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Toronto Sidewalk Labs aims to address privacy concerns in designing high-tech Toronto neighbourhood

Sidewalk Labs, the unit of Google-parent Alphabet Inc. set to turn a chunk of Toronto’s waterfront into a test bed for “smart city” technologies, took pains at a public meeting Tuesday night to address fears its plans would see citizens spied upon or their governments’ authority usurped.

Hundreds of people packed a room at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to attend “public round table” sessions put on by Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto, which last fall picked the three-year-old New York-based company to help develop − for a start − a 12-acre parcel called Quayside.

Sidewalk, which is led by Dan Doctoroff, a former deputy mayor of New York City, has previously outlined an array of concepts for the project that range from streets lined with sensors that can help tweak traffic lights to robot garbage trucks that run in underground tunnels. But the project has raised concerns about privacy and the possible commercialization of data collected from unwitting residents − concerns voiced during Tuesday’s question-and-answer session.

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Rit Aggarwala, Sidewalk’s head of urban systems, told the crowd on Tuesday that privacy was a key value for the project.

“What matters in a city is whether people feel comfortable, whether people feel respected, whether people feel a sense of ownership in this place,” Mr. Aggarwala said. “And they can’t do that if they feel like they are monitored for the wrong reasons, or in fact, for most any reasons.They cannot do that if they do not trust in the way information is being managed.”

He listed a series of commitments he said Sidewalk was making as it developed its plans: Among them is a pledge that it would not be “using or selling personal information for advertising purposes.” And whatever data the project does collect would be subject to “open standards,” allowing other companies or agencies to make use of it as well, he said – not just Sidewalk. He said to do otherwise would be “anathema.”

But Sidewalk officials still could not say where the data would be housed, or who would own it – issues that are still the subject of negotiations between the company and Waterfront Toronto, which is a creature of all three levels of government set up to develop the waterfront.

Concerns have also been raised at city hall about the potential scope of the project, after Sidewalk said that for many of its plans to succeed it would need to deploy them across not just Quayside but the entire 800-acre eastern waterfront, where the city already has well-developed plans. Sidewalk has also said that to realize its vision it could need to rip up zoning or other city rules.

Mr. Aggarwala said some of what the company wants to do needs more space to get off the ground, such as a transit plan or a district energy scheme. But he said whatever plans his company and Waterfront Toronto come up with will have to mollify their critics as well as be approved by both Waterfront Toronto and the city, likely early next year, or they will simply not go ahead.

While precisely what new ideas Sidewalk will pilot-test in Toronto remain unknown, the company did unveil two small data projects it has been developing. One, called Old Toronto, is an app that plots digitized archival photos of Toronto streets onto a map, allowing users to click and instantly get a look at what a part of the city looked like in the past. The other, still in its infancy, is a transportation app that is meant to help residents find the best way to get from one location in Toronto to another.

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Sidewalk has clearly been refining its long list of futuristic projects after consulting with various experts and government officials. Mr. Aggarwala said the company’s priorities have “evolved,” while emphasizing that it hopes to make Quayside “climate positive” with new energy efficiency measures and the like.

While some critics have accused the project of seeking to emphasize self-driving cars and Uber-like services over old-fashioned public transit, he said Sidewalk wants to see the city’s waterfront light-rail plans accelerated and that cycling and pedestrians must be prioritized. Still, he said, Sidewalk’s plans must include a big role for the self-driving car.

“There is no escaping the fact that the self-driving car is one of the great mobility innovations that we are about to see take place,” he said.

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