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Sidewalk Labs urged to justify digital solutions

A new report acknowledges the potential benefits of the digital infrastructure proposals for Waterfront Toronto but questions whether they create sufficient public benefits.


Sidewalk Labs should justify why digital approaches to solutions have been chosen over non-digital ones for its smart city development in Toronto, according to a new report from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP).


The panellists, including experts in digital privacy and innovation, acknowledged the potential benefits which could be realised through certain digital infrastructure proposals, but questioned their appropriateness and necessity, as well as whether they create sufficient public benefits.


The DSAP has released its Supplemental Report on Sidewalk Labs’ Digital Innovation Appendix, which provides commentary on Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs’ latest proposals for the controversial Waterfront Toronto initiative.


The 483-page Digital Innovation Appendix (DIA) was published by Sidewalk Labs in November and aimed to address some of the questions raised following the release of the 1,500-page draft master innovation and development plan (MIDP) in June.


Details outstanding


The DIA outlines all proposed digitally enabled services for Waterfront Toronto, aiming to clarify the ‘how’ and ‘who’ for each service as well as the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.


The proposal features 18 digitally enabled systems with 52 “subsystems”. Systems outlined, including self-driving rubbish bins, dynamic kerbs, heated pavements, a pay-as-you-throw waste system, a mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) platform and more.


In the DIA, Sidewalk Labs noted that no facial recognition will be used at Waterfront Toronto and that 60 per cent of subsystems don’t generate any personal information.


The DSAP said the DIA is significant improvement over the MIDP but that "concerns remain".


The DSAP said the DIA was a significant improvement over the MIDP but that: “Concerns remain notably, that certain critical details are still outstanding.”


Show your work


In a blog post, Michael Geist, chair of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, said: “Overall, the report focuses on DSAP panellists’ belief that it will be critical for all parties associated with this project to ‘show their work’ to support a full review by the Panel.”


For Waterfront Toronto, he said this means being clear about the digital governance framework that will apply to the project, and providing insight about the findings of its evaluation, both with respect to the anticipated effectiveness of the proposed solutions and to any considerations associated with Sidewalk Labs as a partner.


He said: “For Sidewalk Labs, this means providing additional context for their digital proposals, including but not limited to an explanation of why digital approaches to solutions were chosen over non-digital ones (to support claims of ‘digital restraint’), how the effectiveness of proposed systems and initiatives will be measured, and how any potential negative impacts against marginalised or vulnerable groups will be identified and addressed.”


“The Panel recognises that some of the digital proposals may further evolve, and some may be removed entirely. The DSAP looks forward to continuing to provide advice to Waterfront Toronto on the Innovation Plan for Quayside,” Geist added.


A spokesperson for Sidewalk Labs told SmartCitiesWorld: “We appreciate the feedback from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel to date and through this report.


“We are pleased to see that the Panel found the Digital Innovation Appendix we published in November 2019 helpful. In particular, we appreciate that they recognised the value in having a comprehensive list of technologies that could be deployed in Quayside to ensure the discussion of the project is based on the facts of what is – and is not – proposed.


“The proposal for Quayside does not include – and has never included – any surveillance systems, social credit scores or facial recognition. Like the rest of Toronto, all streets and parks would be publicly owned and operated by the city. And while there will be digital technologies embedded in Quayside’s buildings to achieve our sustainability goals, the personal information that would be collected is for energy and waste management and billing purposes – the same as for residents across Toronto today.”

They added: “As we have stated from the beginning, we are committed to complying with all existing and future privacy legislation, regulations and policy frameworks. We look forward to reviewing this feedback and further conversation with the Panel.”


Decision pending


In November, the board of Waterfront Toronto unanimously agreed that Sidewalk Labs’ proposal to create a smart neighbourhood in a disused area of Toronto’s Quayside district could proceed to more formal evaluation and further public consultation. The scope of the project was scaled back, though, including the amount of land, the oversight of data and the “lead developer” role.


Last month, the Board of Waterfront Toronto pushed the deadline for making a final decision on whether the project will go ahead back to May 20, from March 31, to allow more time for public consultation.


In November, the board of Waterfront Toronto unanimously agreed that Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for Toronto’s Quayside district could proceed to more formal evaluation and further public consultation.


"The successful execution of this highly detailed plan would produce the most innovative district in the world," said Dan Doctoroff, CEO, Sidewalk Labs, in June but the proposal has faced ongoing controversy, with high-profile advisors standing down over concerns about privacy and personal data. A group of citizens launched the Block Sidewalk campaign to try and stop the deal and in April 2019, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) said it was taking legal action against Waterfront Toronto and the federal, provincial and municipal governments over citizens’ rights and “surveillance” relating to the project.


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