Amsterdam wants to save your digital privacy

As cities across Europe move to decarbonise urban transport and reduce private car use, shared mobility plays a paramount role in their efforts. Renting a shared vehicle instead of owning one and combining it with public transport, for example, is an increasingly popular choice in places like Antwerp, Milan and Bremen.

Shared vehicle apps, in return, collect real life data that municipalities utilise to advance their sustainable mobility plans and determine where new infrastructure is most needed. For example, aggregating data from car sharing apps can identify popular spots and advise local authorities where to build parking spaces or pedestrian paths best.   

We don't need to collect so much data and become a surveillance state.
— Gemma Schepers, Smart Mobility Project Manager in Amsterdam

On the upside, shared mobility data considerably helps city officials to make informed decisions. If misused, however, the information may accidentally reveal personal details and impinge on users’ right to privacy. 

“As local governments, we need to protect people. We don’t need to collect so much data and become a surveillance state. I don’t think this is what the European Union wants,” says Gemma Schepers, a Smart Mobility Project Manager in the city of Amsterdam. 

Municipalities have little choice but to improvise in a relatively new field lacking clear standards for processing information safely. “A comprehensive research that we conducted some two years ago among European cities showed that not many of them exchange data according to EU laws and regulations,” Schepers explains.  

A person looking at a mobile phone

Enter Amsterdam’s City Data Standard for Mobility (CDS-M), a new data-sharing manual allowing cities to research mobility data while respecting users’ privacy rights.  

The model is based on the EU’s stringent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Boasting a dedicated website, the CDS-M website offers a comprehensive step-by-step guide with commonly used cases that municipalities can replicate on their territories.

How it works 

A vital feature of this method is the use case store, a library of common urban challenges and instructions on how to conduct data analysis without intruding on people’s privacy . Don’t let the word ‘store’ fool you: CDS-M is free. 

Each use case provides a list of data exchange standards graded into five categories, with A indicating a safe non-personal data level and E an “excess of personal data or unlawful processing.” 

If you have a parking problem, you don't need people's private information to determine your course of action.
— Gemma Schepers, Smart Mobility Project Manager in Amsterdam

To begin using CDS-M, municipalities must first define the challenges for which users’ data is necessary. “You always need to start with the question: what is the problem in your city? Because if you have a parking problem, you don’t need people’s private information to determine your course of action. You always need to ensure that you collect as little data as possible,” Schepers remarks. 

For example: how to identify popular routes that need infrastructural works, such as new parking facilities or larger curbs?  

Car-sharing in Amsterdam
Car sharing in Amsterdam

To complete that specific task, the CDS-M website’s use case shows municipalities need only generic travellers’ information. That is mobility data of type A and B devoid of individual names, bank details and trip patterns that could give out unnecessary personal information. 

For Edwin van der Belt, a software architect at consultancy Dat.Mobility, the conclusion is that cities don’t really need to exploit users’ private information in order to plan their policy actions.

“Personally, I’m convinced that all data exchanges can be conducted with an A or B,” says van der Belt, who worked with Amsterdam on the CDS-M tool. 

For almost three years, the Dutch city worked to fully develop and implement its model. The team started to work in 2019 and later put CDS-M to the test by running five pilots in Utrecht, Groningen, Eindhoven, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

We hope to provide a footprint that can facilitate other municipalities' work.
— Gemma Schepers, Smart Mobility Project Manager in Amsterdam

A free tool for all cities

Now, the next step is to take CDS-M beyond national borders. 

“It took a lot of specialized knowledge and finance to generate our model and since not every city has the capacity and means to do this kind of research, we hope to provide a footprint that can facilitate other municipalities’ work,” Schepers says. 

With digital media generating increasing privacy concerns, the Smart Mobility Project Manager hopes to go beyond the technical aspects to put personal data front and centre in a Europe-wide conversation. 

“Even if not everyone will use our way of working, we hope to create a lot of awareness. In the Netherlands, CDS-M generated a lot of discussions on data exchange and privacy and we hope to elicit the same interest outside of our country,” Schepers explains.  

Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer