reducing congestion. Existing tools or proprietary platforms would never allow cities to do that, so we’ve decided to roll out our own.

To help launch this ambitious effort, Los Angeles will contribute to OMF all of the MDS software, specifications, and documentation that LA has developed and overseen over the last 12 months. This includes the software that currently helps us manage the Country’s largest e-scooter pilot. As OMF matures, I expect other cities and organizations will also want to contribute their software and expertise.

If you’re puzzled as to why cities are getting into the software business, it’s because a lot of the nitty gritty of the Internet — the standards and protocols defining how data is collected, routed, and stored — is a black box to the general public.  Some people in the tech community like it that way. For every truly open standard such as TCP/IP (the backbone of the Internet, from which all else flows), there are innumerable opaque, competing ones.

And when it comes to smart city tech, there are endless examples of proprietary apps and services that use open standards when it serves their purpose, while keeping their crown jewels under lock and key. These standards are often the product of private consortiums attempting to make cities smarter by controlling information and automating decision making.1 You’ll notice, though, that cities are rarely, if ever, invited to join them. You’ll notice too that their solutions may have nothing to do with problems that cities face every day.

Transportation departments are caretakers of infrastructure in the physical world. The boundaries of what we can and cannot do are clear. OMF does not change a city’s role, but it does help tip the scales toward cities, allowing them to more effectively make public policy decisions and protect the public’s interests.

If international technology companies are accountable to no one, local governments are accountable to everyone. MDS is the first of a new breed of standards, software, and tools for managing the public realm. Because they are open source, their code will be transparent and accountable to the public. And although OMF is open to private, academic, and non-profit members, the board is exclusively comprised of cities — who will have the final say about the foundation’s aims and objectives.

For several years now, disruptive new companies have insisted they prefer to work with cities, rather than spar with them. But municipalities lacked the tools and expertise to set the rules of engagement. Our hope is that the open software model — where public and private partners build products together atop open-source code —offers a new and novel approach for collaboration. There wasn’t a model for cities to govern their own codebase, so we boot-strapped it, as cities know how to do, and created one. Come join us..