This Startup Wants to Help Smart Cities. But They Don’t Know Where Its Data Comes From
By Kate Kaye
Smart city boosters aspire to collect all kinds of data about how people navigate the streets — a prospect that could violate citizens’ privacy even if it might help planners build more efficient cities. That’s why Replica, a spin-off from the controversial Alphabet urban tech firm Sidewalk Labs, uses fake data to create a virtual world that mimics the way real people move through a metropolis. As fabricated as this “synthetic” data is, the company wants governments to use it to inform real-world policy decisions about where new bike lanes are built, what times roads are repaired, and how bus services reach people of color.
Replica has been piloted in Kansas City and sold for use to the state of Illinois. Now, despite its goal to guide policy in Portland, the company has not been fully transparent with municipal staff there about the real-world sources of its synthetic data or how its system works, even in a confidential “data disclosure” that Fast Company reviewed.
Replica has shown reluctance for over a year to give Portland Metro, the metropolitan district overseeing use of its system, sufficient information about its privacy protections. It has not provided Portland Metro with a full report showing the privacy audit the company points to as proof that its system is secure from reidentification of actual people.
“[Sidewalk Labs] isn’t willing to share the full privacy audit,” wrote Eliot Rose, Portland Metro’s technology strategist, in an email to agency staff in February 2019 that Fast Company reviewed. At the time, Sidewalk Labs was still Replica’s parent company. Now, after months of requesting up-to-date and comprehensive information detailing the system’s data sources and methodology, Rose and his team have received only an excerpt.
When asked about Portland’s demands for more comprehensive methodology and data source…