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Report on Business Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto’s digital advisory panel emerge ‘confident’ after meeting over contentious Quayside data issues

Waterfront Toronto and Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs took steps to assure critics that the government agency is firmly in charge of developing policy for a proposed technology-driven lakeshore community at a meeting of high-profile academic and tech leaders on Thursday.

The Globe and Mail reported earlier this week that at least three key advisers to the project were considering resigning after the meeting of Waterfront Toronto’s digital-strategy advisory board on Thursday over concerns that New York-based urban design firm Sidewalk Labs was playing an outsized role in planning the project’s data-governance policies. But they emerged from the meeting confident – at least for now – that the balance of power had shifted away from private interests.

Alyssa Harvey Dawson, the company’s head of data governance, addressed criticisms that the private company was guiding the project’s data policy, rather than Waterfront Toronto. This week’s proposal, she said, was just that: a proposal. “We defer to this panel and to Waterfront Toronto on where we go from here,” she said.

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Andrew Clement, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information, who was among the people who were considering leaving the panel just two days earlier, said he was “optimistic" the relationship between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs has changed. “There’s a lot more we’d like to know in the details. But at least I feel better that the questions of development of policy around data governance are in Waterfront Toronto’s domain, and not with Sidewalk.”

Much of the meeting focused on the data-governance proposal revealed by Sidewalk this week after months of speculation. It suggested that the company would put data generated in the community in an independent trust and develop processes to allow Canadians to access the data and create solutions to urban problems that could be developed into intellectual property (IP).

Waterfront Toronto announced a year ago that Sidewalk would become its “funding and innovation partner" to develop a mucky, underused space along Lake Ontario, with the Alphabet Inc.-owned company promising to spend an initial $50-million on plan development and public consultations.

If the final plan reaches government approvals next year, the area dubbed Quayside could become a world leader in boundary-pushing city technology. Technology such as pedestrian counters and air-quality sensors would line the community, collecting data detailing urban life that Sidewalk says anyone, including itself, could use to develop and commercialize urban innovations for smart cities the world over.

But the project has come under increasing scrutiny from tech leaders, politicians and private citizens alike over concerns about data ownership and governance, as well as privacy and what some critics called a “lack of leadership” from Waterfront Toronto, an agency run by three levels of government. Waterfront Toronto board member Julie Di Lorenzo and two digital-strategy advisers, entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar and venture capitalist John Ruffolo, all resigned in recent months over what they felt was Sidewalk’s heavy-handed involvement in a project that should be led by the public agency.

While the remaining digital-strategy advisers were also concerned about what they saw as short timelines to review the project’s many data and IP proposals, Waterfront Toronto’s vice-president of innovation, Kristina Verner, told reporters the agency was looking at having more frequent digital-strategy meetings and was talking to Sidewalk about extending its early 2019 deadline to publish the project’s final “master innovation and development plan.”

The tension that followed the resignations prompted three further digital-strategy advisers to consider quitting to criticize the project at a distance. But all three – including Prof. Clement, Ryerson University urban-planning professor and associate dean Pamela Robinson, and Teresa Scassa, the Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy at the University of Ottawa – said the meeting was a positive step.

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Prof. Robinson said she still had concerns, but felt reassured by commitments in the meeting from Waterfront Toronto management to make the policy-making process more fair and transparent. Those comments, she said, “framed a different way of working that I think charts the beginning of a good path forward for a really deep conversation about the issues that matter.”

Panelists remained critical of some of Sidewalk’s proposals, including that data stored from the proposed trust did not need to be housed in Canada. “The data should reside here in Canada,” said interim chair Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. Sidewalk’s stand, he said, in some ways “crystallizes a number of broader concerns associated with this project."

Keeping the data in Canada, Prof. Geist continued, also could alleviate Canadians' concerns about how their personal information might be protected.

The panel also requested an inventory of the different types of data that could be collected with the Quayside project, as well as a review of who would manage its data trust and an exploration of a pilot version to assess and mitigate potential risks.

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