Toronto Public Library should control data collected at Quayside, Board of Trade says

Toronto Public Library should control data collected at Quayside, Board of Trade says

The Toronto Region Board of Trade is calling for the Toronto Public Library to oversee and create policies related to data collected in public areas, including Sidewalk Labs’ proposed high tech housing development.

In a 17-page report released Wednesday called BiblioTech (a play on the French word bibliothèque, which means library in English), the board said it chose the Toronto Public Library — which has 100 branches across the city and more than 10 million books — to oversee data governance at Quayside and other future smart city projects in Toronto because the library is a “long-standing public institution with broad respect in the technology community.”

The library is also known for its “balanced approach” to data policy and information management, the board said in a statement Wednesday.

The library likes the idea, but said it would need more resources to go ahead with such a plan.

“We are happy to consider the recommendations and discuss potential models that are in keeping with public library values with stakeholders including Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs,” said spokesperson Ana-Maria Critchley.

“Public libraries are defenders of digital privacy and have expertise in data policy and information management. We have long played a role in city building and welcome the opportunity to discuss how we can continue to evolve this role in the civic data realm,” she said in a statement.

However, she added, “given the complexity of the issues and the expertise and consultations that would be required to inform the work, Toronto Public Library would absolutely require extra resources.”

The board of trade report comes as Manhattan-based Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, is partnering with Waterfront Toronto in the hopes of building a 2,500-unit smart city on a parcel of land near Queens Quay E. and Parliament St. that would feature sensors, as well as data collection of residents and visitors, all aimed at making their lives more efficient.

But the proposal, which is currently in the draft master plan phase, has drawn criticism from experts who are concerned the data collection will impinge on personal privacy. Others have called for the collection and control of data to be handled by an independent third party.

Sidewalk Labs is calling for the establishment of a “civic data trust” to do just that.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade says its recommendations help resolve these issues.

The Toronto Public Library should “determine the structure of a long-term data hub,” considering a data trust model or a data “repository” housed inside the library, the board says.

The hub would be overseen by Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, and the public should share in the financial gains from intellectual property commercialized through the Quayside project and other smart city endeavours, the board says.

Board president and CEO Jan De Silva says most of the members of the organization “strongly support” Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto’s efforts to develop the project at Quayside.

“Sidewalk’s Quayside pilot has the potential to be a marquee project for the City of Toronto’s tech community,” De Silva said in a statement.

“But for Toronto to be a relevant global city in the New Economy and for tech companies to commercialize their innovations at home here in Canada, we need to get our policies in order on data governance,” she added.

She went on to say that other cities around the world are actively preparing for challenges pertaining to the use of data.

While the new board of trade report was put together in response to the debate circling around Sidewalk Lab’s Quayside project, Toronto’s technology economy needs “consistent data and intellectual property policies that go beyond Quayside.

“We know other businesses are asking questions about what’s appropriate on the issue of capturing public data, and we know (Toronto) is dealing with similar challenges of its own with public realm data,” said De Silva.

“It’s time for cities to start answering these questions, alongside broader provincial and federal policies to address these issues” she added.

The board noted that a recent study found that about 82,000 people are employed by 450 smart city companies in the Toronto region. These companies produce data-driven products intended to reduce traffic congestion, lower accidents, help reduce crime, reduce carbon emissions, and improve waste collection.

But the board said data collected in the public realm is “distinct,” in that people may not know data about them is being collected.

Sorting out who will oversee the data generated at Quayside will speed future smart city projects in Toronto, thus spurring more innovation and economic growth, the report argues.

Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang said the firm thanks the Toronto Region Board of Trade for the report and is “pleased to see actionable proposals from a leading organization in Toronto and hope that others will follow with their own proposals.”

The BiblioTech report also calls for:

  • the establishment of a “responsible and scalable data governance model” that protects personal privacy, retains public control of the data, and unlocks opportunities for economic growth;
  • the city of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto to retain the final decision over matters pertaining to the Quayside development.

Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent

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