Sidewalk Toronto: Gaslighting Toronto Residents Backfired — Capacity’s Built and Power’s Shifted

A year. A year to come clean.

Can you imagine the gall.

I remember the first public roundtable when I spoke to Alyssa Harvey Dawson about data collection and ownership at the sensor level in the city. Alyssa is the Sidewalk Labs lawyer that wrote their new data trust blog post. In the same conversation I suggested that if Sidewalk Labs had specific ideas to share, they should bring them out in public early — that way they could build support for things they wanted to do. That doing real consultation wasn’t just managing critics but building community and support as well.

Advice provided early and ignored wholesale this entire time.

Instead this company is running a theatrical, dishonest, and patronizing marketing/influencers/public relations/crisis communications campaign on our city while our politicians grow increasingly uncomfortable. Sidewalk Labs continues to act like it’s the government. And now, we the residents are supposed to be excited about this company’s involvement in the governance of our data? Seriously? How stupid could a company think the people in this city are?

A Google-affiliated company acting like a deer in headlights on data issues. For a year. Draining our community of time and energy. We were tasked with both defining and ensuring that our data, data that all three levels of government should have protected for us in the RFP *from day 1*, were indeed sorted, while *also* knowing that this was a slow-play energy-sucking game of daresies about our data that would eventually end with Sidewalk Labs saying “toldya!”.

Closed operating models for public engagement were not successful

The charades and gaslighting were diversion tactics and Sidewalk kept extending them, unabashed and undaunted. Check out Sidewalk Labs, our “partner”, sitting on this data trust idea for eight months while people wondered and worried and eventually got engaged on the issue of data ownership. Creating that fear in residents backfired. In a collective act of self-education, in the face of this bad behaviour, we got data on the front page of our weekly local paper.

This was unthinkable a year earlier. And it all happened because no one on either side of this “partnership” was filling the dead space with education and information and truth. For a year. By choice. Not for lack of money. Sidewalk Labs has 11 million USD allocated to communications (schedule C). Not for lack of time. Not for lack of expertise. It was strategic. There is no other answer.

Treating people like they were stupid for being concerned while simultaneously not sharing information and teaching about the issues created little sparks of irritation. Then a smallish fire started burning. Sure, the public discourse has been way too much about privacy (that’s PR) and way too little about power, control, and use (those are the real issues) but not for much longer. We’re here.

After a full-on storm of bad press in the last few weeks, calling out all the bad behaviour by everyone involved, Sidewalk’s hand was forced to make this announcement— the wheels had come fully off the bus. They had to pull the plug on the data charade and play the “see, what were you worried about?” card to try and course correct the story.

To be clear, there are many others charades rolling around out there on this deal, from real estate to infrastructure, but for now, one tentacle at a time.

Well Done Toronto Residents

Let’s count the other successes we’ve had. First was the beautiful outpouring of engagement on the list of community-generated questions for Sidewalk Labs that happened when the project launched. The list that was then ignored when it all got too complicated. Also, way to go Toronto for knowing early and still knowing today that this deal is about more than data and tech. And for calling out the “innovations” that aren’t. We’ll be dredging up the community question list again soon. Time for us to write the answers that we aren’t getting.

Then we got this utter mess of a public consultation extended until Spring 2019. Imagine that this was supposed to be done by now? This extension has also given our bureaucracies more time to prepare. They’ve been on it the entire time but more time is helpful. This is hard, for real.

Next, Toronto, well done on coming to the table and making sure that the data that our three levels of government should have protected for us *from day one in the RFP* was part of this discussion. In related news from Sidewalk’s latest blog post, open data is not something for Sidewalk Labs to announce, this is their hubris again. Setting that aside, this stupid game of slow-play chicken about our data is finally over.

Finally, people in Toronto and people in cities around the world, thank you for standing up and getting in touch. Thank you Bernard Rudny for highlighting that Waterfront Toronto is not subject to freedom of information laws. Thank you Julie Di Lorenzo for sounding the first alarms while on the Waterfront Toronto board and for leaving in protest. Thank you Pam Sethi for preparing us to talk about Sidewalk’s CityBlock, a company that gives everyone I speak to heartburn. Thank you Saadia Muzaffar for the next alarms you sounded about the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. Thank you Nasma Ahmed for your ongoing leadership building digital literacy and community capacity to respond to all of this.

These flares helped people find each other and gave them confidence to speak out. This has been hard. Thank you to everyone that has been in touch asking how you can help. Thank you for your advice and your time.

Data Trusts — People are the Rule Makers, Vendors are the Rule Takers

I was at the MyData conference a few months ago and had the amazing fortune to meet Sean McDonald. He helped me start to understand how talking about the usage of our data and how to manage it, rather than its ownership, was one possible way out of the deadlock of the data issues that we’re facing. And one way to talk about the rules for the usage of our data is through data trusts. Specific rules about usage, not wide open free-for-all licenses, like open data.

Open data is full of power asymmetries, among other problems, so it’s not the answer in a lot of cases. Of course corporations are doing open data now because it has no impact on their competitive advantage and makes them seem kind and community-minded (again, Sidewalk, not your call to make).

Anyhow, Sean came to Toronto and shared his time and knowledge with us a few weeks ago. We wrote a little piece together about data trusts and a made a short video. And we and some others, thank you Pamela Robinson and thank you Jennie Faber, made space for our community to have a few meetings to start to think data trusts through a bit more, together. The government didn’t make that space, Waterfront Toronto didn’t make that space, and Sidewalk Labs didn’t make that space. We did.

And in this time with each other, Toronto residents began to figure out that there are a few critical power relationships to define in data trusts. One key condition that some Toronto residents have been talking about so far is the need to be clear about is who is in charge of a trust and who is a user of its data.

In the Sidewalk Toronto case, Sidewalk Labs would be the licensee of a trust, like any other company or organization might be. A user. That’s it. They might be allowed to use the data, but they’re not in charge of it, nor do their needs drive data collection.

As Blayne Haggart points out below, the confusion and blurring of roles between vendor and government continues to create confusion. It’s the flaw in this process that demands vigilant attention.

Today’s rushed data trust announcement tried to bluster though this — Data trusts! Celebrate! Why were you worried? Look at us! So Here for You All Along! Nope — nah.

No one cares what Sidewalk Labs wants to do with a data trust. This is between Toronto residents and their governments. They burned the opportunity to help convene and start that discussion with Waterfront Toronto jointly. They seem to find united fronts on other topics, why not this one? Instead they opted to talk about wooden buildings together.

Sidewalk Labs was thinking about data trusts eight months ago? Maybe they should have been straight about it then. Maybe we’d be elsewhere on this and onto other new and fun things. But no. Now we’re where we should have started. A bad faith fiasco.

It’s telling that Sidewalk tried *yet again* to frame this conversation. It’s not theirs to frame, and this is the original sin of the RFP — they should never even be in this position, this is Waterfront Toronto’s mess to answer for.

Process matters. Process matters so much. And nothing about this announcement does anything to show any willingness to adapt or listen to advice or to truly engage people or understand their role here as a company. How you do business matters.

Happy News x2 and Where We Can Go Next

First, a really happy-making announcement. A stellar crew of people are volunteering their time to help from here on out in a more organized way because this process can’t be trusted alone and we’re stronger together. To that end, we’ve created the Toronto Open Smart City Forum to assist the public in responding to proposed and existing networked forms of urbanism like Sidewalk Toronto.

You can join our mailing list here . At the top of our agenda is continuing our education and positioning work on data trusts. Huge thanks to The Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University for providing administrative support for the group. The Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University is a hub for public education, research and advocacy on free expression and the public’s right to know. It’s a perfect fit.

Second, Waterfront Toronto has a great opportunity this week to truly create some legitimacy within its Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. And our new group can work with panel members to feed community input into the data trust structure for Waterfront Toronto. Three panel members, Andrew Clement , Teresa Scassa, and Jutta Treviranus are well involved in related research. We’ll share our input with the panel because that’s the right arena.

Now will Waterfront Toronto address the mess it’s created for this panel, as Saadia Muzaffar took the time to detail and define, and fix it? Lack of public notes, NDAs, no commitment to implementing advice, missing members, and incomplete representation are all looming.

I’ll be at the next Digital Strategy Advisory Panel meeting on October 18th at 1 pm. 20 Bay Street, Suite 1310. Here’s the agenda. See you there?

“When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” ― Maya Angelou