Foot traffic in stores, pay-as-you-throw garbage collection: Sidewalk Labs shares data collection and use plans for Toronto smart city

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Foot traffic in stores, pay-as-you-throw garbage collection: Sidewalk Labs shares data collection and use plans for Toronto smart city


Infrared sensors that track foot traffic in a store. Responsive sounds that help blind people find their way around streets.

Sidewalk Labs has put forward more details about how it proposes to deploy technology and collect and use data in the neighbourhood of the future it wants to build on Toronto’s eastern waterfront.

The Google sister firm was set to release its Digital Innovation Appendix to the public Friday.

According to Sidewalk Labs, the 482-page appendix, obtained by the Star, is based on “core principles” that include using the least invasive technology at the 12-acre plot of land called Quayside, near Queens Quay East and Parliament Street, that the firm hopes to develop.

“This is not tech for tech’s sake where you’re trying to have as many gadgets as possible in the area. It’s really being extraordinarily disciplined around only suggesting technology when it’s going to benefit people,” said Jesse Shapins, director of urban design and digital innovation for Sidewalk Labs.

“We really want to be transparent about all the innovations proposed because we are very confident and optimistic around these being genuinely beneficial uses of technology,” he added.

A major component of the appendix is a spreadsheet that goes into deeper details about the technologies Sidewalk Labs has in mind for Quayside at this stage, and the rationale for using them.

For example, the appendix says electromagnetic loops or radar could be used to enhance road safety and improve the flow of traffic in the area by counting the number of cyclists and recording the speeds at which they travel, or sensing when a car, bike or pedestrian is waiting to use an intersection.

Sensors detecting the presence of pedestrians could trigger “responsive sounds” that could, for example, help visually impaired people get around on streets and sidewalks in Quayside.

According to the spreadsheet, Sidewalk Labs is also investigating “several potential categories” of heat-mapping technologies, including radar, thermal and infrared, that de-identify individuals. This data could be used, for example, to count how many customers visited a store at Quayside or whether a certain space is ideal for leasing, the appendix says.

Other sensors could measure and monitor local weather conditions, air quality and odours, noise levels, vibrations and the structural performance of buildings, light, energy use, soil characteristics and storm water flow, the appendix points out.

Digitized cameras could assist in the process of monitoring, sorting and processing waste to, for example, flag consumer errors and help encourage better waste diversion practices by Quayside residents, according to the appendix.

Sidewalk says in the document that it won’t use facial recognition in its data collection and the company reaffirmed its pledge that personal information collected won’t be used for surveillance, sold to third parties (such as parent company Alphabet or sister company Google) without “explicit” consent from individuals, or used for advertising.

But personal data would, for example, be collected on proposed innovations such as an energy home scheduler — data on unit-level energy use — as well as pay-as-you-throw garbage collection billing, package and mail delivery, and opt-in services such as ride hailing, Sidewalk Labs says.

The appendix envisions 18 digitally supported services such as “mobility management” — how pedestrians, cars, buses and bicycles move around.

The appendix then has 52 subcategories or “subsystems” of services, such as adaptive traffic signals that would use sensors to detect the presence of a vehicle.

A total of 28 of these subsystems would be procured from other companies, while 13 would be solely created by Sidewalk Labs, the firm says. Another 11 would be a combination of outside companies working with Sidewalk, the firm says.

Of the 52 subsystems, 31 would not collect personal information and 21 would.

The appendix also contains drawings of locations and symbols to provide examples of where on the waterfront the technologies could be rolled out.

Technology proposed at Sidewalk Labs includes Koala ? trademarked mounts that provide power and connectivity that will make it easy to install a device on a light pole or street fixture; and weather mitigation innovations, such as heated pavements and protective building "raincoats" that can protect people from inclement weather while outdoors.

The appendix is intended to address concerns from a panel of data, privacy and tech experts advising Waterfront Toronto on the Quayside project, including concerns that Sidewalk’s more than 1,500-page master plan for Quayside, released in late June, was “frustratingly” abstract, “unwieldy” and short on details such as exactly what data Sidewalk intends to collect.

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It’s unclear if the appendix will fully satisfy those criticisms.

Specifics about how many sensors will be used will be in future reports, Sidewalk says.

For one thing, the company says innovation is an evolving process, so committing to specific technologies at this time is difficult given the project, if approved, would take shape a few years from now.

“It doesn’t make sense to try to plan today in a very deeply precise way the exact use (of a) technology that in four years might be different,” Shapins said.

What the appendix does is show the public the “foundation” of what Sidewalk hopes to do with technology, Shapins added.

The company says the level of detail in the appendix is akin to a master-plan-level document for a new building that hasn’t yet been designed by architects.

“This is the level of detail we’re at now, as is standard for a development project. Further levels of detail are to come,” said Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang.

Shapins said he believes the appendix goes a long way toward addressing concerns about the lack of detail in Sidewalk’s earlier master plan.

“The list hopefully makes clear that everything proposed here is really focused on how to improve quality of life, how to make it easier to get around, how to support a healthier planet. There’s really no scary ideas on this list,” Shapins says.

The appendix comes two weeks after Sidewalk Labs and project partner Waterfront Toronto resolved “threshold issues” including the scope of the project. Sidewalk has agreed to stick to developing the 12-acre plot at Quayside, rather than expanding beyond Quayside into the broader Port Lands, as the company had initially proposed.

In terms of data collection and oversight, under the recent agreement between Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto, the latter will lead all digital governance and privacy matters pertaining to data collected at Quayside, rather than a civic data trust that Sidewalk had proposed.

If approved, which isn’t a possibility until March, Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside development would be home to thousands of new residents and employees who would be surrounded by innovations including self-driving cars and buildings made of wood.

Other proposed data collection projects:

Weather mitigation: Innovations such as heated pavements that can be used to melt snow and ice, or protective building “raincoats” that can protect people from inclement weather while outdoors.

Koala: Sidewalk intends to make a trademarked product called Koala, involving standardized mounts that provide power and connectivity for digital hardware that will make it easy to install a device on a light pole or street fixture.

MaaS: A short form for “mobility as a service” — the idea that, rather than owning your own car or other vehicle, you pay for a service such as Uber, and bike or scooter sharing, to get around.

Dynamic curb: Rather than a typical raised concrete curb, a dynamic curb could contain LED lighting that would, depending on the time of day or volume of pedestrians, change the number of lanes a sidewalk has, its width, or even the direction you can walk on a street.

Donovan Vincent

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