Living it up in Google City, Toronto

If we can’t trust the government to run 21st century countries, should Alphabet help us run 21st century cities? 🤔

**What Barcelona are doing is very good — see the last section**

🤓🤓 DHL’s smart specs from last week stayed with me over the weekend. The devices, which are connected and process the world in front of them in milliseconds, will begin to dominate our interaction with the large public bodies as well as companies, as the chain of innovation takes this tech past DHL and into the public sector.

This is gnawing at me specifically because of the Public Service Card (PSC) here in Ireland. [The PSC programme apparently stores biometric data like facial identity on a central database. It is ontologically unique in being both mandatory and non-compulsory. Great work exists on this by Elaine Edwards and a digest is here at Privacykit]

The current, confusing, picture is a database that has your face but not your biometrics. DHL’s smart glasses, rapidly moving into the category of hardware that is easy to procure, easily act as a bridge between that growing database and your interactions with the state. They can call up your image to automatically verify your identity — the main reason given for the PSC’s existence — and track where, how and when you engage with various arms of the state.

It is possible to equip citizen-facing services with the devices and go well beyond an NFC card to begin stockpiling regular data updates on citizens.

The way the government here have laid the foundation for such a potentially powerful tool has been breathtaking. Dissembling and denials have managed to get them investigated by the Data Protection Commissioner. Questions over whether the data already correlates licence plate numbers from another database suggest incompetence at best on the government’s part.

These projects — and the sort of IoT technology coming in the next decade that creates immediate real-world action from the data — demand far higher levels of discussion, planning and forethought.

Two stories this week from cities — Toronto and Barcelona — only highlight just how much work has to be done creating lines and boundaries of respect and autonomy for citizens.


Can Alphabet Run a City?

Sidewalk Labs is Alphabet’s Smart City company. Last week Toronto handed over a portion of their waterfront as a lab for testing new technologies for living and working in urban areas.

What does that mean? It is not clear. Toronto is offering something of a blank slate brownfield site to the tech giant so they can experiment with technology and urban design. Inevitably, that means the Internet of Things (Smart Cities division) is going to be called on to do the heavy lifting.

It might be early days but I can’t find statements on privacy, data protection or responsible data use on the Sidewalk or Waterfront websites.

Privacy policy?

What the project has not scrimped on though is blurb and promotional effort.

It seems likely this is heading for the rocks of publicly elected Councillors.

But the proposals also raise serious questions about the public’s privacy in a neighbourhood that would be full of cameras and sensors, as well as how the new designs would actually get built.
“They have no permission to build anything,” said Coun. Paula Fletcher, who has been heavily-involved in plans to redevelop the nearby Port Lands.

We know what Google want. Data. Lots of it. Generated by us. As freely as possible.

Meanwhile, he says it’s fairly clear what Google’s after.
“To get the data of a community… could be very powerful,” Kenney says, adding that even extends to the planning process.
Google, he explains, is all about learning. The chance to gather information as it moves its ideas into a plan that will be put before the public, he said, could be worth the investment alone.

The data that gets generated here is enabled by smart devices. Connected sensors actually refers to things like cameras to measure volumes of people, anti-social behaviour, your emotional states etc. Temperature and air quality gauges, traffic sensors to monitor flow and speed, parking space monitors etc. The problems are these data are so easily personally identifiable that handing over control and management to a tech company like Google is — at best — an unproven exercise and — at worst — potentially damaging to community well being.

What’s obvious is this one will keep coming up on the newsletter.

Catalan Data Sovereignty

The alternative approach to getting better cities from smarter technology comes from Barcelona this week. I have been consistently impressed with the open and democratic approach the region has taken to trying to harness IoT technology (which will inevitably be made and sold) for public good and social development.

Barcelona issued the latest plank in their framework for data innovation in cities. As a statement of principles and a course of action it is clearly the right way to conduct your business. Establish the ground rules for engagement and development of digital public services. Accept that part of our lives are out-of-bounds for these projects — they are not data hoovering exercises — and benefit from more rounded services which citizens can believe in and trust.

It follows new directives based on putting citizens first, establishing the use of agile methods for ICT projects and proposing a focus on technological sovereignty. That means taking back control of data and information generated by digital technologies, and promoting public digital infrastructures based on free and open source software, open standards and open formats. It will also be rolled out in line with an ethical data strategy, where privacy, transparency, collective rights to data and other citizens’ fundamental rights are core values.

In stark contrast to Toronto’s announcement the first principle of Barcelona’s programme is:

An end to the oligarchy of technology providers

There is so much that is commendable and teachable to instances from our own awful PSC card through to handing over a city to Alphabet for redevelopment in Google’s image. We are not getting our arms around the challenges of new technology in our governments but handing it over to Google or falling back on the old ‘trust us’ routines are no longer going to be acceptable.

Citizens are increasingly data literate enough to know they are due respect, privacy and sovereignty under a 21st century data regime. They might not rise up for it yet but if there are beacons of good practice, hopefully it is easier to expect higher standards from our own administrations.