No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Entry 47: My Submission to the Round 2 Consultation

Back in more innocent times, August 30, 2019, to be precise, I praised the work of the analysts at Waterfront Toronto for their honest attempt to summarize the Master Innovation and Development Plan, a document whose design (as I’ve noted on so, so many occasions) actively discourages its analysis. Whatever other monkeyshines Waterfront Toronto is up to with Quayside, it was clear that this document was designed to help people understand this super-complex abomination of an report.

As someone who used to write reports for a living, professionally I’m a bit sad (if not surprised) to report that Waterfront Toronto’s Discussion Guide for its Round 2 of Quayside consultations (Round 1 being the rushed July meet-ups held before anyone had had a chance to read, let alone digest, the whole MIDP) is as vacuous and useless as the first Note to Reader was helpful. The guide, plus attachments, are 54 pages of lists of approved technologies, statements of principles, and repeated assertions that Waterfront Toronto totally definitely did a thorough analysis of the MIDP.

What’s missing? The actual analysis. You know, the one thing that the public actually needs to read in order to make sense of the 160 “solutions” Waterfront Toronto says it identified in the MIDP.

This analysis isn’t just needed to help interested but non-expert residents understand what’s on offer, but to check Waterfront Toronto’s work. Even if Waterfront Toronto hadn’t consistently over the last three years raised questions about its trustworthiness and capacity to understand and evaluate these issues (see about 60% of my Quayside posts), you would want to check their arguments. That’s how accountable organizations operate.

For the record, I’ve also read the 10-page Quayside Evaluation Committee Report. But just like the discussion guide, it too expects to be able to skate by merely summarizing its findings. It reads as little more than the minutes to a meeting. To get a sense of how incomplete these public documents are, consider the following statement, on “Housing Affordability Feedback” (p. 5):

Although major alignment issues were identified, the consensus of the Committee was that the Housing Affordability proposal provided a worthwhile foundation upon which to engage governments and pursue additional and amended affordability solutions.

So, what were the “major alignment issues”? Did the committee make the right call that these issues weren’t important enough to hold up the project? I don’t know, and neither do you, because Waterfront Toronto hasn’t provided us with the information we need to make that decision.

Show, don’t tell

Instead of providing us with a way to independently evaluate their work and this project, we are supposed to reassured that they evaluated the MIDP by “reading every page of the MIDP, identifying all the solutions it contained, and ultimately aggregating one master list of solutions to be evaluated.” If you’re looking for kudos for actually having read the report that you commissioned, then I don’t know what to tell you.

But that’s about par for the course for this document: They tell us about all the hard work they’ve done (like, uh, reading) without showing us their work. In the movies they say, “Show, don’t tell.” The same goes for reports.

Anyway, here’s my actual submission…

Submission by Dr. Blayne Haggart
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Brock University
St. Catharines, Ontario

These notes are based on an evaluation of the provided Quayside Discussion Guide, as well as my thorough reading of the Master Innovation and Development Plan and related documents. In terms of qualifications, I hold a PhD in Political Science from Carleton University and an MA in Economics from the University of Toronto. I am an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brock University, where my research focuses on the governance and regulation of intellectual property, data and the internet. I have also published extensively in these areas. I am currently writing a book on knowledge regulation and smart cities.

Previously, I worked as an economist and researcher with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service, providing non-partisan research and drafting reports for the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, the House Subcommittee on International Trade, Trade Disputes and Investment, and the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, among others. My analysis draws on this professional and academic experience.

I would like to highlight five points in particular.

1. Insufficient analysis. Waterfront Toronto has, once again, failed to provide sufficient information to help the public form an informed opinion about the Quayside project. The Discussion Paper is merely a list of which technologies Waterfront Toronto liked and didn’t like in the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP). It provides no justification for its choices beyond assertions that Waterfront Toronto did the analysis, and these are the technologies that passed and failed their tests. There is nothing in here to allow Torontonians to assess for themselves either the quality of Waterfront Toronto’s arguments or the appropriateness of the proposed technologies.

Since Waterfront Toronto reached its October 31, 2019, agreement with Sidewalk Labs, it has failed utterly to keep the public informed of its plans in any meaningful way. The October 31 agreement made reference to an amended MIDP, whose amended text was never released, while also noting that the MIDP remains the basis of the Quayside planning process. The MIDP, including its economic analysis, covered a Quayside-plus area (the so-called IDEA District). Given its setup, it is impossible to simply pick-and-choose the tech “solutions” that applies to Quayside, as this discussion guide claims. Sidewalk Labs must make its case based on a Quayside-only rationale; it has not done that publicly. Following that, Sidewalk Labs released a Digital Innovation Appendix (emphasis added) to an amended report that has not been released. This Appendix was analyzed by Waterfront Toronto’s volunteer, part-time Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, which admitted that it lacked the time and resources to evaluate it fully.

This arbitrary pick-and-choose approach to the MIDP, combined with the never-released “amended” MIDP and an Appendix to a report that nobody has seen, means that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have effectively created a shadow report lacking any grounding in a Quayside-only analysis.

There are also strong reasons to doubt that Waterfront Toronto has conducted a thorough assessment of this project, beyond the fact that it has not released the technical evaluation. To take only one example, “Mass timber construction” (Attachment 1, p. 5) is touted as an innovation that can work at the Quayside level. However, in the MIDP, it is claimed that a development on the level of the “River District” would be required to make it feasible. In the MIDP’s own words:

These benefits only become possible at the scale of the River District. … While Quayside’s size — it consists of only 10 buildings — is too small to support a re-conception of the entire construction supply chain, the River District would provide the developable area to achieve the full power of this approach. Sidewalk Labs estimates that roughly 6 million square feet of development are needed to justify an investment in the factory-based production of mass timber, as well as for such a factory to hit peak efficiency in producing sustainable building components on a predictable timeline that developers can trust (Vol. 1, p. 382).

Waterfront Toronto needs to explain why they believe that this policy is feasible on Quayside’s much smaller scale, and why Sidewalk Labs was wrong in their assessment. Otherwise, the overwhelming suspicion is that one (or both) of these policies have no basis in any objective, empirical analysis.

It is a fundamental principle of open government that citizens should be able to review a report that they are being asked to comment on. If Waterfront Toronto were serious about soliciting informed public comments, they would have released a revised version of the MIDP immediately after reaching the October 31 agreement with Sidewalk Labs. Instead, this Discussion Guide is a discussion guide to a report that has not been released to the public, with Waterfront Toronto asking the public to trust, sight unseen, that it actually conducted a thorough assessment.

These problems are in addition to the general lack of substantive public consultations, post-MIDP. The rushed July 2019 consultations were effectively rendered moot when Waterfront Toronto telegraphed its primary concerns with the MIDP through its Note to Reader prior to the consultations. Then, on August 1, 2019, it effectively announced negotiations with Sidewalk Labs to deal with these concerns. The result was the October 31 agreement, on which the public-consultations seem to have had a minimal effect. There seems to be little reason to expect two 3.5-hour public meetings on a Saturday and just over a month of online openness to submissions will be treated any differently.

2. Lack of digital/data governance expertise. Although Waterfront Toronto claims that it “has been working for years to create the enabling conditions to establish a testbed for emerging technologies in areas related to sustainability and urban innovation,” it has not shown that it has done anything to build its capacity to serve as a data regulator. Relying on a part-time advisory panel comprised of academics and businesspeople (the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel) is no substitute for in-house data-governance capacity-building. The DSAP’s ability to fulfill a substantive role in Waterfront Toronto digital governance has been called into question by its own members, in the 2018 Ontario Auditor General’s report into Waterfront Toronto. Not only have panelists repeatedly complained that they lack the time to evaluate the various plans, several of them have raised this expertise issue in their latest report.

In the absence of such capacity building – and putting aside whether it’s a good idea for a local land-development agency to become a de facto data-standards setter for the entire country – Waterfront Toronto’s commitment to “be responsible for leading all aspects of data governance and privacy for the project, including related discussions with the appropriate governmental authorities” (p. 1) is largely meaningless. An agency without the capacity to understand what it’s regulating is an agency that will be captured by the interests it seeks to regulate.

3. No opt-out principle. Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Principles (p. 10) do not include the right to opt out of Quayside surveillance.

4. Lashing Canadian data and innovation policy to Google’s mast. The fundamental premise of the Quayside project is flawed. It is not designed to encourage innovation; it is designed to test Google products and standards (see page 11 of the Discussion Guide). This will cause enormous problems, not only for Toronto but for Canadian technology and innovation policy going forward. By linking Quayside to a single company’s technological standards, Waterfront Toronto (and by extension the Governments of Canada and Ontario) are betting that Google’s standards will be best-of-breed, and will actually emerge as the global standards. As a result, the federal and Ontario governments will face enormous pressure to accommodate Google’s interests and standards in the making of innovation and data policy. And if Google’s tech doesn’t become the standard, Quayside will become a white elephant. This possibility should not be discounted; Google is a late entrant into the multi-billion-dollar smart-city market, and Sidewalk Labs has no track record in urban development.

It should also be highlighted that Quayside’s status as Canada’s urban development national champion renders Waterfront Toronto’s much-lauded forbidding of Sidewalk Labs from lobbying governments on data policy completely meaningless. Governments won’t need to be directly lobbied in order to ensure that Sidewalk Labs is kept happy and Quayside running as Sidewalk Labs wants it to run.

5. Indefensible human rights assessment. Waterfront Toronto’s human rights assessment (p. 3) is being conducted by a for-profit tech company, Element AI, which conceivably could be either a competitor or supplier to Sidewalk Labs, rather than an NGO with actual expertise in human rights.

Recommendation: The Quayside project should be abandoned and Waterfront Toronto’s relationship with Sidewalk Labs ended.

Waterfront Toronto’s take on the MIDP lacks a discernible analysis; the Discussion Paper is basically just a list – it doesn’t include enough information (i.e., analysis or context) to allow residents to evaluate it. As suggested by members of its own Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, Waterfront Toronto continues to lack the capacity to act as a guardian of Canadians’ digital and data rights, nor should it be allowed to act as such. Its commitment to public consultations, let alone listening to the public, is highly questionable, as if it is just going through the motions of pretending to listen to the public. Its choice of Element AI rather than an actual human-rights organization to evaluate the human-rights implication of whatever it is proposing is absurd on its face.

This train wreck of a process has been ongoing for almost three years. The need to save face is the worst possible reason to undertake a policy. Yet it is impossible to conclude that Quayside is being driven by anything but. Sidewalk Labs needs Quayside to put it in the smart-city game, while Waterfront Toronto is counting on the Quayside plan to ensure its survival beyond its current time-limited mandate (as well as providing a possible independent revenue source). This whole project should be ended, the sooner the better.

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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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No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Addendum #3: The flaw at the heart of Waterfront Toronto’s innovation plan

Reposting this from Twitter. Also, everyone should read Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything. It’s an incredibly insightful consideration of, among other things, how innovation actually happens in the global economy:

Am reading @MazzucatoM’s excellent The Value of Everything and thinking about the Quayside #smartcities project. Her chapter on innovation hammers home for me how misguided @WaterfrontTO’s project is. Specifically, the betting on one company — Google — to deliver “innovation.”

The point of Quayside from the very beginning was to seek an innovation partner to help catalyze Toronto’s urban tech sector. That’s a bit of a simplification, but let’s run with it.

The problem is — and this can’t be stressed enough — most innovations fail. That’s the nature of the beast. Tech doesn’t work out. Tastes change. Funding or interest dries up.

Through Sidewalk Labs, Google is proposing a smart city based on Google-friendly technology and (more importantly) Google-friendly ideas about what a smart city should be (max surveillance, minimal privacy, Google tech standards). The result will be a tech monoculture.

Far from encouraging an innovative ecosystem, @WaterfrontTO is in the midst of betting the farm on the hope that Google’s technological and regulatory vision will carry the day.

To put it another way, @WaterfrontTO, on behalf of Canadians, has gotten into the business of picking winners, of deciding whose development vision (Google’s) they’re going to throw Canada’s weight behind.

What could possibly go wrong? Well…

Recall, Waterfront Toronto is an organization that issued an RFP without having the faintest idea that data and IP were the very foundations of a smart city. They had to cobble together a part-time, volunteer digital advisory panel to cover their total inexperience.

And recall that Sidewalk Labs has never built *anything*. And Google has *no experience* in urban development. In a field where its competitors like IBM have actually done things. Instead, they have slogans that they change every few months when people start asking questions.

RIP “from the internet up”
RIP “urban data trust”

If WT were truly interested in supporting a tech testbed, they’d be working to ensure that as many different approaches to addressing and meeting actual community needs and approaches could be worked on.

But that’s not what’s on offer, and a SL-WT deal is incapable of doing this. That’s because it’s favouring one company and its vision over all alternatives.

The Quayside #smartcities project was born in ignorance (and according to the Ontario Auditor General, some suspicious monkeyshines). It is is propelled by bureaucratic inertia: its consummation is literally an existential question for the two organizations.
If Canada’s three levels of government were forward-looking on these issues, they would not let the existential fears of a local development agency create a fact on the ground that will warp Canadian data and innovation policy going forward.

They would also see the transformation of @WaterfrontTO from a land-development agency into a de facto data-regulation agency with an independent revenue source as the truly terrible idea that it is.

tl;dr: This is not going to end well.

Just to show what @WaterfrontTO’s turning its back on, check out @doctorow’s great article imagining a smart city that’s not based on Google-esque surveillance.

Which one’s better? I have my views, but the point is that an org that was interested in innovation would want to spread their net far and wide, and not bet only on one company, on one approach. They’d want to test whether Doctorow or Google had the better vision.

Finally, to bring it back to @MazzucatoM, as she points out, governments have a key role to play in sparking & shaping innovation. It’s what they do, supporting projects that are too risky for for-profit companies. This is the exact opposite of what’s on offer with Quayside.

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No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Addendum #2: Credibility gone: Yet another extension (Statement from Waterfront Toronto Board Chair, Stephen Diamond)

Following yesterday’s announcement that Waterfront Toronto is seeking yet another extension for the Quayside project, my main question is, at what point in a botched project do the actors involved lose all credibility? From where I sit, with no formal ties to either organization but having a professional and academic understanding of how these processes should work, this announcement settles the question of whether Waterfront Toronto should be considered a credible organization. After months of pulling stunts like this, it’s impossible to take anything Waterfront Toronto says about Quayside at face value.

Stephen Diamond’s statement is absurd on its face:

Today the Board of Waterfront Toronto agreed to extend the date for a decision on moving forward with the Quayside project from March 31, 2020, until May 20, 2020. This extension is to allow the public more time to offer input into Waterfront Toronto’s evaluation of Sidewalk Lab’s proposals for Quayside.

Since last November, Waterfront Toronto, assisted by local and international subject matter experts, has distilled the over 1,500 pages of Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan into 160 solutions and evaluated those solutions for their effectiveness in addressing critical urban challenges faced by growing cities like Toronto.

The committee overseeing the analysis of the MIDP confirmed that the work done by Waterfront Toronto over the past three months, and many of the innovations proposed by Sidewalk Labs — when considered against the goals and objectives for Quayside — merit consultation with the public as well as further refinement and negotiation with Sidewalk Labs prior to the Board’s decision.

“Today’s extension allows for more time for the public to provide feedback on Waterfront Toronto’s evaluation of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals and for the Board to hear directly from the public on its priorities before any decision to proceed to implementation is taken,” said Board Chair, Stephen Diamond. “This Board will not sacrifice the public good for expediency,” Diamond concluded.

Waterfront Toronto will seek further public feedback at public meetings scheduled for Saturday, February 29, 2020 at the Westin Harbour Castle (1 Harbour Square), and through online consultations.

A meeting agenda and materials will be provided in the coming weeks through the project website (QuaysideTO.ca) and all Waterfront Toronto social channels. (emphasis added throughout)

To claim that this delay is being sought to get more input from the public is, quite literally, unbelievable. Here’s where things stand, on Friday, January 24, 2020, just over one month before the single planned public meeting:

  • The only complete plan for this project, the mastodonic Master Innovation and Development Plan (you’ve read it, right?), was supposedly amended on October 31, 2019. The amended text has not been made publicly available. As one of the (very, very few) people who has actually read the MIDP in all of its disingenuous glory, I will categorically state that adapting it to meet the terms previously laid down by Waterfront Toronto (no urban data, limited to Quayside, etc.) would require completely gutting and reworking the entire plan. In other words, the public at the moment has absolutely nothing solid that it could plausibly comment upon. Other than the incompetence of Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, I supposed.
  • The only other document in front of the public of any relevance is the 500-page Digital Innovation Appendix, which was released a few weeks (and late, of course) after the October 31 announcement that the MIDP had been amended. As longtime readers my have noticed, I haven’t blogged about it, mainly because it’s an appendix either to a) a report that no longer exists, or b) a report that has yet to be released. It’s vapourware. Also, given that it took Sidewalk Labs two years to create the MIDP, it is, frankly, unbelievable that it could turn a substantive appendix around in a matter of weeks to reflect the revised plan.
  • And yet we’re promised “materials” sometime in the next 34 days that will cover “160 solutions.” Wonder how long that document will be, and when it’ll actually be delivered.

So, after jerking the public around for seven months about the project’s deadlines, the public is being asked to comment on a plan that nobody’s actually seen yet. In one single public meeting. On a Saturday, FWIW. How expedient.

Granted, cramming your “consultations” into one day with no details about when anyone will be able to actually read the relevant plans demonstrates about as much respect for public opinion as rushing consultations on a 1,500-page report in the dead of summer after having stated in advance your conclusions about the report.

And also, constantly moving deadlines and an almost allergic reaction to clearly laying out a reasonable timeline itself shows great disrespect for the public, all of whom have busy lives that shouldn’t have to revolve around the caprices of a development agency. If Waterfront Toronto truly cared about public input, they should’ve announced a series of public consultations for Fall 2019, with a second round of consultations in Winter 2020 to address a revised report. This isn’t rocket science; I proposed it back in July 2019, a solution as obvious then as it is now.

That is, if you’re serious about listening to the public.

Survival mode

It’s been clear since the establishment of the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel in April 2018 that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have been madly improvising pretty much everything to do with Quayside. The creation of the DSAP was a tacit admission that Waterfront Toronto didn’t understand the importance of data when undertook this project (a suspicion confirmed by the Auditor General of Ontario’s report, which highlighted this lack of expertise). The DSAP was created to address this gap.*

At least cosmetically: The DSAP is more important to Waterfront Toronto as a provider of legitimacy than as an actual source of insight. Otherwise, they would’ve provided the Panel with enough time to review relevant documents.

If I were a member of the DSAP, I would be very concerned about the extent to which Waterfront Toronto’s dependence on the DSAP to provide it with the veneer of credibility on these issues would start to affect my own credibility.

Now, we’re in a situation where both Waterfront Toronto’s and Sidewalk Labs’ fates are tied to the successful implementation of this project. Sidewalk Labs, a company with no track record, desperately needs Quayside as its calling card in an already-potent field of competitors capable of delivering smart-city-related products and services. Waterfront Toronto, a time-limited agency, wants to ensure its continued existence and sees Quayside as its golden ticket.

In short, we’re watching desperate organizations frantically trying to come up with a way to make this work, even if it involves retooling a land-development agency into a data-regulation agency with its own independent funding stream, creating a fact-on-the-ground that will warp Canadian data and innovation policy for decades. If anyone in the three levels of government had any foresight, they would shut this project down for this reason alone.

The death of Waterfront Toronto’s credibility

My personal hunch is that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are still figuring out what MIDP 2 will actually look like. This would fit the longstanding pattern in this case, in which public consultations have been a mere sideshow to the real behind-the-scenes action. (See: the initial misleading of Torontonians about the nature of Sidewalk Labs’ $US50 million spending; and Diamond’s pre-consultation publication of the Note to Reader, outlining Sidewalk Labs’ concerns with the MIDP, and post-consultation statement, but pre-report-on-consultations, demanding specific changes.)

Whatever way you cut it, there is ample evidence that Waterfront Toronto has not been playing straight with the public for a very long time. The Auditor General’s report clearly lays out serious problems with the RFP process. Waterfront Toronto has never been clear about the nature of its relationship with Sidewalk Labs: in the Plan Development Agreement, it’s a partner, but when it’s convenient, it’s an evaluator. Its approach to consultations related to Quayside, while always weird (kids’ day-camps as consultation, anyone?), has been, since the publication of the MIDP, superfluous. According to the Auditor General, its (part-time) digital experts do not feel like they’ve been adequately consulted.

At a certain point in such a process, one has to move from questions of substance to questions of credibility, from “Why do you think this is a good idea?” to “Why should we believe anything you say?”

Yesterday, for Waterfront Toronto, that day arrived. Maybe we don’t need any new documents to prepare for the February 29 meeting. The question on the table is as obvious as it is straightforward.

* An earlier version of this post incorrectly linked the creation of the DSAP to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which came to light in March 2018. I’ve since been informed that the formation of the DSAP had been in the works several months before that. I’ve amended this paragraph to correct this error.

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No Longer Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP, Addendum #1: An odd choice of evaluator

Could someone please explain to me how hiring a for-profit AI company to evaluate a potential future competitor/customer’s use of AI doesn’t present an obvious conflict of interest?

Josh O’Kane, Globe and Mail: Waterfront Toronto taps Montreal’s Element AI for human-rights review on Sidewalk Labs plan: “Waterfront Toronto has hired Montreal startup Element AI Inc. to help review the human-rights impact of Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs’ draft plan for a smart-city development on the shores of Lake Ontario. Element is a prominent artificial-intelligence company and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture financing, developing AI-powered tools for and consulting with businesses worldwide.”

Beyond what seems to me to be the obvious commercial conflict of interest, there’s the problem of perspective. A for-profit AI company’s starting point in this debate is likely to be very different than that of a group whose existence doesn’t depend on big-data collection. Starting with the question, “How can we make this system work best?” rather than, “Should we be doing this at all?” will lead you down very different paths, potentially toward very different conclusions.

As with everything else Quayside, this is not what sound governance looks like.

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

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