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Report on Business Tech entrepreneur resigns from Waterfront Toronto advisory board over Sidewalk Labs concerns

Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of TechGirls Canada, is resigning from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, arguing the tripartite government agency does not share her “urgency and concern” about its partnership with Sidewalk Labs to develop a digital-first neighbourhood in Toronto.

In a copy of Ms. Muzaffar’s resignation letter obtained by The Globe and Mail, she writes that in the Sidewalk partnership, “Waterfront Toronto’s apathy and utter lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust and social licence has been astounding.” She expresses frustration that the agency’s leadership has dodged questions about data and digital infrastructure from Torontonians and the media, including a Globe story on a document that showed Sidewalk had been seeking sole ownership of design-related intellectual property in its procurement process.

Ms. Muzaffar confirmed the resignation but declined to immediately comment. John Ruffolo, the long-time chief executive of the venture arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System − whom The Globe reported last week was leaving that post − also resigned from the panel earlier this summer.

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Sidewalk is a division of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google and one of the world’s biggest data-hungry companies. As details of Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto’s proposed Quayside development have emerged over the past year, numerous critics have challenged the details, or lack thereof, regarding how the two entities will share data and spur made-in-Canada innovation.

Ms. Muzaffar is a Toronto entrepreneur who champions diversity in technology, including through her work with TechGirls Canada, a not-for-profit trying to reduce barriers for women in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. She also co-founded Tech Reset Canada, which seeks to reframe innovation with a focus on citizens and support greater access to public data gathered by private companies. Those concerns are regularly raised by critics of Sidewalk Labs, including the open-data advocate Bianca Wylie, another Tech Reset co-founder.

With Waterfront Toronto’s Sidewalk partnership, her letter continues, “We find ourselves forced into a disorienting loop where resident and local, national, and global tech community concerns are ignored, and willful misdirection has thus far been endorsed through Waterfront Toronto’s silence."

Waterfront Toronto did not comment directly on the resignation itself, except to say the digital-strategy panel was in its early days and had not yet had any technology available for panel members to review. “We are unwavering in our commitment to serving the public interest and look forward to receiving the advice of the panel,” the agency’s acting CEO, Michael Nobrega, wrote in a statement.

Sidewalk Labs spokesman Dan Levitan said in an e-mail that “This panel is independent from us, and the resignation of a longstanding critic of the project is not a surprise, but we take seriously questions about data and expect in the months ahead to present and consult with the public on a comprehensive plan for data collection, use, and governance.”

Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs formed a partnership just under a year ago to explore a potential 12-acre “smart city” development on the city’s waterfront, pitching it as a data-driven reimagining of urban planning. As criticisms began rising over privacy and Canadians' capacity to innovate with Quayside data, the government agency announced the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel last April to “to help guide Waterfront Toronto on how best to incorporate data privacy, digital systems and the safe and ethical use of new technologies in the next phase of waterfront revitalization.”

A string of prominent Torontonians has left Waterfront Toronto teams in recent months, including Ms. Muzaffar and Mr. Ruffolo. The developer Julie Di Lorenzo resigned from its main board this summer, later telling The Globe the government agency was “relinquishing our voice to Sidewalk Labs.”

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Ms. Muzaffar called the resignation a difficult decision, writing that, “As the only person of colour on a panel that doesn’t even have Indigenous representation to my knowledge, representing public interest for a city as diverse as Toronto, I do so with a very heavy heart.”

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