The urban planning firm Sidewalk Labs is proposing to make data from the many sensors planted throughout a 12-acre development it wants to build on Toronto’s eastern waterfront available to anyone who wants to use it.
Sidewalk, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc., is developing the project known as Quayside in conjunction with Waterfront Toronto, an agency representing all three levels of government. Sidewalk announced its plans in a blog post and slide deck on Monday after months of criticism from Canadian technology executives and open-data advocates who feared that the tech giant would gain the most from the potential innovations that could arise from the data.
As officials from all levels of government try to promote Canada as tech-friendly, the lack of information on who would own and manage data generated by the community has frustrated homegrown innovators. And while Sidewalk’s chief executive officer, Dan Doctoroff, said in a February interview that a data trust, an independent organization that would manage the data, was under consideration, the company did not confirm that plan until Monday.
What Sidewalk is calling the Civic Data Trust would strip identifying information from data generated by people living in, working in and visiting the community while allowing people and companies access it for free to study and use to develop innovations.
Two examples of data that could be managed by the trust, Sidewalk said, were pedestrian counters and air quality sensors that did not collect identifying information. Identifiable data about a person collected with their consent, such as through an app on public WiFi, would not fall into that category.
Micah Lasher, Sidewalk’s head of policy, said in a phone interview on Monday that the data-governance details took so long to deliver because they were the result of “an enormous amount of complexity that we have wrestled with” for months.
But throughout the process of developing the proposal with Waterfront Toronto, he said, “you’ll see an emphasis on creating an ecosystem where many players, particularly Canadian startups, would be able to and want to come and innovate. … What we advanced today, we believe, puts that aspiration into practice through a commitment to open standards in all of the technology that Sidewalk Labs would develop in this place. And we would hope that open standards are taken up by everyone else innovating in this place.”
The new proposal did not fully satisfy critics of the Quayside project, some of whom want the data-governance details to be taken out of the company’s hands. “This is a desperate, panicked and rushed move," said Bianca Wylie, an open-data advocate and co-founder of Tech Reset Canada. "It’s not a process for a vendor to be leading and framing.”
The proposal will be presented to Waterfront Toronto’s digital-strategy advisory panel (DSAP) on Thursday – at a moment when tensions among its members are heightened. Two members of that panel, the venture-capitalist John Ruffolo and entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar, resigned in recent months in frustration over how the project was unfolding.
After reviewing Sidewalk’s data-governance proposal, Ms. Muzaffar said she remained frustrated at how the project was unfolding. “Sidewalk Labs continues to assume privileges that the residents of Toronto have not granted them,” she told The Globe. The process, she said, “is hasty and continues to make a mockery of our democratically-informed processes of city-building.”
In an e-mail, Waterfront Toronto spokeswoman Carol Webb said: “The DSAP was created to provide Waterfront Toronto with expert advice on a range of digital governance matters, including data privacy, digital systems, and the safe and ethical use of new technologies, and we look forward to their assessment of Sidewalk’s proposal.”
Sidewalk says the trust would be guided by a charter and managed independently from the company. Those who seek to collect or use the data – Sidewalk included – would be required to file a responsible-data impact assessment with the trust.
This system would build on the privacy impact assessments in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, the company says. It would require potential collectors and users of Quayside-generated data to describe the purpose for collecting it, the kind of data required, the impact on persons and the broader community, and a risk-benefit analysis. These assessments would be made public, Sidewalk said.
Sidewalk’s data-governance proposal does not touch upon the creation of intellectual property (IP) or its monetization, although the company’s slide deck says data monetization is not part of its business model. Mr. Lasher told The Globe and Mail an IP proposal will be presented to DSAP at a subsequent meeting. And he insisted that for any IP generated as a result of a partnership with a public entity, “the benefits of that IP should be shared between the public and private entities.”
Sidewalk’s proposal said Quayside data would not necessarily be stored in Canada, which Ontario law does not require, but be protected through contractual agreements and mechanisms such as encryption.