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Report on Business Canadian tech coalition wants to get smart-city data and policies right

An artist rendering of a courtyard, part of a proposed redevelopment of Toronto's downtown waterfront provided by Alphabet Inc's Sidewalk Labs unit on Feb. 15, 2019.

HANDOUT/Reuters

Some of Canada’s leading urban-technology companies want to team up with policy-makers to develop clearer rules around data collection and its use in cities, as a Toronto project led by Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs shines a global spotlight on the country.

Cities worldwide are embracing “smart” technologies that embed sensors on everything from traffic signals to street lamps capable of collecting data on how people live – data that can be used to develop solutions such as lower energy consumption or improve city life.

Canada’s role in the future of smart cities has drawn attention over the past year and a half since Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc., won the right to plan a technology-driven community called Quayside on Toronto’s eastern downtown waterfront. The project has sparked debate around the best ways to collect, organize and potentially share data from such communities to encourage innovation while protecting the privacy of people who live in them.

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The Open City Network, or OCN, is founded on the notion that “cities should come first” when building smart-city projects. Its first goal is to get Canadian innovators and policy-makers to better understand each other’s needs. In turn, its organizers hope both groups can develop a shared set of smart-city principles – helping municipalities develop consistent policies around urban technology while encouraging homegrown startups to play a significant role.

The non-profit group will launch this week ahead of an urban-data-governance conference in Kitchener, Ont., Thursday held by founding member Miovision Technologies Inc. – an urban-technology firm that uses video-data collection and artificial-intelligence technology to analyze and help adjust the flow of traffic through intersections.

“Quayside and Sidewalk are a microcosm of a bigger question of what we need to grapple with as a country,” says OCN board member and Miovision chief executive Kurtis McBride, a vocal critic of the project who is also an adviser to Waterfront Toronto, the public agency that partnered with Sidewalk. One broad criticism has been around the lack of government policy around data-use in such projects.

For example, Sidewalk Labs responded to months of speculation in the fall with a proposal to store anonymized data collected at Quayside in a public trust that others can access for free. But who will run that trust and how it will work has yet to be determined. “Whether it’s the Quayside project or any number of other examples, there’s clearly a need for us to think about data governance in a strategic national context,” Mr. McBride says.

Joining Mr. McBride on the board from the private sector are Alex Miller, president of Toronto geographic mapping firm Esri Canada; Hongwei Liu, CEO of Waterloo indoor way-finding company Mappedin; and Mike Branch, vice-president of data and analytics at Geotab, an Oakville fleet-management and vehicle-tracking firm. “The time is now,” to work with policy-makers, Mr. Branch says, as cities embed more technology into their designs, “it’s important to have some protocols and standards.”

Additional board seats will be made available for public officials. Filling those seats will be among the first tasks for Andy Best, OCN’s executive director. He previously ran Guelph’s open government program. “We are creating a neutral meeting place for the public and private sectors to collaborate,” he says. As cities move toward more data-centric development, “we want to ensure that the emerging regulatory framework tilts strongly toward the public interest.”

Access to data is one item the OCN hopes policy-makers will address, Mr. McBride says. When cities procure partners for projects – such as for intersection design, in Miovision’s case – regulations could ensure that the data generated by that intersection, such as bike-traffic frequency, is accessible to all, rather than available only to the original vendor. Issues such as privacy and costs to access public data should be left entirely to governments, Mr. McBride says.

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“The private sector would love more sophisticated regulation around this stuff,” Mr. McBride says, because it would help data-centric companies better understand the rules they should operate within. “Ultimately, the goal would be to build out technology that the public and private sector can use together.”

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