Debrief on Sidewalk Toronto Public Meeting #1— Evasive on Data Products, No Answer on Data Residency

Last week, Sidewalk Toronto held its first public meeting — you can watch a portion of it here. Affordability, sustainability, and income inequality were trotted out again as three headliner issues. These are major issues for government and residents. Treating them as marketing fodder remains uncomfortable to sit through. Through repetition, it may begin to seem normal to talk about how land development and a global product road map can address these major issues. It’s not.

Business Model — Murky

When asked about its business model, and the products and services that Sidewalk Labs expects to create in Toronto, Rit Aggarwala, Head of Urban Systems at Sidewalk Labs, answered that “it’s a little unclear, there’s a bunch of options that could present themselves.” Real estate, infrastructure, and data products made the list, with a comment that data products may represent only a small part of the plan. No data products were named. But are there Sidewalk Labs data products in development? Sure there are. Here are five. The first three are true products, the last two are ‘labs’, but they’ve got names and a focus.

Coord “enables software applications to connect with transport options like ride-hail, bike-share, and car-share.”

Cityblock “is your personalized health system.”

Intersection “enriches people’s everyday journeys by delivering connectivity, information, and content that elevate the urban experience.”

Sense “is exploring digital tools that use real-time data to improve the safety and management of intersections, parks, and other open spaces.”

Model Lab “explores tools that help communities build consensus on affordability, sustainability, and transportation needs.”

Concrete examples to talk about. Why not answer this question directly? If these are the “pilots” that keep being referenced in relation to this project it was the right time to introduce them, and begin to talk about data in context. What data do/will these products use? How will it be collected? Who will own it? Also, on a communications front, there was an update to the commercialization of data language — gone was the “we won’t use data for commercial purposes” language, newly introduced was “Not using or selling personal information for advertising purposes.”

Source: https://www.sidewalklabs.com/
Source: https://www.sidewalklabs.com/

Data Residency— Unclear

Related to discussions of data, a low of the night played out when a participant asked where the data collected from this project would be stored. The direct answer everyone was expecting was Canada. Sidewalk Labs did not answer the question definitively. “We are here in Canada, and the information and data that is going to be collected, we respect it from the beginning — we’re going to engage the data governance group on it.” Then security was raised. It was a perfect moment to commit to keeping the data in Canada. But no.

After five months, this critical discussion about ensuring Canadian data is not subject to American law hasn’t been sorted. Endless hand waving about privacy while skipping this fundamental related piece. Kristina Verner, VP Innovation, Sustainability, and Prosperity at Waterfront Toronto stepped in, saying that “as the public steward, we need to answer this question” and went on to describe Waterfront’s work to address the data residency piece in work to date and their awareness and focus on setting the project in the Canadian legal and regulatory framework. Referring to Sidewalk Labs, Verner told The Canadian Press after the first meeting that “Coming from the States they have a different sort of regulatory environment. One of the things that has been said loud and clear from some of the early advisers … is that data residency is one of those non-negotiables, it must be in Canada.” As Andrew Clement wrote recently in the Globe and Mail: “”Localization” is the most obvious approach to achieving network sovereignty in the case of the internet. This means keeping data within the region of their creation and use whenever feasible; that is, storing and routing the personal data of Canadians within Canadian jurisdiction.”

Infrastructure

Infrastructure as a line of business needs a proper definition. It’s also not normal for this one to be so acceptably vague. At a point in the meeting, Aggarwala spoke of Alphabet’s “eagerness to be patient” with Sidewalk Labs. Not to pressure them into quick returns on their investment. If this was intended to provide comfort it did the opposite. A firm with a long leash to invest slowly and stick around has more potential to build itself into government structures to support a city. Knowing the history of entrenched “partners” within government structures, the sooner we narrow down the infrastructure being considered the sooner we can put policy in place for public good. Infrastructure is by definition a fundamental operational piece of a system, our city. It demands clarity and attention until it’s as clear as, say, real estate development, what this business line actually means in practice.

To End, A Note on Process and Technical Literacy

Sidewalk Toronto seems to have made a common process mistake in thinking that if it had shared details about its plan, the public might think the project is cooked and that the engagement is theatre. Though perhaps counter-intuitive, it’s important to come out with some details early on — to help people focus their input, and to establish trust. This also helps Toronto residents begin to organize where they need to focus on public education, advocacy, and outreach. This project has more unknowns by design than a standard public project. It also appears that everyone thinks it’s ok to keep up this “we don’t know, we’ll figure it out when we get there” line of reasoning. This damages a community’s ability to prioritize its energies around all things relating to data. It can never be forgotten that these meetings are being held assuming baseline comprehension of digital and data themes that simply aren’t true for Toronto residents. While a lot of advisory and engagement work is beginning, there is a short time frame (until the end of the year) to build capacity for residents to truly and meaningfully engage with this project.

It’s understandable not to want to have all the answers at this point. This doesn’t mean holding them back is the right approach either. But the next meeting will require substance — a full exploration of the business model and products. Even if they don’t come to exist, the engagement on this plan in only a little bit about the neighbourhood— it’s more about the model and products and services that might be used there. Those are the legacies that these projects leave behind. To understand them and discuss them we need to know what they are. This was the one meeting where it was ok to focus on hearing people out. Next time there must be details on these issues to respond to.