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Sidewalk Labs floats signage to demystify smart city tech

Sidewalk Labs has shared prototypes for a new ‘visual language’ to provide more transparency about smart cities and the technology being used.


Sidewalk Labs has launched prototypes for common symbols which it says could be used to make it clearer where hidden technology is being used in cities and the data that is being collected.


The company, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet and is building a smart city district in Toronto, said it developed the visual language collaboratively with 100 participants from various cities.


"We knew that there were some core concepts that people wanted to know while they were in the public realm."


In a blog post, Jacqueline Lu, Associate Director, Public Realm, Sidewalk Labs, said: “From our user research, we knew that there were some core concepts that people wanted to know while they were in the public realm: specifically, the purpose of a digital technology as well as its accountable entity. People also wanted to have an easy way to follow-up and learn more and know if the technology could ‘see’ or identify them.”


Sign of the times


Sidewalk Labs has come up with an idea for signage based on symbols within hexagons which can be chained together to denote the hardware and purpose of the technology, the software and data it uses, and the means of storage.


Lu explains: “One hexagon conveys the purpose of the technology; another, the logo of the entity responsible for the technology; and a third contains a QR code that takes the individual to a digital channel where they can learn more.”


She adds: “In situations where identifying information is collected, a privacy-related coloured hexagon would also be displayed. This hexagon would combine an icon displaying the technology type (video, image, audio, or otherwise) with an icon expressing how identifiable information is used (yellow for identifiable, blue for de-identified before first use, among others). When you are not identifiable, you don’t see this hexagon.”


What next?


Sidewalk Labs’ is making these concepts, including all the workshop activities and materials, publicly and freely available via Github for others to adopt, use and build upon. It says the aim is to collectively advance digital literacy and help people understand digital infrastructure in the public realm.


Sidewalk Labs is also working on a digital solution to make it easy for space managers to create their own signage with QR codes.




Sidewalk Labs’ Waterfront Toronto smart city development has faced ongoing controversy, with questions asked about how smart city data will be collected and managed at the site, as well as criticism about the transparency of the company’s citizen consultation process and the scope of development it is undertaking.


Last week, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) announced it is suing Waterfront Toronto and the federal, provincial and municipal governments over the Sidewalk Labs smart city project.


At a press conference, Michael Bryant, CCLA executive director and general counsel, said: “The Google-Waterfront Toronto deal is invalid and needs to be reset,” although full details of the proposals for the site have not yet been revealed.


In February, a group of concerned Toronto citizens launched a public campaign to stop Sidewalk Labs from going ahead with its proposal for the downtown Toronto development.


"Digital transparency can empower users to meaningfully engage in what is fast becoming a critical conversation of our time."


The Block Sidewalk campaign is inviting residents to sign a petition to stop the project, assess the lessons learned, address the policy issues and then consider a fresh start for the deal.


In her blog post, which was co-written with Sidewalk Labs’ Principal Designer Patrick Keenan and Legal Associate Chelsey Colbert, Lu said: “A movement toward digital transparency can help by providing easy-to-understand language that clearly explains data and privacy implications of digital technologies.


"Digital transparency can empower users to meaningfully engage in what is fast becoming a critical conversation of our time. And, equally important, transparency can nudge both users and data collectors towards best practices.”


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