Features | From Pivot Magazine

Sidewalk Labs’ data dilemma

Data is the fuel that powers Sidewalk Labs’ smart-city ambitions. But who will control it?

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Artist’s rendering of Sidewalk Labs’ proposed Quayside projectAn artist’s rendering of Sidewalk Labs’ proposed Quayside project. (Image courtesy of Picture Plane/Heatherwick Studio/Sidewalk Labs)

A new community proposed for Toronto’s waterfront promises a smorgasbord of smart-city technologies. Pitched by Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, the plan to develop a 12-acre portion of neglected waterfront land dubbed Quayside involves sensors and cameras tracking pedestrian and traffic movement; determining curb space available for bikes, trucks and rideshare vehicles; and measuring everything from the volume of trash in garbage bins to local weather patterns to tenant turnover rates. It almost sounds like science fiction. But the vision is real—as are concerns around data governance

The data aspect of Sidewalk’s pitch poses a host of questions that Canada’s current privacy laws do not adequately address. Jim Balsillie, a CPA and the former co-CEO of Research in Motion, has described data governance as “the most important public policy issue of our time.” He and others have called for a national data governance strategy that will ensure Canada takes advantage of new technologies powered by data while protecting citizens’ right to privacy and control over their information. Sidewalk Labs’ endeavours in Toronto are a high-profile test case in how Canada can manoeuvre through this minefield of interests. 

Sidewalk Labs formally proposed the creation of an “urban data trust” in the summer of 2019, when it released its 1,500-page master plan. The document suggested private and public partners would manage the data collected from Quayside’s innovations. According to Alyssa Harvey Dawson, head of data governance at Sidewalk Labs, this independent trust, rather than a government agency, would “approve and control the collection of, and manage access to, urban data originating in Quayside.”

Quayside sounds like sci-fi. But it’s real—as are concerns around data governance

This idea drew criticism from Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner, Brian Beamish, who pointed out that provincial and municipal laws regarding privacy and access to data were woefully out of date—and that a robust regulatory framework was a necessary precursor to implementing Sidewalk’s ideas. By Oct. 31, 2019, Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto, the tri-government agency spearheading the city’s waterfront development, had reached an agreement: the data collected at Quayside would be treated as a public asset, and a newly created public agency—rather than an independent trust—would house this data. Sidewalk Labs has agreed to waive proprietary access to the data and act only as a vendor.   

Kristina Verner, Waterfront Toronto’s vice president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity, says the Quayside project provides a case study for governments to consider as they work to modernize current legal frameworks regarding digital sovereignty—the principle that citizens and not tech companies should control data that is collected in the public sphere. “It’s a bit of a policy frontier,” she says. Verner sees the Quayside plan as a chance to have important conversations about data and consent. “This project can actually reclaim control for individuals and groups that at this point are a bit disenfranchised from the whole discussion about how their data is being collected and used.”

Citizens benefit from smart-city technology in numerous ways, chief among them environmental sustainability. Barcelona, for example, has used data to build a park irrigation system that employs sensors to remotely determine and control how much water is needed in a given space. This and other innovations have saved the city millions of dollars and helped reduce waste. And Barcelona has seized upon these tools without sacrificing its citizens’ right to privacy—Francesca Bria, the city’s chief technology and information officer, is a leading advocate in Europe for digital sovereignty.

Data is described as the oil of the digital economy,” says Michael Lionais, a federal public service executive who, through the Interchange Canada program, is currently working on CPA Canada’s Foresight Initiative, which is looking at how the accounting profession will deal with data governance. “However, it cannot be mined at the expense of our people or sovereignty. The ethereal nature of data storage and analysis is going to challenge current jurisdictional views and practices. CPA Canada intends to be at the forefront helping shape Canada’s approach to these issues.” 

Quayside presents governments with a real project to help drive a data governance agenda that will bring Canada into a new era. As Mark Surman, the executive director of Mozilla, wrote in a Toronto Star op-ed, this conversation is not just about Quayside. In many ways, cities already have access to citizens’ data—any time you sign into a public Wi-Fi network, say, at a coffee shop, or walk past a CCTV camera, you’re relinquishing information about yourself and your whereabouts. It’s high time we implement legislative frameworks to ensure our cities take advantage of evolving technologies without trampling on the rights of the people who live in them.

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