Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 32: The MIDP Volume 2, The Innovations, Chapter 5: Digital Innovation, Introduction

A series of posts built “from the internet up”

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries and relevant documents available here

There’s a lot to unpack in this chapter, so I’m going to divide it into five (5) posts. That’s a lot of reading, and even more writing, so let’s get started.

Chapter 5: Digital Innovation (pp. 374-463)

Introduction (pp. 376-383)

For some strange reason, Sidewalk Labs has left to the end of its volume on Innovations its discussion of how it will make the Quayside etc. district a smart city. It’s an odd move, when you consider that:

  • the only logical reason the unproven company Sidewalk Labs was hired was because of its connection to Google, the most digital of the digital companies. The digital is supposed to be its competitive advantage;
  • so many of the preceding “innovations” depend on digital connectivity and data collection to function, which would seem to make leading with the underlying system a no-brainer;
  • its initial sales pitch in its response to the Waterfront Toronto Request for Proposals, was that it would build “the world’s first “neighbourhood from the internet up” (Project Vision, p. 15). The phrase “from the internet up appears nine more times in that document; and
  • most importantly, the treatment of data, surveillance and privacy were what has been (rightly) subjected to the most sustained, principled, and coherent public criticism.

The reason, of course, isn’t really strange at all. From the very beginning Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have always been more comfortable talking about cool potential new physical technologies than the data that necessarily makes these smart-city things possible. Back in the pre-Facebook/Cambridge Analytica days, attaching “connectivity” and “the internet” to everything was still seen as a winning public-relations strategy. However, now that people are beginning to understand the pervasive surveillance and data collection needed to run a Quayside-style project in the way envisioned by companies like Sidewalk Labs, that calculation has changed.

And so, the details of how Sidewalk Labs will set up its surveillance network (which is what it is, even though the word “surveillance” appears only twice in the entire MIDP) are buried in the last possible section.

Still, addressing digital and data issues 1,154 pages into a report is better than never discussing them.

Four questions I’ll be keeping in mind:

  1. How Sidewalk Labs situates itself in its proposed governance structures.
  2. The degree of flexibility when it comes to data governance.
  3. The role of standards in this project: who is setting them, and their effects.
  4. The level of detail provided – I’ll want an advance over Sidewalk Labs October 2018 digital governance proposal.

What I’m not expecting:

  • Any major input from Waterfront Toronto, even though they’re the public authority who ideally whould be leading this debate (granting the reality that they lack a deep digital bench).

It’s the final chapter of Volume 2. Let’s go.

Their identified goals (p. 377)

  • affordable digital infrastructure
  • digital infrastructure that is “open to everyone” (everyone? Quality standards for companies that want to piggyback on this infrastructure (will it be public?)

Urban data

information gathered in the city’s physical environment, including the public realm, publicly accessible spaces, and even some private buildings. (p. 377)

That covers a lot of ground.

It’s the surveillance, stupid

This formulation is incorrect:

While Canada has a strong foundation of privacy laws around personal information, and recognizes privacy as a fundamental human right, urban data creates a new set of questions that have surfaced during the Sidewalk Toronto public consultation process.

It’s not “urban data” that creates a new set of questions. It’s Sidewalk Labs’ desire to institute a new system of pervasive, ubiquitous surveillance in all public spaces “and even some private buildings” that “creates a new set of questions.”

Talking about “urban data” is a way of reframing the surveillance question so you don’t have to use the word “surveillance.”

Never on the table: Minimized or no pervasive surveillance, just: how can we classify the data we collect?

Who should set data-governance regulations?

  • Sidewalk Labs is big on arguing that the Eastern Waterfront is the appropriate “scale” on which to realize its dreams. Why is a tiny parcel of land in Toronto the appropriate scale to test out data-privacy and surveillance laws and institutions, and not either Ontario or Canada?
  • Why does it make sense to create new data and surveillance laws at this level, with none of the parliamentary review process of other levels of government?
  • What happens if the governments of Ontario or Canada eventually develop comprehensive data- and surveillance laws that contradict Sidewalk Labs’ regulations?
  • Federal or provincial regulatory changes could presumably affect the degree of profitability of Sidewalk Labs’ Eastern Waterfront investment. Would it threaten to pull out of Toronto?

It would be unseemly if Sidewalk Labs were to use its presence as a de facto governing entity in any Eastern Waterfront development as a stick with which to threaten Canadian governments to develop laws in its or Google’s narrow economic interest.

  • Will Sidewalk Labs and Google commit to not lobbying the federal or provincial governments on data and surveillance regulations, given this conflict of interest?

clear standards that make data publicly accessible, secure, and resilient (p. 377)

  • Should all data be publicly accessible?

Standards setting in action

Sidewalk Labs proposes to launch a minimal set of digital services that would catalyze this ecosystem of urban innovation. These services and applications — all of which would be open to competition and subject to the pro- posed responsible data use process — represent innovations currently not being pursued by the market but that remain essential to achieving Waterfront Toronto’s quality-of-life objectives. (p. 378)

Conditions proposed by Sidewalk Labs to “catalyze” an urban innovation system (p. 380)

  • Shared digital infrastructure
  • Open and secure approach to architecture and standards (physical, data format, security and resilience, protocol, p. 381)
  • Digital services
  • Trusted process for responsible use (i.e., its proposed Responsible Data Use Guidelines and Assessments)

In what parts of the digital project would Sidewalk Labs participate? (pp. 380-381)

  • Core network – in other words, its role will be, to borrow a phrase, to build “the neighbourhood from the internet up”
  • Designing the standardized mounts
  • Various core digital for the aforementioned innovation streams (i.e., the chapters in this Volume)
  • Ubiquitous wi-fi
  • Software defined network
  • Super-passive optical network.

In short, it looks like Sidewalk Labs would be responsible for building the base platform and setting its standards.

Who would makes purchase decisions?

Procurement is a key issue. I have a feeling it’ll be addressed in Volume 3.

It’s all about surveillance “urban data”

It’s the provision of a ubiquitous surveillance network that will allow not only Sidewalk Labs, but other companies to develop “countless” other applications:

Sidewalk Labs believes the urban data generated by these services would catalyze third parties to create countless other applications to improve quality of life, along with the application-specific hardware designed to support them. (p. 383)

The IDEA District is a surveillance district. It is being designed to allow for ubiquitous surveillance. Any restrictions on surveillance will be interpreted by Sidewalk Labs as a restriction on the ability to increase quality of life. And also on their ability to make money, as suggested by the fact that they want to be compensated with bonus payments for not engaging in unfettered data sharing and data-based advertising.

Private governance: The Urban Data Trust

It would initially be a private entity that “could evolve into a public-sector or quasi-public agency over time.” (p. 383)

Next up, part two of the Urban Innovation chapter.


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