The case for a public, democratic, municipal API in Toronto

Sidewalk Labs faces a digital infrastructure problem familiar to Toronto web developers and designers. The solution lies in an urban technology vision much larger than Sidewalk Toronto.

Photo by Dan Newman on Unsplash

Web developers at Sidewalk Labs — the Google-funded, New York based private firm that is working on a tech-first waterfront neighbourhood in Toronto — have been busy. While the New York based consulting team at Sidewalk Labs has offered few details on its implementation plan, the Toronto based web development team has already released two map-centric web applications: Old Toronto, a historical photo collection map, and Toronto Transit Explorer, a mobility guide map.

Both web-based applications are beautifully designed, solidly engineered, and noteworthy for Toronto tech geeks, because for all the discussion about Sidewalk Labs as a catalyst for government innovation, their web development team is running into a familiar problem that Toronto has dealt with for years: a lack of public, democratic technology institutions to support digital innovation. For socially conscious web builders interested in public good, many of whom have already spent years building civic tech applications at great personal cost, the lack of public, institutional support has widened gaping divides in Toronto’s social, political and environmental digital future.

The root problem is not about a lack of technology; it’s about a lack of political and policy imagination. This political and policy vacuum is not an engineering problem that can be fixed through better technology. That means the solution to our technology woes isn’t more Google. The solution is a vision of a digital Toronto that is bigger and more powerful than anything Google could propose.

Sidewalk Labs is only now running into the digital infrastructure problems that Toronto web developers have run into for a decade.

In the last ten years, there have been a wide range of mobile and web applications, built on first and third party data, that act as location-based services in Toronto for TTC transit vehicle tracking, cycling route management, child care locators, local retail locators, waste pickup management and other civic services. With few exceptions, these applications were built on an open data set, a user-generated data set, or scraped data extracted from proprietary systems.

In most cases, local web developers and designers plan, design, develop, test, deploy and support these civic engagement tools with virtually no public or private institutional data support. Lacking sufficient time and money, these applications, and their underlying data infrastructures, become side projects, and many become orphaned, defunct, out-of-date or unreliable. When their shelf life is over, the projects are forgotten, because our public institutions don’t treasure these data sources as part of a larger story around technology and public interest advancement.

Both Sidewalk Labs applications follow a product development process that Toronto developers have always used:

  1. Find an undervalued, disparate civic data collection (e.g. historical photos, transportation metrics, etc.).
  2. Develop a lightweight data infrastructure, using an open standard data format, to aggregate data sources and standardize data access.
  3. Design a visually-striking, web-based, open source map that spatially visualizes the previously created data source.
  4. Deploy the application on the Internet, under a subdomain of your brand.
  5. Promote the web application as part of your brand at a neighbourhood meeting.
Screenshot of Old Toronto, built by Sidewalk Labs (courtesy UrbanToronto)
Screenshot of Toronto Transit Explorer, built by Sidewalk Labs

If Toronto can learn anything from these Sidewalk Labs experiments, the lesson is that even with the institutional resources of Google, building lightweight digital infrastructures to support every civic problem is inefficient, unscalable, and prohibitively expensive. As a city, Toronto needs a mechanism to connect disparate data sources, like the ad-hoc data sources built by Sidewalk Labs and the managed data sets contained in Toronto’s Open Data portal, to a larger, connected, managed digital infrastructure. A critical component of that technology platform for technologists would be the introduction of a municipal application programming interface (API).

You can’t plan a digital-first neighbourhood without digital-first public infrastructure.

An API is a sales and marketing nightmare for technology folks. There’s no intuitive user interface, so there’s no easy way to explain to those with less technical literacy why an API is a critical, fundamental investment in technology. It is not an accident that when tech leaders sell or promote an API, the most powerful physical metaphors — a bridge that connects lands, a main road that connects side streets, a water supply shared by all homes in a neighbourhood— are elements of urban, public infrastructure. In the same way that you would never plan a neighbourhood without a system for transportation, communication and essential life, you would never plan a digital-first neighbourhood without an API.

For a digital-first neighbourhood, an API is public infrastructure in every reasonable sense of the word public. There is simply no defensible reason why a municipal API should be planned, designed and maintained as anything but a public asset. A public, municipal API has the inherent advantage of public scrutiny and accountability, as any data collected would be subject to the desires of all residents, not just a particular target market.

In the case of web developers, a municipal API would be an ideal piece of infrastructure to level the playing field for hobbyists, startups and commercial technology vendors, including but not limited to Sidewalk Labs, who could bear the risk of building useful, commercially viable applications on top of the API. It would be a huge employment draw for Toronto based software firms, developers and designers, especially if the output was socially necessary work that a Google employment headquarters would not offer. A municipal API would spur new tech opportunities in academia, non-profit, public sector, charity and activist spaces whose technology needs are often underserved.

Of course, the shape, content and structure of a municipal API would be a lightning rod for public debate, akin to the continuous, lively public debates on the role of streets. What data should be made public and private? How do we allocate fixed resources, like maintenance budgets, bandwidth or network availability? How do we govern access and control? How do we educate residents of varying technological literacy on proper usage? There would be fights over use cases, planning decisions, design implementations and more. There would be the usual technology issues related to growth: splintering, obfuscation, prioritization, communication, education, culture, change management and more. The API would force us to consider tradeoffs between the traditional model of centralized urban planning and emerging, radically decentralized models of data ownership. The only way to ensure these fights happen publicly is to ensure they are an integral part of our civic, democratic institutions.

In an ideal world, Waterfront Toronto would kickstart the creation of an API as part of a broad, shared, digital infrastructure for all current and future real estate projects along Toronto’s waterfront. Unfortunately, a public, democratic, civic API for real estate along the waterfront, supported by publicly funded, publicly supported institutions, is one of many ideas that will not come from any entity involved with Sidewalk Toronto in its current form.

A digital infrastructure for Waterfront Toronto can only be won by organized, motivated, ambitious Toronto residents.

Currently, Toronto finds itself in a political context in which Google, through Sidewalk Labs, is effectively the Chief Technology Officer for Waterfront Toronto. Worse than that, none of the entities involved in Sidewalk Toronto is in a position or has sufficient incentive to challenge the current political context. Sidewalk Labs doesn’t have the social license to propose a publicly owned API that speaks to a vision bigger than the narrow interests of Google and its partners. Waterfront Toronto has repeatedly demonstrated a failure to engage residents democratically and to protect the public interest. The City of Toronto technology staff has not been given the time, the resources or a strong political mandate to build a truly useful municipal digital infrastructure. That’s in no small part due to mayors like John Tory, who win political office on the premise of starving government investment in favour of low taxes. The provincial government of Ontario and the federal government of Canada have made some progress on open data, but their priorities have been scattered and the results have been mixed. The history and geography of Canada makes it unlikely that a higher level of government will step in and mandate urban development policies.

The path to a well-designed, publicly owned, socially responsible, democratically controlled API runs directly through a vibrant mix of politically organized, socially minded, ambitious technology literate leaders in Toronto, who can pressure democratically elected political leaders to enact meaningful technology infrastructure reform. The good news is that such groups have begun to develop: Tech Reset Canada, the Digital Justice Lab and The Centre for Digital Rights are already organizing efforts to push for a political conversation on topics like what a public, democratic, urban API would look like — and every technologist interested in a brighter digital future for Toronto can and should support their petition.

When Sidewalk Toronto was announced, the stated objective was to build a modern, forward-thinking digital city of the future. This vision can be realized with or without Google. Toronto has already proven it has the engineering talent to build the necessary technological stack. But a truly democratic vision of Sidewalk Toronto, one that includes support for a municipal digital infrastructure, can’t be fixed with more technology. The sooner that Toronto web development communities see Sidewalk Labs and its technology vision as a political problem, the sooner we’ll be able to fix the politics in Toronto — and then get back to fixing engineering problems in Toronto.