After clearing one hurdle this week Sidewalk Labs still faces major questions about exactly how it plans to collect data at Quayside, what data it will collect and for what purpose.
In an agreement hammered out this week between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, the former agreed to a significantly reduced scope for its proposed district of the future on the city’s waterfront.
Now, long-awaited details about Sidewalk Labs’ plans for data collection in the sensor-driven neighbourhood are to be laid out in a “digital innovation appendix,” which will include a list of the technologies to be deployed at Quayside, the 12-acre plot of land the Google sister firm wants to develop.
Sidewalk Labs’ appendix, said to be several hundred pages long, is set to be presented Thursday to a meeting of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP), a group of experts in areas that include technology, data collection and privacy providing input to Waterfront Toronto on the Sidewalk Labs proposal.
Sources with knowledge of the appendix say the public should expect an “exhaustive” document that details all of the technology — including sensors — that Sidewalk Labs wants to use at Quayside, where the technology would be located, what data would be gathered and why.
The appendix is intended to address criticism and concerns about Sidewalk Labs’ 1,500-plus-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), a document the firm released in late June that outlined its vision for developing along the eastern waterfront.
The MIDP was amended substantially in the agreement this week between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs. Changes included Sidewalk Labs agreeing to develop Quayside only, rather than into the much larger Port Lands area; Sidewalk conceding that Waterfront Toronto can’t guarantee a new Light Rail Transit (LRT) line to move residents and employees in Sidewalk Labs’ proposed neighbourhood; and Waterfront Toronto overseeing data governance and privacy pertaining to Quayside, rather than Sidewalk Labs’ proposed third-party “urban data trust.”
In a recent report on the MIDP, Waterfront Toronto’s digital advisory group called the master plan document “frustratingly abstract,” “somewhat unwieldy” and repetitive.
Chapter 5 of the MIDP deals with digital innovations. Sidewalk Labs cites examples of data it proposes to collect such as sensors that measure curb space availability (space available for scooters, bikes, trucks, ride hailing vehicles, etc.), data on the movements and volume of pedestrians, restricted data such as licence plates, data on local temperature and other weather conditions, tenant turnover rates, leasing and rent data, plant health, air quality, waste bin/trash volumes, noise levels and odours.
The appendix will, according to sources, drill down much deeper than Chapter 5.
During a recent meeting of Waterfront Toronto’s digital advisory group, member Andrew Clement, professor emeritus of information at the University of Toronto, told Sidewalk Labs representatives that he wants to see much more detail about what “data are you going to collect, what are you going to do with it, and make a case for why that is necessary and beneficial.”
In an email Friday, Clement said he’s hopeful the appendix will “finally address the core data/digital issues” he and his fellow panel members and other people have been seeking from Sidewalk Labs since the beginning of the firm’s project.
Jacqueline Lu, associate director, public realm, for Sidewalk Labs, recently told DSAP the appendix will “get much more specific on all the digitally enabled use case proposals for Quayside.
“We have pulled together and will be providing a single list of each digital innovation that is listed in the MIDP, something we know DSAP has asked for,” Lu said.
Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy, technology and surveillance project and a critic of Sidewalk Labs, said the association is hoping to see in the appendix some serious consideration of the “nitty gritty details” of what a data layer is going to look like in the Quayside neighbourhood and how it’s going to be implemented.
She added that despite Sidewalk Labs taking its civic data trust concept off the table, “there are still very real questions about what data protection is going to look like,” McPhail added.
She echoed one DSAP member’s criticism that Sidewalk Labs has published very detailed renderings of what its buildings and pedestrian pathways would look like, yet the firm’s details about data collection are scant.
“We want to see the level of detail that will allow the DSAP as the panel of experts and all of us as members of the public to reasonably and fairly evaluate what is being proposed,” McPhail added.
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Thorben Wieditz, a spokesperson for #BlockSidewalk, a Toronto group opposed to Sidewalk Labs’ project, said his group also wants to see “an analysis, an assessment” of the risks associated with the data collection the company envisions and the impact not only on privacy but also on other rights including equality.
“As always the devil is in the details when it comes to data and data collection and data use,” he said.
This week’s agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto means the latter’s evaluation of Sidewalk Labs’ overall proposal continues, with a deadline to approve it moving to March 31, 2020.