Civic Tech: The City of Toronto must remain a public platform

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Civic Tech: The City of Toronto must remain a public platform

Sidewalk Labs' ideas for Quayside are not intended to stay in Quayside.

Photo courtesy of Sidewalk Labs.

Heading into a year of public consultations on Sidewalk Labs in Toronto, Civic Tech brings you this first piece in a series that will explore a range of issues raised by residents concerned about the project.

For background, see this piece, and consider adding your questions to the ongoing community question document.

If you have an idea for this series or would like to contribute, please contact our editor.

Our city cannot become a privatized digital platform

In the tech world, the word “platform” is used to describe an interconnected set of products and services. Sidewalk Labs has not been shy about using the word to describe the way it sees cities.

Dan Doctoroff, chief executive of Sidewalk Labs, has likened the city to the operating system of a mobile phone, saying:  “What made [the smartphone] ultimately magical is that it enabled millions of people around the world to use their imagination and skills to create apps that, in most cases, no one ever dreamed the platform would be used for and keep it fresh, changing, useful, and current.”

To keep with the analogy, Sidewalk Labs should never be our operating system. That’s the role of government. If Sidewalk Labs wants to build some apps, they’re welcome to do so. But these apps will need oversight, especially since they may seek to disrupt the delivery of public services.

The great and dangerous advantage of the technology sector is that it can go straight to market and its consumers via the internet. That can make tech products seem inevitable, instead of conditional on appropriate regulation. (Think of Uber’s operating strategy.) As we move into a consultation on Sidewalk Labs, which will likely include some pilot projects, we must remember this: although consultation is a step in the right direction, it is not a substitute for policy or law. It’s an input to both.

 

Beware the blurring line between private and public sector language

Here’s Rohit Aggarwala, head of urban systems at Sidewalk Labs, quoted in a piece in Smithsonianmag.com about the project. It’s an example of a communications strategy that makes Sidewalk Labs sound like the government, an issue that goes persistently unchecked in the press:

Aggarwala also offers assurances that the purpose of gathering so much data is not a commercial one. “This isn’t about trying to figure out how we make money from capturing all this information for advertisers. That’s not our objective,” he says. “Our objective is to build a great neighbourhood. The only reason we want to capture information is to provide better urban services.

Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, doubled down on this line today in his Sidewalk Labs Reddit AMA. Of course the data collection is for commercial purposes – it may not be for advertising, but for the provision of for-profit urban services. Sidewalk Labs is not the government, nor is it a philanthropic arm of Alphabet. It’s a business. And its sister company, Google, recently received a $2.7-billion (U.S.) fine from the European Commission for anti-trust behaviour. (Google is appealing the decision.)

As you watch Sidewalk Toronto’s communications, you’ll see constant references to leading urban thinkers and theories. This is intended to instill trust and familiarity among the urbanites who are closely monitoring the project, and highlight the city-building aspect of the project while downplaying the tech-business side.

Alphabet, the parent company of Sidewalk Labs, has a market capitalization of approximately $730 billion (U.S.). That is roughly half of Canada’s GDP. For all the times Sidewalk Toronto references Jane Jacobs, don’t forget this.

 

Decision-making on data: Who’s in the driver’s seat?

Sidewalk Labs has said that it will make some of the data from this project available. The problem is that this is not, and never has been, Sidewalk Labs’ decision to make.

There are three core outstanding questions to answer about the data from this and any other smart city project in Canada:

  1. Who can collect it?
  2. Who can use it?
  3. And under what terms?

There is a strong argument to be made that there is only one organization that can collect civic data, whether it’s data from sensors monitoring the environment or from people moving in a public space—the government.

Mita Williams, a librarian at the University of Windsor with a long-time interest in open data, put it this way in a recent tweet: “We are forced to trade our personal data when we use services such as Facebook. But our cities cannot be treated as the same. Civic data should belong to the city.”

From there, in terms of ownership, the list can expand beyond government. Individuals could also own it. Who can use it? Lots of people. It’s here, at this stage, that we get into open data. Global corporations and small businesses alike can use it if, and only if, we all agree it should be open data in the first place.

Having public data collection and access to core information about our cities is a modern-day census, not one we should privatize in any circumstance. Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in information law and policy at the University of Ottawa outlines some of the related issues in this recent piece on data ownership.

Civic data provides critical information to government and residents, to researchers and non-profits and academics and the private sector. So yes, some of it should definitely be open, but determining these details is a task for the government, not Sidewalk Labs.

 

Sidewalk’s insatiable ambition and the network effect

Another reason it’s important to maintain government ownership and control over any platform in our city is a phenomenon known as a “network effect.” A company’s products become more powerful as the number of people using them grows.

Consider Facebook: you use it because everyone else is using it.

Network effects can lead to market domination and monopolies because of the power inherent from having many people use and rely on your product. And once a platform is embedded in society as a social norm, it’s incredibly difficult to dislodge.

Sidewalk Labs has said that their appetite to move beyond the Quayside testing ground and into the rest of the city is “insatiable.” Their model includes a suite of proprietary products that would use a digital platform. See: Waymo (autonomous vehicles), Flow (transportation planning), Waze (traffic data), Cityblock (social-service delivery), LinkNYC (public Wi-Fi), and Nest (thermostats, outdoor security cameras).

Will Fleissig, chief executive of Waterfront Toronto, has said that “Sidewalk’s proposal stood out from more than a half-dozen submissions by demonstrating a plan that can take high-level conceptual ideas, piloting them and scaling them across a city.”

The ideas for Quayside are not intended to stay in Quayside. As such, Toronto must pay close attention to the core governance issues at the heart of this project. It’s critical to ensure that what’s public and vital to our city’s operation stays under public control.


Thanks for reading this first instalment. Next up, Pam Sethi on health care.

We’ll keep you posted on public consultation activities as we learn of them. For now, your best bet is to follow @waterfronttoronto and @sidewalktoronto on Twitter and consider signing up for both of their newsletters:  Waterfront Toronto (left hand sidebar) and  Sidewalk Toronto (scroll down, subscribe bottom right).

On December 20, 2017, Waterfront Toronto released the summary report from its first town hall meeting. We at Torontoist were happy to see the community list of questions included, as well as answers to several of them. As the process unfolds, we’ll update the document with official answers. In addition, Patrick Connolly of Civic Tech Toronto has created a spreadsheet of press resources from the listing in the report.

The way this project plays out in the press matters. Technology has its own press. Urban planning has its own press. And business has its own press. Rarely does one publication or sub-section of a publication touch on all three specifics, so it can be difficult to assess the project through these three lenses simultaneously. Throughout this series, we’ll be working to expand on some of the tech, business, and urban planning aspects as they relate to the project and its governance and politics.

 

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