Smart City Proposal For Toronto Waterfront Takes Pains To Explain Data Use And Privacy Protection

June 26, 2019 by Dave Haynes

Sidewalk Labs, a sister company to Google, has released an ambitious set of high level plans for a smart city district to be built on Toronto’s waterfront.

The 1,500+ page master plan proposes that the company would fund up to $1.3 billion to transform a largely derelict 4.8-hectare waterfront property in an old docklands area into a residential-focused “smart city” called Quayside.

The proposal is about many, many things – and maybe deep into it somewhere are specifics about media and things like digital kiosks and large format advertising. I don’t have time to read 1,500 pages, so if you do, let me know what you find. Instead, what struck me and why I am posting this, is the extensive amount of attention paid in the plan’s website about data usage.

Google is fundamentally a media company that leverages the data it collects to enable highly-targeted advertising, so critics of the Toronto development have since it was first announced been making noises about how data would be collected, stored and used by the tech giant. The project brought on high-profile advisors to a panel on privacy issues, but some resigned amid concerns.

In the run-up to this plan being released, the proposed district was being dubbed a city of surveillance – with critics saying the tracking and logging of movement and behavior using things like camera-based sensors and computer vision invades privacy and helps turn citizens into products.

The plan’s highlights include numerous references to how data will be collected and used, including this key section:

First, Sidewalk Labs proposes to establish open digital infrastructure that provides a shared foundation for using urban data to improve quality of life. This core infrastructure would be anchored by ubiquitous, affordable internet connectivity within the IDEA District, consistent with Waterfront Toronto’s aspirations for closing the digital divide. It would also include physical mounts that can significantly reduce the cost of launching new digital innovations and help ensure that cities do not get locked into using proprietary solutions.

Second, Sidewalk Labs proposes to outline clear standards that make data publicly accessible, secure, and resilient. Today’s urban data tends to be scattered across many owners, outdated, or stored in messy file formats, making it difficult for the community to use as a foundation for new ideas. Clear standards would make (properly protected) urban data accessible to researchers and the community in real time, and make it easy for third parties to build new services or competitive alternatives to existing ones.

Third, Sidewalk Labs proposes a trusted process for responsible data use that builds on existing privacy laws and would apply to all parties (including Sidewalk Labs). This process would be anchored by a Responsible Data Use (RDU) Assessment — an in-depth review that is triggered by any proposal to collect or use urban data — and guided by a set of RDU Guidelines that incorporates globally recognized Privacy by Design principles. The process, including approvals, would be overseen by an independent, government-sanctioned Urban Data Trust created to be a steward of urban data and the public interest without stifling innovation. Furthermore, it would ensure that urban data that does not pose privacy risks (such as air-quality data) would be made publicly accessible by default, enabling companies, community members, and other third parties to use it as a foundation to build new tools.

In an FAQ, it also asks and answers:

Does Sidewalk Labs plan to sell personal information?
No. Sidewalk Labs has committed that it would not sell personal information to third parties or use it for advertising purposes. It also commits to not disclose personal information to third parties, including other Alphabet companies, without explicit consent. Finally, Sidewalk Labs has proposed that an independent, government-sanctioned entity approve proposed collections and uses of urban data — information gathered in the city’s physical environment — in the project area by all parties, including Sidewalk Labs.

All that could be subject to interpretation, and suggestions that even if Alphabet/Google/etc didn’t directly use the collected data for advertising, it would be funding. nurturing and steadily tweaking a living lab on consumer/public behaviors and usage. I’ll leave it to people who study this stuff to determine if that is good or bad, or just reasonable.

The implications of this sort of thing on the digital out of home/digital signage industry is how media models are largely what’s being used to fund the digital display/wayfinding/directory aspects of smart cities projects in North America and elsewhere. They are not going in, generally, without a media company bankrolling the screens in return for a media concession. The brands and media planners who book advertising with these kinds of screens want some validation of that audience, and the best (or among the best, at least) is the kind of data generated by camera-based computer vision tech platforms like Quividi and AdMobilize.

In their favor – both companies, as well as some others that do people detection and not recognition – are already in line with the responsible data use principles being touted by Sidewalk Labs for Toronto.

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