A panel of experts advising Waterfront Toronto on Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for a high-tech neighbourhood on the waterfront continues to express concern about the latter’s intentions to collect data as part of its plan.
The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP), a group of people with expertise in areas such as data and data collection, technology and privacy released a report Wednesday saying they questioned whether “sufficient benefits had been identified to justify the proposed collection or use of data” for certain proposed innovations by Sidewalk Labs.
The Google sister firm intends to use sensors and other data-collecting devices to monitor things including pedestrian traffic, noise, weather conditions, and energy and garbage use in the residential and commercial district it proposes for a 12-acre plot of land on the waterfront called Quayside.
With regards to Sidewalk Labs’ digital innovations and digitally enabled services, the advisory panel “expressed hesitance” about giving specific advice to Waterfront Toronto, saying it was “premature” to do so before a subject-matter expert on the proposal had the opportunity to evaluate the efficacy of the digital innovations.
The arms-length, 13-member advisory panel also said the most significant outstanding issues for them was generally the “lack of a fully realized digital governance framework and the need for expedited public sector leadership.”
The City of Toronto has launched public consultations aimed at developing a governance framework — new rules and regulations that would govern privacy, data collection and digital infrastructure in smart-technology projects such as Sidewalk Labs’.
But that governance framework would take until late 2021 to finalize, a recent city report said.
Privacy commissioners at both the provincial and federal levels have called for changes to their laws, and both levels of governments are also conducting reviews and/or consultations on their digital strategies, the panel report noted.
Waterfront Toronto’s board is set to vote May 20 on whether to accept or reject the proposal from its “innovation partner” Sidewalk Labs.
The digital panel report suggests pushing back the approval date or deferring approval of the digital elements until after a framework is in place.
The digital panel’s new report is a followup to their preliminary commentary released last summer in which the panel criticized Sidewalk Labs’ massive master plan of more than 1,500 pages, calling the blueprint “frustratingly abstract,” “repetitive” and over-focused on the what rather than the how of the data innovations.
Last summer’s report also took aim at the section of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal calling for the creation of an urban data trust that would govern data collected in the new Quayside district.
Since that time Sidewalk Labs’ proposal has changed significantly to include the Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto’s agreement to let Waterfront Toronto, rather than a trust, oversee data collection, and a new digital innovation appendix that lays out in more detail the types of innovations the company wants to deploy at Quayside and the kind of data the devices would collect and for what purpose.
In Wednesday’s report the panel called Sidewalk Labs’ appendix a “significant improvement” over its master plan — however the panel said it “remains problematic” in important areas and there are still gaps.
One proposed innovation the panel takes aim at is monitors that would be part of a metered “pay-as-you-throw” garbage-disposal system.
The panel members said in theory the main benefits would be a) building owners would be able to allocate waste removal costs to individual residential units and b) there would be an incentive for tenants to reduce their waste.
But some panel members said the metering system has privacy implications.
“Pay-as-you-throw introduces a new form of surveillance. It is more intrusive than pay-as-you-throw for individual homeowners in Toronto, since (homeowners) pay an annual fee for a particular size receptacle and are not metered based on weight, volume or the kind of waste,” the panel says.
“Where waste disposal fees are on a per-building basis and built into the cost of the rent, these extra burdens (for families that produce more waste like seniors or those with babies) are shared across the entire building, as opposed to being allocated to specific units in ways that may add increased financial pressures,” the panel report says.
Waterfront Toronto’s reply to the panel report, also released Wednesday, noted a technical evaluation of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal found 90 per cent of the proposed innovations are worth advancing and aligned with Waterfront Toronto’s public policy objectives.
Waterfront Toronto says it doesn’t believe there’s a policy void when it comes to a digital framework, but rather an “evolving policy frontier.”
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Waterfront Toronto says construction at Quayside will likely not start earlier than 2023, with occupancy not likely before 2025, and in the interim there will be “extensive opportunities” for ongoing government and public input on Sidewalk Labs’ proposal if it proceeds, including the digital components.
The City of Toronto will also be voting on the project, on a yet-to-be specified date.
If Waterfront Toronto approves the Sidewalk Labs project May 20, a date of Dec. 31 has been set for Waterfront Toronto to decide whether it reaches an implementation agreement with the company.
Meanwhile, a second round of public consultations on Sidewalk Labs’ proposal will kick off Feb. 29 at a downtown hotel.