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New startup aims to bring controversial scooter tracking system to more cities

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Lacuna was born out of the LADOT’s effort to rein in its ‘scooter hell’

Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

Los Angeles’ successful (and controversial) scooter tracking system has spread to dozens of other cities since it was first rolled out in 2018. And now a new startup called Lacuna has emerged from stealth with a pitch to help cities manage the sprawling and potentially game-changing data collection practice.

To obtain a permit to operate dockless electric scooters in LA, the city requires operators to submit real-time location data for its entire fleet. This mobility data specification program, or MDS, allows the city to track the location of every two-wheeler as it scoots across the urban environment. Policymakers can then take this data and use it to make decisions about infrastructure improvements, such as scooter parking or new bike lanes. They can also use it to crack down on scooter companies that are violating local rules around speeding or distributing its fleet to underserved areas.

LA has exported MDS to other cities that are also looking to get a handle on their respective scooter booms. And as you can imagine, it’s proven to be controversial, with scooter companies and privacy advocates questioning whether the location data could be used by law enforcement to track specific individuals.

MDS is open-source and available on GitHub, so any city can upload the software. But successfully integrating it into a city’s data management system may be difficult. Here to shepherd cities through the complex world of micromobility and open-source software is Hugh Martin, a 35-year Silicon Valley veteran whose startup Lacuna is pitching itself as the Red Hat of MDS. And as cities confront the possibility of rapid technological change, a system like MDS can adapt to meet their needs.

“Now we have a way for technology companies to continue to contribute to a fairly sophisticated architecture as to how you manage mobility devices within cities, whether it’s a scooter or an autonomous vehicle, or a drone,” Martin said, “and a way for the city to apply policy to that entire world. And the way for this to continue to exist for the next hundred years.”

Martin says that private companies like Uber and Lyft, or more recently Bird and Lime, are able to make money by taking advantage of the public right-of-way to deploy cars and scooters. And Lacuna wants to put the power back in the hands of policymakers to better manage these alternate forms of transportation.

“Scooters and ride-share are just examples of a trend that will happen because of this ability for the tech industry to create digital overlays on top of cities,” he said.

MDS is the brainchild of Seleta Reynolds, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s general manager. She hired John Ellis, the former chief technologist at Ford, to help shape her agency’s approach to data and technology. In 2018, at LADOT’s direction, Ellis’ company produced a strategic plan that outlined the next steps the agency would take. It called for the agency to “standardize how data is processed into information and how that information can be converted into actions” — the ideas that would later give rise to MDS.

Last year, Lacuna acquired Ellis & Associates and now runs it as a wholly owned, but separate subsidiary. In an interview with The Verge, Reynolds wouldn’t comment directly on Lacuna, but praised the entrepreneurs that have seized upon the potential of scooter data tracking systems like MDS. “So a lot of new companies are showing up in this space, like Ride Report, to try and help build new tools for cities on top of MDS,” she said.

MDS is not without its controversies. Uber, which owns the dockless scooter and bike company Jump, said it would lead to “an unprecedented level of surveillance” and vowed to stop it — before eventually agreeing to abide by its provisions. And a recent analysis by California’s Legislative Counsel raised the possibility of legal complications for operators that share sensitive trip data.

LADOT is “trying to be mindful about really never communicating with the person on the vehicle,” Reynolds said, “and really only ever communicating with the business. And making sure that we don’t intake the information that could be really easily used to invade people’s privacy and making sure that it rests in an encrypted state.”

If the information is hacked or falls into the hands of someone with malicious intent, Reynolds said there are safeguards in place to make sure “it’s pretty useless to anybody who gets a hold of it.”