Citing Sidewalk Labs Quayside development, city council moves data governance strategy forward

March 1, 2019

By Arianne Robinson

Toronto City Council has voted for a public consultation on data governance that will set the terms for how Quayside and other smart city developments will be implemented, marking a leap forward in a story that has been mired in controversy.

It’s been over a year since Sidewalk Labs first started working on their plan for Quayside, promising a vision for the marriage of urban development and technology. The company has yet to deliver their final plan, but a recent draft proposal describes a built-neighbourhood (eventually) funded by the sale of data collected from its residents and where the City of Toronto would “create the governance necessary to implement the Project.”

Local Councillor Joe Cressy says the move toward consultation is meant to ensure there is public input for a new policy framework and governance model that covers the emerging world of regulating data and smart cities.

“Everywhere in the world, private companies engage in surveillance capitalism every day to collect data without any rules, and here the City of Toronto is seeking to step into the void to ensure digital rights for its citizens and to ensure a degree of technological sovereignty.”

Asked why council should push forward this consultation now, Mayor John Tory explained the need for public involvement in policy formation to reporters at an unrelated event this week.

“We could have had Sidewalk/Google come in here with a sort of fully baked plan and say this is it – all the T’s have been crossed and the I’s have been dotted – and I think people would have been offended by that because they would have said you didn’t give us a chance, locally, to say what we think about that and to have our input. So as it’s turned out, it’s been done the other way around.”

The idea for the consultation and new data governance policy came from both Cressy and Councillor Stephen Holyday, and combines multiple objectives, including how city data could be shared within municipal agencies and departments, and externally to third parties.

Holyday says he wants to see a “can-do attitude” when it comes to information being shared between city departments, but is also concerned with how a small area, where there is a large amount of data being collected, could reshape the entire city.

“One thing that I am very cautious about is what is the role of the municipal government in being either the keeper or the adjudicator of the data, and I’m not sure that that is our role, so I want to tread carefully down that path,” Holyday said after the council meeting on Tuesday.

The most recent draft proposal from Sidewalk (a sister company of Google) detail a plan to build an LRT in exchange for property tax, and to establish an independent “Civic Data Trust,” where data collected in the public realm would be stripped of all personal markers.

CEO of Sidewalk Labs Dan Doctoroff explained how their company will make money from data on TVO’s The Agenda.

“Part of the way [a company like ours] would make money is through real estate development, and we would develop a small portion of what we call the the eastern waterfront mostly to demonstrate what’s possible. We have a whole series of hypotheses in terms of innovation and what it can actually do,” Doctoroff said.

“We would also probably hope to play a role in financing infrastructure to catalyze the development of an area that has basically been an underperformer – has not fulfilled the dreams and aspirations of many city builders before us for over a hundred years – so to some extent play a role in that. Some of the innovations that we actually develop here, we would hope over time to take to other places around the world.”

With the laws around data governance not keeping pace with the technology, Councillor Gord Perks sees the consultation as an opportunity to dive into an issue that he believes will be a pre-eminent social concern in future decades.

“The Sidewalk proposal has alerted us to the fact that we don’t have robust public policy on digital rights and it’s a wake-up call,” Perks said after the meeting, explaining why he voted to support the policy framework.

“We’ve entered an era where data is collected about us all day long every day. Increasingly, some of that data is being collected in public spaces.”

University of Toronto’s socio-legal scholar Mariana Valverde has concerns about Sidewalk Labs and the consultation process, saying that the company and its plans lack transparency.

“I’m on record that I think Sidewalk should just be told to go home and we should start over again and we should decide what we want. Consultations where Sidewalk is getting feedback on what they’re presenting are not democratic because we never asked for Sidewalk to come in in the first place,” Valverde said, noting that policy development is positive.

“The city’s consultations on what? It’s not clear to me what the city could be consulting about… Sidewalk is not a developer, they’re a data company, mainly. There’s no reason why the city should be [holding consultations] because why should we be listening to Dan Doctoroff? There’s a lot of other entities … of developers in Toronto who could put forward a decent plan for Quayside and I’d like to hear their proposals.”

Cressy says that no other developer has approached him with ideas for how to innovate within the Quayside space. He does believe that the Sidewalk Labs proposal for a data-driven neighbourhood will be one of many in the future, and that the city should have the jurisdiction on the issue.

“Individuals have digital identities and those need to be protected… the city should be decision-maker and the accountability vehicle.”