Advisory panel publishes scathing commentary of Sidewalk Labs’ master proposal

Quayside proposal

Waterfront Toronto’s advisory panel has issued its official “preliminary commentary” on Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) for the proposed smart city in the Quayside neighbourhood of Toronto.

“In many areas, the MIDP is not sufficiently specific about critical areas of its digital innovation proposals.”

In what appears to be scathing “first impressions” Waterfont’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) was not fully sold on some of Sidewalk’s proposals announced in a four-part plan over the summer. The 99-page report noted that panelists feel the MIDP was “frustratingly abstract,” “unwieldy and repetitive,” and “overly focused on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how.’”

“In many areas, the MIDP is not sufficiently specific about critical areas of its digital innovation proposals, and it does not provide a clear path for individuals, civic society, or small/startup businesses to participate from design, implementation, operations, and sustainability perspective,” the report stated.

Formed in 2018 by Waterfront Toronto, the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) is an arm’s-length body created to provide expert advice to Waterfront Toronto management. This advice is aimed at ensuring that matters related to digital strategy are addressed “in a way that encourages socio-economic innovation and development, and preserves and promotes the public good.”

On the digital innovations front, the panel said it was not sure whether Sidewalk’s proposals would support Waterfront Toronto’s goals for Quayside. The panel recommended a shift from “what” is proposed to “how” the proposal will accomplish the objective, and why the proposal is superior to alternatives.” It added that the MIDP was not specific about important areas of its digital innovation proposals, and it does not provide a clear path for individuals, civic society, or small/startup businesses to participate.

On data governance, a hotly-contested issue for the Alphabet company, the report said the development of data governance mechanisms should be shifted from Sidewalk to Waterfront Toronto and governments, adding that, Sidewalk Labs “should focus on elaborating on how it will make its own proposals for data collection, processing and use more transparent, accountable, and amenable to a robust privacy protection regime.” De-identification and data residency remained principal concerns for the Waterfront Toronto panel.

RELATED: Ann Cavoukian still has problems with Sidewalk Labs’ approach to data with Quayside

“Some panelists flagged that regardless of the strength of the protections, including de-identification, put in place, the risk of a data breach or other privacy violation will almost certainly not be reduced to zero,” the report stated. “Thus, Sidewalk Labs should be clear about its plans in the event of such an incident, particularly where the individuals impacted are the most at risk for data abuses, such as those in minority groups.”

Other issues with the MIDP’s data strategy involved the proposed Urban Data Trust, that would manage data collected from the public and make “anonymized data” open-source and publicly accessible. It said under Canadian privacy law, even if personal information is de-identified at the source and never stored in identifiable form, consent is still required for the initial collection of that information. It added that reliable de-identification is notoriously difficult to achieve and that the risk of a data breach or other privacy violation will almost certainly not be reduced to zero.

“Sidewalk Labs should be clear about its plans in the event of such an incident, particularly where the individuals impacted are the most at risk for data abuses, such as those in minority groups,” the report said.

Sidewalk Labs publicly released its more than 1,500-page proposal outlining its detailed plan for the Quayside project, on June 24. The plan included a breakdown of 77 hectares of development, laid out the Alphabet company’s plan to be the lead developer on the project, and also touched upon controversial topics like data collection.

Waterfront Toronto wasted no time in responding, that same day releasing an open letter to Sidewalk Labs with major concerns regarding the proposal. In its open letter, Waterfront Toronto outlined four main concerns including the development of the IDEA District, Sidewalk Labs’ proposal to be the lead developer, the need to get additional government commitments, and data collection.

Following this feedback from the advisory panel, next steps will involve Sidewalk Labs addressing some of DSAP’s concerns, followed by a more fulsome review of all elements of the plan, which fall within the expertise of the panel.

Keerthana Rang, associate director of communications at Sidewalk Labs told BetaKit that the company has already begun responding to some of the panel’s feedback.

“Most of the feedback we see in this interim report has been conveyed to us throughout our engagement with DSAP over the last few months,” she stated. “It is one of the reasons why we are producing the Digital Innovation Appendix, which will include a comprehensive list of technology that would be deployed in Quayside, how we would support Toronto’s technology ecosystem, and our research work on data governance.”

“We are confident the Digital Innovation Appendix will help respond to some of this feedback. We look forward to reviewing this feedback and further conversation with the Panel,” she added.

Image courtesy Sidewalk Labs

With files from Meagan Simpson

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Writer, globetrotter, drone pilot & David Attenborough enthusiast