Waterfront Toronto is consulting one of its biggest critics as the development agency tries to ease concerns over the technology-driven neighbourhood it is developing with Google sister company Sidewalk Labs.
Helen Burstyn, chair of Waterfront Toronto, a corporation created by all three levels of government, said she has sought advice from Jim Balsillie, the former Research in Motion (now BlackBerry) co-chief executive and current chair of the Canadian Council of Innovators, which has accused the project of giving Canadians “glitzy images of pseudo-tech dystopia while foreign companies profit from the IP and data Canadian taxpayers fund and create."
A year ago, Waterfront Toronto revealed it had chosen Alphabet Inc.-owned urban-planning company Sidewalk Labs as its “funding and innovation partner” to explore developing a 12-acre piece of land on the city’s lakeshore dubbed Quayside. New-York-based Sidewalk brought with it a US$50-million commitment to develop a “master innovation and development plan” (MIDP) to rethink traditional city-building by approaching design and infrastructure from a digital perspective. Waterfront and Sidewalk have been holding public consultations and private meetings over the past 12 months to work out details for the development, and have said they will release the final plan by early 2019 for review, consultation, and eventually government approval.
But Ms. Burstyn said Waterfront will take as much as time as it needs to consider concerns flagged by critics, including Mr. Balsillie and members of its own Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, a group it formed in the spring to advise on technology and data plans for the project. Some members of the panel have criticized Waterfront for ceding too much control to Sidewalk Labs.
“When the time comes to make a decision, I want it to be a fully informed decision based on all the best advice we have,” Ms. Burstyn said. She said the Waterfront board is considering extending the January or February deadline for completing the MIDP to later next year to allow for more time for review.
In the meantime, she said she has reached out to critics including Mr. Balsillie.
He told The Globe he was happy to share his expertise and his network of digital experts to help “reclaim the democratic space” that he felt Sidewalk had been encroaching upon.
Mr. Balsillie said he suggested that Waterfront Toronto “take steps to understand the irreversible consequences the current proposals will have not just on Torontonians but all Canadians. Data has enormous economic and non-economic effects that spread seamlessly and data also controls who and what interacts with it.”
“We had a good conversation and we agreed to stay in touch,” Ms. Burstyn said of her exchange with Mr. Balsillie, who has previously lobbed criticisms at the Waterfront board. "And he’s going to provide any insights and expertise he has - and that’s considerable. ... What I don’t find very useful is casting aspersions and publicly denigrating people who are doing good work.”
Ms. Burstyn said she has also corresponded with former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, who resigned as a paid consultant to Sidewalk Labs on Friday, to learn more about her concerns over data collection in the community, for which plans include rampant sensors such as pedestrian counters and air-quality monitors, pulling in reams of data on residents.
Last week, Sidewalk released a long-anticipated data-governance proposal, promising to strip identifying details about people from data at the point of collection, and to store that data in an independent trust that anyone would be able to access. While Sidewalk promised it would follow the framework, staff told Ms. Cavoukian they could not guarantee that third-party companies that may become involved in the project would follow the same principles for their own data collection.
Ms. Burstyn said she told Ms. Cavoukian after her resignation that the board would be asking for data anonymization from all parties involved in the project.
“Helen understood the need for all data being de-identified at source, since there would be no opportunity to obtain consent from anyone, given that the sensors and other tech would be collecting data automatically," Ms. Cavoukian told The Globe and Mail. Ms. Cavoukian is the Toronto-based creator of Privacy By Design, a framework that insists people’s privacy be protected pro-actively at all stages of developing technology, whose principles have been widely adopted.