Sidewalk Toronto: Time to Take Data Governance Away from Sidewalk Labs *and* Waterfront Toronto

Bianca Wylie
Nov 12, 2018 · 13 min read

Enough is enough. We need to focus on the public-private “partnership” shakedown happening here.

This post is an overdue debrief with a side of commentary about the last Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel meeting held on October 18th.

But first: Mark your calendars — December 8th is the fourth (of five) public meetings. It’s a Saturday. It’s at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from 9–4:30 and it will be live-streamed if you can’t join. Credit to the organizing team for returning to the status quo of a) hosting a public meeting at a neutral space and b) not requiring registration.

October 18th Digital Strategy Advisory Panel Meeting Debrief (agenda)

High-Level Summary and that Damned RFP

Mark your calendars, again. This Thursday, November 15th is the next meeting of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. This meeting is open to the public, details in the agenda. It appears as though this meeting might serve as a forum to address governance issues raised by Saadia Muzaffar’s resignation from the panel (her full letter is here), and also the issues voiced by others on the panel recently regarding the panel’s purpose and how it’s working so far (and mostly not working).

On October 18th, Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel met for the first time following Saadia’s resignation. Rather than address the myriad issues she raised, everyone wanted to try and get the train that was off the rails back and closer to the track. They wanted to get into “doing things” (governance side note: generally not a good idea to skip over process concerns but here we are).

To that end, Sidewalk Labs lobbed its PR stunt of a data trust proposal over the fence to the panel. Which, of course, unleashed the next cascade of public relations chaos — Ann Cavoukian’s resignation. Anyway, let’s park that because, say it with me now, privacy is the brightest red herring of this project and that fire needs no more oxygen.

So back to the panel. Actually, first, back to this godforsaken Request for Proposal which is the genesis of every major problem with this project. From page 17, under Partner Scope & Deliverables, Section 4: Economic Development & Prosperity. This is the section that defines what the “partner”, Sidewalk Labs, is responsible for:

Create the required governance constructs to stimulate the growth of an urban innovation cluster, including legal frameworks (e.g. Intellectual Property, privacy, data sharing), financial considerations (including investment opportunities and revenue sharing expectations), deployment testbeds and project monitoring (KPI’s, reporting requirements and tools to capture data).” (emphasis mine).

What this means is that a public corporation with an economic development mandate has handed over the data governance work to an Alphabet subsidiary with the expressed direction to think about it in the context of growth stimulation of an urban innovation cluster.

Think on that for a minute or two. I’ll wait.

I’m waiting. Don’t scrimp on reflection time :)

Economic development cannot be the rationale for a data governance construct. We’ve done it for three decades and it’s done. It’s a bad idea. No more.

If we put economic development at the front of the rationale, we are saying that residents in this testbed are automatically thought of as data inputs for monetary gain first and people second. And nevermind only humans. All data. Sunlight, shadows, environmental, transportation, aggregate data.

What about data for science? For public good? Don’t try and tell me that’s accomplished by open data alone and if you want to try I’ve got a few thoughts.

This description is the SOLE mention of data governance work in the entire RFP. Control-F the document. I did. And this careless (or intentional? who knows?) request of a vendor from an economic development public corporation to an Alphabet subsidiary is being used as a global example of how to do data governance for a city?

Shut. It. Down.

Apart from this incredibly flawed and out-of-date concept that drives over the idea of public policy goals and human rights, note the party that has been put in charge.

Alphabet. This is the heart and soul of the error of this part of the deal and again: every government representative and consultant that read this RFP and let it go out the door like this is culpable and complicit. I feel almost bad for the Waterfront Toronto board in this particular context because there is no way they signed up for this.

Everyone always wants the way out, the positive way from here, the constructive advice — so here it is:

Option 1. Shut it down and start again. Fix and re-tender the RFP. This would not look like we’re anti-business it would look like we take our democracy seriously.

Barring that, option 2: Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto sit down together and say, you know what? We shouldn’t have written the RFP like this. Sidewalk Labs you shouldn’t be in charge of all of this so strike that. And Waterfront Toronto, as it said at this panel meeting, aren’t the experts in this either. So you know what they should do? Call on the governments and agencies and independent parties with jurisdiction and hand it over to them.

You don’t keep going with this erroneous and dangerous framing and you don’t punt it to a set of volunteers. This is a complex topic. It requires democratic participation. If you know me, you know I’m as irritated with the federal government overdoing it on economic development for the national data strategy and have questionable confidence in the province and City given how they’ve been hanging out in the background but hey — I’m going for damage mitigation here. In concert with a range of other tactics, including data trusts.

At the panel meeting, to their credit, Sidewalk Labs was *way closer* to saying this than Waterfront Toronto - they talked about how they had reflected on concerns and decided that they wanted to set up a process where someone other than them was the steward. Now they have the rest of the project to hold that line and stay back from this work in the lead role. They certainly have a role to play, as do all vendors, but it’s minor not major.

And before anyone has a meltdown here about any of this idea being anti-business — the main idea for how we do our data governance is that we should set the guardrails for how we want to use data in how we live and exist in cities and support human rights. Once we’ve got that sorted we can procure and innovate all day long. We’ll do great things with urban tech. We already are. It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s a democratic linear choice.

We Won’t Break the Law or Make an Illegal Smart City

This RFP backstory makes some of Waterfront Toronto’s remarks at the last Digital Strategy Advisory Panel meeting all that much worse. Waterfront Toronto stated that the proposal will adhere to the laws of the City, the province, and the country. Which was basically saying the project won’t be illegal. Which is about as comforting as Sidewalk Labs talking about their “patient capital” and “long leash” from Alphabet.

It’s not comforting. It’s ridiculous. And it shows that Waterfront Toronto and its advisors either a) don’t understand the current public policy nightmare we’re trying to wrangle and that we’re in a governance vacuum or b) have the immense amount of hubris it would take to think they can get it all sorted by the time this Master Innovation and Development Plan is due (next Spring).

This is enough of a signal to take data governance for this project away from both of these parties and put it in the hands of elected governments.

At the panel meeting, Waterfront Toronto repeated its position that it is not an expert on data governance. It also went on to remind people that they are not in a legal partnership with Sidewalk Labs and are not a party to Sidewalk Toronto. This only confirms the reputational capture that Sidewalk has pulled off through this work. Beyond reputational capture, Waterfront is now using the same words as Dan Doctoroff — catalyst and catalyze.

I’ve heard many people make the argument that this project is a catalyst, forcing us to have hard conversations we need to have. That this project is good because it had to happen. *I* even said it could be helpful early on. But the framing and context of this work as economic development first has destroyed that.

You’re not catalyzing anything when you are framing it to suit one incorrect position. You’re entrenching the problem. By now, these two parties should let the whole thing go and hand it over to government. But because this is a highly theatrical project, they probably won’t — they’ll continue to act as though the context that was set is proper. It’s not.

Beyond that major problem, urgency rarely informs great thinking. Why tether this work to a timeline that was created to suit a real estate transaction? You know how much thoughtful work is being done in cities around the world, and in Canada, to borrow from? Where’s that in this process? It takes time to build that and rushing on this is so, so, Toronto.

Having said all of that, one good forum to have these conversations was announced at the panel meeting. Waterfront Toronto will (finally) be holding its own data process consultation, a set of Civic Labs to talk about data governance. Swerhun Facilitation has been retained by Waterfront Toronto to do this work which bodes well for the process being defensible (disclaimer: I worked at Swerhun for 5+ years). It was there that I learned a lot of what I know today regarding defensible process. I can imagine the work going on at these events will be productive and could create good advice for governments and a place for the community to continue self-organizing on issues such as data trusts and more.

One of the things that I learned at Swerhun was about the importance of a coherent public narrative for any process. So now let’s take a look at how little sense any of the digital and data story makes for this project and how it culminated in the data trust and other news shared by Sidewalk Labs at this meeting.

And before I do this, let me make it abundantly clear as I try to do over and over and continue to fail at — data is but one piece of this project. It is rife with other issues, namely corporate influence on elected governments. But for now, this arm of the octopus.

Digital and Data — A Narrative Chaos and Its Component Parts

The “Digital Layer”

When this project was first announced, it was all about a neighbourhood “built from the internet up”, with a digital layer, etc. There was much reference to doing all the research on all the smart cities from around the world. This was about the marriage of technologists and urbanists. This was only last year. In 2017.

At the panel meeting, panel member Andrew Clement was direct in his lack of patience for this undefined “digital layer”, what did it mean? He repeated the need to: “ground the discussion on concrete examples of Quayside — we have to have a better sense of what is being planned. This is a serious problem. What does it mean to have a digital layer? Cameras? Data flows?”

From this prompt, Sidewalk Labs then revealed that in response to the RFP they spoke about the layers, but given that it comes across to us as centralized/monolithic, that they’ve now decided to do something that is much more decentralized.

The digital layer as constructed in the proposal response would appeal to efficiency-first technocratic governments and to people that don’t understand all the different ways technology can be used. This doesn’t make any sense given how thoughtful they keep claiming to be about tech. But at least that monolith of an architecture is supposedly subsiding. In words. And hey maybe it was something good to talk about and we don’t even know and now we don’t have the chance because no-one was being clear about it.

Data Residency and Localization

On this topic, some members of the panel were decidedly punchy.

Clement to Sidewalk: “I don’t find your arguments persuasive on data localization. We can have data centres in multiple cities. I’m not going to say that [data] can’t go out of Canada, but if it does, you have to meet a high bar. That’s a business decision not a law of nature.”

Panel member and interim chair Michael Geist even more so: “Waterfront Toronto can say data localization is a requirement. You want to play ball, great and if not maybe we don’t continue. Yeah we heard what everybody said but we know better. If engagement is supposed to inspire confidence you can’t do this. This was a highly problematic position to take for any number of reasons. The public had expressed these views and [your position] endangers the confidence we need to have. Citing a business council [on this issue] means [you] see this as a business issue, the community does not see this as a business issue, and communities and governments don’t care that much about business positions and have taken different positions than them. The starting point is not what does the CEO of BCE and other large companies think it’s what the communities think.”

The Data Trust

Panel member Teresa Scassa responded most directly to the panicky data trust proposal by saying: “I’m struggling with having this document shape our conversation, there are so many things that go beyond this document.” And later: “urban data is a subset — governance is getting conflated with privacy — there are so many other issues of security/localization/ownership, etc.”

Most of the panel was super irritated that they were given barely a few days to prepare for the meeting and review the document. Sidewalk Labs apologized profusely and Waterfront Toronto committed to posting and sharing materials in a timely manner.

I’m saying all of this because the panel was forced to respond to the proposal in haste which limits how much one can do. Sean McDonald, someone that’s been thinking and working on trusts for years already, however, got a piece up in quick time, which remains a great read on very early thoughts on the data trust proposal.

The main things that stuck out to me about the trust were a) inventing something called urban data (nope) and b) saying a lot of the data should be open (nope) and c) that it should be one big trust (nope). The fact that Sidewalk stuck these three strategic framing parts into the proposal while also saying they are walking away continue to illustrate the doublespeak problem, which degrades trust in their motives regarding data.

Another thing to note is that these aren’t farm league thinkers on data — this is an Alphabet subsidiary. Yet see this op-ed from Sidewalk Lab’s paid privacy advisor David Fraser : “I have never seen a company take such an interest in the Canadian privacy milieu from the very beginning, wanting to understand it so deeply, including the cultural context in which Canadian privacy values arise. I never had any sense of Sidewalk wanting to find loopholes or squeeze themselves into any such loopholes for their own advantage.”

Like what is even going on here. Our laws are full of loopholes — you don’t have to work too hard to find them. Worse yet it’s that our laws don’t reflect our current societal wake-up around data collection. And this is not a blank slate they are starting at. Sidewalk’s very public work on de-identification, for example, is available and clearly happening before Sidewalk Toronto existed and Ann was brought into the mix.

David also appeared on the recent TVO segment about Sidewalk, saying there that: “I don’t think anybody would have anticipated, especially the critics, when this project was initially launched that we would have ended up in a situation where Sidewalk says we don’t want to control the data. They’ve been open and receptive, this is the result of significant consultation…. This is the result of listening.”

My head hurts. Anyone with a whit of sense would say from day one that of course Sidewalk Labs shouldn’t control the data. I don’t care what current companies are doing and what out-of-date laws let them do. It’s not time to entrench old governance and use out-of-date precedent as argument.

Did Sidewalk Labs really think it should control the data for a year then say … hmmm, maybe not? Again, this is like the monolithic operating system thing — how detached from technologies on the ground are their technologists, or how much of this is full-on theatre? As always with this stuff — it doesn’t matter, who cares? We’ve wasted over a year to get to par, to things that should have been in the RFP, to get to things Waterfront Toronto couldn’t figure out how to correct and then… wait for it, we’re supposed to celebrate Sidewalk Labs’ listening ears?

Final Notes on Process

The panel was also decidedly irritated about the lack of transparency about the general planning work Sidewalk is doing. They asked about why there was such a lack of substance regarding what they are doing, and chided them for how this amps the risk way up. As panel member Kevin Tuer put it: “What is the value proposition? It seems like pure risk — until it’s clear to see how this all works, we need to get on the treadmill.”

Sidewalk Labs’ answer continues with their boil the ocean hubris again: “We want to reduce congestion — how do we use data to do that? Why did it take a year to answer this? We talked about a year of planning — our teams have been working very hard in the last year with use cases, plans, etc. Professionals and community members are working very hard making sure we understand the needs of the community — we take it seriously — to make sure this is credible.”

The City of Toronto knows what it needs. Residents have been clear on community needs for decades. Making all of this more irritating is the lobbying record they’ve got going on. To be 100% clear, there is nothing wrong with lobbying — there isn’t, it’s necessary and helpful.

But I mean take a look at the federal (and that’s only federal) lobbying record here — you think they are talking about nothing all day? This may very well be one of these stupid cases where what a New York firm thinks is public engagement isn’t what Toronto thinks is public engagement. Or co-design. Or whatever. But the truth remains that there is a lot more going on than anyone is copping to and it’s all adding up to the stupid “big reveal” Silicon Valley gotcha BS that impresses no one. Except this dangerous and relentless urban establishment of ours in Toronto, full of vested self-interest and lacking in humility. I wanted to put that in this post but I’m going to punt that as this is getting too long.

The panel prodded at delaying the timeline for the Master Innovation Development Plan, which sounds like it’s a possibility. They asked for more public education to be funded.

I’ll close on this point made by Nicole Swerhun at the panel meeting which is super relevant to the consequences we face due to the omission of any decent public education on this topic. When people understand the consequences of their opinion, it is a high quality public opinion. When they don’t, it’s a low quality public opinion. This process has us set up for low quality and it’s going to take a lot of hands and time to get us to a better place. I’m still going to keep showing up and hope you do too.