No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 48: The Digital Strategy Advisory Panel Supplementary Report on the Sidewalk Labs Digital Innovation Appendix

Just a few notes on the DSAP’s latest, on Sidewalk Labs’ Digital Innovation Appendix. There’s lots of good individual critiques, but I’ll focus on the big picture stuff.

  • Calling it “a significant improvement over the MIDP” is the very definition of damning with faint praise.
  • The DSAP is right on the money to highlight the lack of a “fully realized digital governance framework and the need for expedited public sector leadership.” And that’s the problem with trying even to review the DIA: in the absence of an agreed-upon framework within which these technologies would be deployed, it’s all just so ephemeral.
  • And speaking of digital governance frameworks, Waterfront Toronto’s response is a howler that should be incorporated into the repertoire of all spin doctors, everywhere: “We accept the benefit of an enhanced governance framework, but we believe we currently do not have a policy void, but rather an evolving policy frontier.”

No, it’s a void, and it should’ve been filled before you set out on this cursed three-year voyage. If Waterfront Toronto had had a digital governance framework in place, none of this would be happening right now.

  • The DSAP wisely acknowledges its limits:

Given the timeframe provided for review and comment (and noting, in particular, that DSAP is a volunteer body), there was insufficient time for the Panel to carefully review all relevant aspects of the available materials, deliberate as a body and draft a report which reflected a shared assessment of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals to date. … As with the Preliminary Commentary, this report is by necessity partial.

As much as the DSAP members might be aware of the limits of their own capacity as a panel, and as aware as they are of how their work can’t substitute for a complete technical analysis, it seems like Waterfront Toronto is treating them as their digital-policy arm. From the Quayside Evaluation Committee Report (p. 7):

Overall, these concepts and solutions are well-aligned with Waterfront Toronto’s Objectives and will ultimately be subject to the Waterfront Toronto Intelligent Community Guidelines, Digital Principles, and review by the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel.

This sounds like a very central role for the DSAP.

Capacity problem? What capacity problem?

  • The big question that should be at the front of everyone’s mind is, does Waterfront Toronto have the capacity to deal with these digital issues? From my own research it’s clear that most policymakers who don’t deal directly with data, surveillance and intellectual property do not fully understand how their increasing centrality is transforming basic issues of economics and governance. The skill set you need to build a park is not the same one you need to understand the ins and outs of, say, open data (hint: despite the word “open,” it has its risks).

Anyway, it’s certainly a DSAP concern:

Capacity, in particular, was frequently raised as an on-going challenge for digital governance. One Panelist noted that while DSAP can provide high-level guidance and commentary, the “level of effort [to review digital solutions at each phase of development] is far beyond that which a quasi-volunteer part-time group such as DSAP could possibly provide”, and that “DSAP review will not substitute for the additional technical review that is required.”

One more:

A Panelist suggested that Waterfront Toronto will have to bring on additional resources – and potentially even review its organizational structure – if it opted to play a lead role in digital governance for Quayside (and – given the breadth of application of the proposed Intelligent Community Guidelines – the Designated Waterfront Area as a whole, as well as serve as a model for ‘smart city’ initiatives well beyond Toronto). Concern was also expressed that “a lot is being thrown back to Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto [and] I’m not convinced they are fully ready to grapple with these issues.”

Again, this makes a whole lot of sense. If you’re going to regulate data, hire people who know how to regulate data.

Waterfront Toronto’s response should drive anyone who cares about good governance, and sound digital policymaking, to despair. Basically, everything is fine! The past three years to the contrary. Waterfront Toronto has this:

In the course of the evaluation process, based on the work completed by Waterfront Toronto and its expert team, the Evaluation Committee has made clear that they feel Waterfront Toronto is properly equipped to evaluate and negotiate with a party like Sidewalk Labs. As Sheldon Levy said, “To the questions that were put to us – is Waterfront Toronto prepared for negotiations, does Waterfront Toronto fully understand the issues, and does Waterfront Toronto understand the relative importance of the issues – in my opinion, the answer to all three is yes.” This was support by all six Evaluation Committee members.

As we continue to explore the potential for a project on Quayside with Sidewalk Labs, we would welcome recommendations from the panel regarding specific additional expertise or resources that they feel would improve our ability to perform our work should we move into an implementation phase.

It’s also telling that while the Quayside Evaluation Committee Report does not raise the issue of building Waterfront Toronto’s capacity to deal with digital innovations (p. 7, section J), but rather that: “The Committee agreed that Waterfront Toronto staff demonstrated a strong awareness of the key issues and was thoughtfully assessing mitigation strategies.”

So there you go: Waterfront Toronto has this all under control.

  • Here’s where we get to the … Faustian bargain may be too strong a term, but it gets us in the ballpark … if you’re a DSAP member. You’re highlighting important issues with the Quayside project. It’s a bit unclear how seriously Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are taking you substantively, as opposed to stylistically (I mean, look at the DIA. Sidewalk Labs certainly seems to have taken on my comments about a lack of executive summaries, tables of contents and hyperlinks. The substantive issues? Not so much).

But you know that you can’t give this project the thorough analysis it deserves. And it really seems like Waterfront Toronto is using you as the digital policy review team rather than as an external check. Worse, they think they already have the resources to deal with these issues. (The Ontario Auditor General said they didn’t in 2018. How much hiring have they done since then? How have they changed their organizational structure?) Which means that they’re counting on the reports that you know are only partial to legitimize their work.

And Waterfront Toronto’s work on Quayside? Nothing in this project makes sense, from the publication of an appendix to an amended report, for which the actual amendments were not ever published, to the publication of a list of technologies that Waterfront Toronto says are great, but without providing the technical analysis behind this judgment, to the still-confused lines of accountability between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto.

Where’s your line between being helpful and being used?


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