Sidewalk Toronto: Data Governance in the Age of Smart Cities

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Photo by Brxxto on Unsplash

Sidewalk Toronto is a collaborative initiative by Waterfront Toronto (public entity) and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs (private entity and sister company of Google). The goal is to create a mixed-use urban community with new digital technology, thereby creating a ‘digital layer’ of data and technology meant to bolster the community it serves with regards to sustainability, mobility, and innovation.

Although Sidewalk Labs has revealed an integrated approach to the development of Sidewalk Toronto, through stakeholder engagement and public consultation, tensions are beginning to rise about

1) the authenticity of public consultations that are being led and framed by the vendor themselves, and

2) a community that is controlled by a private entity. You cannot simply opt out of space that you live and work in because of ethical issues surrounding data privacy.

Tech entrepreneur and member of the expert advisory panel for Sidewalk Toronto, Saadia Muzaffar, resigned in October 2018 because of the data privacy issues that were raised regarding the link between the private company owning data of citizens within this community.

“The most recent public roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure.” Saadia Muzaffar

After significant public consultation, questions rose about the authenticity of Sidewalk Labs’ approach. The new data governance proposal that was released builds upon the responsible data use policy framework that was released months previous; however, public consultation wasn’t taken into account. The new data governance proposal disregards public consultation concerns and is “a different approach reflecting a smart city concept.”

The new data governance proposal was so different that Sidewalk Labs advisor on privacy issues, Dr. Ann Cavoukian, resigned just two weeks after Saadia Muzaffar did.

The biggest shift in the policy framework? Third parties can access identifiable information defined as urban data.

If a government decides to collaborate with private entities in placing a digital layer of data and technology onto its citizens, that government has a legal responsibility to manage the data, ensuring that it abides by relevant provincial law. Many smart cities around the world — Singapore, Barcelona, London — use an open data approach to allow the private sector to innovate using public data; however, this data is still owned by the public.

“What is being envisaged in this proposal seems to be a privatization of the collection of urban data.” — Dr. Anne Cavoukian

Wait, what’s urban data?

Urban Data is data that is collected in a physical area. This can include:

  • Private Spaces not owned by those who occupy that space: condo buildings

When you have a vendor who is building out a framework for a proposed development plan, leading consultation with the public, and creating policy to support data governance and privacy, there is evidently a conflict of interest. Sidewalk Labs is a private entity that is building out a model for data collection that is mapped out in community members’ day-to-day life.

However, Toronto’s eastern waterfront community is still a real community, with real people — this community is still governed by the laws of the province and is, in a sense, a public institution. The Ontario government needs to be leading the conversation about data collection and governance when it comes to Sidewalk Toronto. Our public institution needs to begin questioning the authenticity of public consultations and data governance strategy development that is being led and framed by the vendor themselves.

co-founder @ disco innovation studio. writing thoughtful dialogue on the design of everyday interfaces + experiences.

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