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Sidewalk Labs: ‘No one should own urban data’

Sidewalk Labs says it wants to set a “new model for responsible data use in cities”  –  including the establishment of an independent Civic Data Trust.

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Sidewalk Labs, the smart city division of Google-owner Alphabet has put forward new proposals on digital governance for the Waterfront Toronto project.

 

Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, created by the Governments of Canada and Ontario and the City of Toronto, are working to develop a revitalised waterfront which includes a smart city development. It represents one of the largest infrastructure projects in North America and one of the most significant waterfront redevelopment initiatives ever undertaken in the world.

 

Controversy

 

The project has been controversial, with concerns raised about lack of clarity around personal data and privacy. Recently, tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar resigned from the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel of Waterfront Toronto, criticising its “apathy” and saying its “utter lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust and social license” was “astounding”. She also cited concern around the partnership with Sidewalk Labs.

 

A new way ahead?

 

In an email today, Sidewalk Labs said: “The opportunities to improve urban life using data — and specifically urban data collected in the physical environment — also create new questions and concerns about data privacy, ownership, and governance. But while every city faces these challenges in the digital age, no city has put forth a comprehensive plan to overcome them and put data to work for urban populations."

 

“This week we presented some initial proposals on digital governance for our Sidewalk Toronto project — although we believe these ideas can guide the use of data in cities more broadly.”

 

"While every city faces these challenges in the digital age, no city has put forth a comprehensive plan to overcome them and put data to work for urban populations." Sidewalk Labs

 

 

The proposals include:

  • No one has a right to own information collected from Quayside’s physical environment — including Sidewalk Labs. Instead, this ‘urban data’ should be under the control of an independent Civic Data Trust.
  • To protect privacy, all entities proposing to collect or use urban data (including Sidewalk Labs) will have to file a Responsible Data Impact Assessment with the Data Trust that is publicly available and reviewable.
  • With regard to the use of data, one set of rules will apply to everyone. Sidewalk Labs will not receive any special treatment.
  • Sidewalk Labs will use open standards for any digital infrastructure and services it provides — so anyone can plug in or compete.

Sidewalk Labs noted that the proposals are not "fixed or final". They were due to be presented to the project’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel this week for further evaluation.

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