Policy makers eye data frameworks amid Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project

As a proposal to build a high tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront slowly progresses, policy-makers from the municipal and provincial governments are mulling new data legislation and frameworks to prepare for the age of so-called “smart cities.”

The Quayside project, led by Alphabet Inc.-backed entity Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, has been a lightning rod for data and privacy concerns due to the vast amounts of information it could collect through phones, sensors and other devices used in neighbourhood.

The Ontario government and the City of Toronto are working on developing data governance strategies in the wake of concerns about Sidewalk Toronto’s Quayside project. Image via Sidewalk Labs.
The Ontario government and the City of Toronto are working on developing new governance strategies in the wake of concerns about Sidewalk Toronto’s Quayside project. Image via Sidewalk Labs.

Those concerns were still lingering when the Ontario government quietly launched a three-phase consultation process earlier this month to develop a data strategy for the province that it hopes will create economic benefits and increase public trust and confidence.

The province did not say if the Quayside project had spurred the consultation, but the process began with an online survey seeking feedback on at least one issue Sidewalk will encounter: who should control how businesses use public data and how government ministries should be allowed to share data.

Following the survey, the government will begin province-wide roundtables in the spring and then refine and finalize a strategy in the fall. It is also considering the creation of a data task force.

Meanwhile, at Toronto city hall on Tuesday, Coun. Joe Cressy successfully pushed for the city to host a consultation process and develop a digital infrastructure and smart city framework encompassing matters of privacy, transparency, equity and human rights and protecting public interests in cases where private ownership is involved.

“Quayside is a very public example with Sidewalk Labs, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t expect…other developers to come forward with potentially positive proposals related to the use of sensors and data collection services in private development on public streets, but in the absence of the framework that could be harmful and misused,” Cressy told The Canadian Press.

“Toronto may be late to the game on this, but that doesn’t mean we can’t engage now.”

Cressy’s motion, which names Quayside as a potential use for a data policy, passed unanimously.

Sidewalk has welcomed both Cressy’s motion and the provincial consultations.

“This project has generated an active and healthy public discussion about data privacy, ownership, and governance in cities. We hope that our project will set a new standard for responsible data use, as articulated in our data proposals we released last year,” Sidewalk spokeswoman Keerthana Rang said.

“We look forward to working closely with the city, the province and Waterfront Toronto on this important issue and the policies that follow.”

When it comes to data in Quayside, Sidewalk has said it does not intend to own the data it gathers in public spaces and instead will relinquish control of it to an independent, yet-to-be-created Civic Data Trust.

The trust would set the rules around data use, make it open and accessible to people while offering privacy protection and ensure that Sidewalk Labs does not receive any special status or rights when it comes to data access.

Critics have said that questions remain about how the trust would work and the project itself continues to attract concerns over Sidewalk’s intended scope and its hope to pay for transit and underground infrastructure in return for a cut of developer fees and property taxes.

Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian resigned from her consultancy role on the Quayside project last year amid concerns with whether Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs were committed to de-identifying they would collect at source.

Cavoukian said she has since been informally providing guidance to Waterfront Toronto and through speaking with the organization on a regular basis, feels confident it will commit to de-identifying data.

She commended Cressy on his motion, but expressed some concerns around two levels of government simultaneously looking at similar policies.

“Control and running the policies and governance has to reside with one level of government and to me, the most likely level and the one that makes the most sense is the municipal level,” she said.

Cavoukian said such policies are important because of the backlash the project has faced. Earlier this week, longtime Quayside critics Bianca Wylie and Saadia Muzaffar joined forces with about to create a petition called Block Sidewalk, calling for the end of the project.

However, the Toronto Region Board of Trade, which has suggested the Toronto library handle data governance for projects including Quayside, supports the project as well as the municipal and provincial examinations of a potential data policy.

“There is a lot of potential in smart cities technology, but there is also a lot of issues that need to be managed with data and placement and intellectual property,” said the board’s vice-president of public affairs Brian Kelcey.

“This is a regulatory issue that really should be resolved sooner rather than later.”