Lawrence Eta, the man who will play a key role in helping Toronto develop rules governing the use of digital tools and data collection, says he pursued a career in technology that was “people-centred” — great preparation, he says, for his current job with the city.
“I pursued a diploma in business information technology. I didn’t want to be a computer programmer. I wanted to be with people more, have more interaction. I found courses that were people-centred. I’m a social person — I wanted technology that was about that,” he said in a recent interview.
Raised in Nigeria and England, with degrees from Canada and the U.S. and past posts including director of information services and technology lead in Winnipeg for one of the top Canadian pension funds for health-care workers, Eta, 48, was appointed Toronto’s chief technology officer at the beginning of October.
In that role he’ll be responsible for the strategic vision and leadership over innovative technologies that support the city.
One of his key responsibilities will be overseeing the development of the city’s Digital Infrastructure Plan, a framework that will, among other things, establish regulations and policies at the local level to help guide decision-making on data-centred projects, such as the controversial sensor-driven neighbourhood Google sister firm Sidewalk Labs wants to create on the waterfront.
Work on the city’s digital infrastructure framework began amid concerns earlier this year that Toronto has no up-to-date rules for issues such as data collection and privacy, concerns spurred by Sidewalk Labs’ proposed neighbourhood of the future.
(Digital infrastructure includes cables, network systems, software systems — anything that creates, exchanges or uses data as part of its operation. Sensors, cameras, microphones, Wi-Fi, apps, high-speed internet and telephone networks are examples).
In February, council directed city staff to begin developing a digital framework, though it isn’t expected to be completed until the end of 2021 — after the Waterfront Toronto board’s March 31, 2020, deadline to approve or reject the Sidewalk Labs project.
A review of local, provincial and federal laws pertaining to privacy and data collection will be part of the development of the city’s digital plan.
Another major component in creating the framework is a lengthy public consultation process that launched in December. Eta has recently been out to various locations in the city speaking with and getting feedback from the public on what the city is trying to achieve with the digital plan.
“The idea of the consultations is to listen to the public as we talk about data, security, privacy,” Eta explains.
“So the work we’re doing with the consultations: there are many other proposals that will come around that are focused on how we connect our communities (digitally) and smart cities. Municipalities haven’t really had an infrastructure framework or proposals to deal with that,” he says.
Eta says a close example of what Toronto’s digital plan is striving to accomplish is the 2016 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which mandates baseline standards for firms that handle the data of people in the European Union. The regulation is intended to safeguard how citizens’ personal data is processed, handled and moved.
Eta says the consultation process in Toronto falls in line with his own view of the digital world.
He says rather than training in “back-end” technology such as programming, he wanted to pursue a career in tech that would provide more contact with people.
“Once I got into technology, I found it fascinating because it was constantly changing. It has allowed me in my career to travel and see new environments. But for me it was always people-driven and about ensuring technology was enabling (individuals) and that’s what has motivated me in this industry,” he says.
Eta was born in Warri, Nigeria, near the oil region, and later raised in Lagos. He has five half-sisters and brothers.
Eta gained his educational training in England years after travelling there in 1982 with his mother when he was 11.
Around the time he left Nigeria, his parents were divorcing and waging a custody battle over him.
“I told them to just send me to the U.K. I had a friend who had gone there. Six months later I was on a plane — done.”
From ages 11 to 15 he was in boarding schools outside London, one in Leicestershire the other in Hertfordshire. He was raised by guardians — a Nigerian family that had a house in England. He would fly back to Nigeria to visit his friends and family when his boarding school was on summer break.
The boarding school period was a challenge at times, he recalls. He faced some discrimination being the only Black youth in these institutions. Once while he was doing chores the wind blew open a window he was cleaning and the glass shattered. The senior boy whose room it was yelled at Lawrence using racial epithets.
It made Eta feel like an outsider.
But when he travelled back to Nigeria he began to feel like he didn’t quite fit in there either, a distinct British accent beginning to take hold — an accent he tried to hide.
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But he didn’t return to Nigeria permanently because despite the hurdles he began to enjoy his time in England.
And he would go on to make friends at the boarding schools, friends that he has to this day.
By age 16 he was more or less on his own economically after he turned down his father’s offer to return to Nigeria and work for his dad’s business. Eta found part-time jobs in England to pay some expenses while he “bounced around” the homes of relatives and friends.
But he says these experiences taught him resilience and gave him “grit.”
“I like to look at that time through a positive lens … a lot of it makes me who I am today,” he says.
His studies took him to Luton College in England where he earned a higher national diploma in business information technology and Staffordshire University, also in England, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in technology management.
After arriving in Winnipeg in 1997, he completed his executive MBA at New Brunswick’s Lansbridge University. He also has a master of management from American Sentinel University in Denver.
His jobs have included his role from 2002 to 2003 as senior network engineer/team lead for a company in the San Francisco Bay area. During this period he built the network infrastructure that enabled consumers to purchase the Sony PlayStation online.
After that he became operations manager for Manitoba Telecom Services in Winnipeg, where he headed and planned all web hosting endeavours for the company’s provincial operations.
His other positions included director of information services and head of technology in Winnipeg for a top 100 Canadian pension fund for health-care workers, and vice-president of technical architecture and director of business and technology solutions for a U.S.-based global outsourcing firm that provides services to government health and human services agencies in the U.S., Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia and the U.K.
Eta, who now lives in Toronto with his spouse, joined the City of Toronto two years ago as deputy chief information officer, and one of his achievements in that position was helping establish the city’s municipal cyber security program. He also oversaw security awareness training and vulnerability assessments for the city.
He was paid $202,581.19 in salary last year in that position.
In a statement, Toronto city manager Chris Murray said Eta has built a “strong reputation as a trusted adviser and change leader” since coming to the city.
Eta says this new role is a culmination of his past work and studies.
“Coming here, now, working on a file like this, with technology, data, consultations — it’s exactly where I believe I should be,” he says of his new position.
“All the things I’ve done have come together for this role. My journey took me to Toronto.”