Sidewalk Toronto and the Manufacturing of Consent — Thoughts Heading into Public Meeting 2 of 4

The second of four Sidewalk Toronto public meetings is on May 3rd, you can register here.

Significant issues are emerging regarding the legitimacy of the public process being followed for Sidewalk Toronto. Broadly speaking they involve 1. The public consultation timeline 2. Public education 3. Legal and policy issues regarding privacy and consent 4. Project framing and narrative and 5. Blurring lines between the private and public sector.

Public Consultation Timeline

The stated timeline for public consultation on the project is one year, as seen below in a slide from the last public meeting. At the end of this year, public input will have been used to formulate the final deliverable — a Master Innovation and Development Plan. Approvals will then be sought in early 2019.

Public Consultation Timeline — Slide 25

Counting from May, there are 8 months left in this process. However, based on the detailed breakdown of the consultation dates, the process is even more accelerated and condensed. The final public meeting is on October 3rd, in 5 months.

Meeting Schedule — Slide 43

One fundamental element of having a legitimate process is being clear about what is on the table for decision-making. Another fundamental element is creating enough time within your process to adjust your work based on the advice you receive from the public. Neither of these things are happening so far.

Based on this timeline, consider the following, working backward. In order to get public approval on the plan, it will need to be presented in a near final draft on October 3rd. That’s the only way the plan that is used for government and regulatory approval can be legitimate, is if the public sees it and says yes, that’s the plan. Which means that a rough draft of the plan, one that is concise and specific, should be presented on May 3rd, and in a dire case, will be presented on July 11th.

At the first public meeting, no clarity was presented about the specifics of the plan’s business model. There was an overwhelming amount of other information. The business model presented was a mix of “real estate, infrastructure, tech, we’re figuring it out” and “we’re not in a rush, Alphabet has given us a long leash to figure out how to make money here”. That’s fine. Toronto residents haven’t.

Put simply, the timeline for this project was a problem when it was a full year. We don’t have up to date laws nor any existing policy to properly and democratically govern and manage this project. As was printed on the first page of the engagement plan, and it’s something that should not be normalized — this project entails policy creation with a vendor. This is categorically problematic on its own, timeline aside. And now we’re doing it in an intensely accelerated timeline. The process legitimacy alarms should be ringing based on the timeline alone. Now for some additional details and a few more alarms.

Public Education

We are currently two weeks from the second public meeting and have not received a summary, in draft, as to what happened at the first one, though it’s due to be released on April 20. However, at a Waterfront Toronto project update meeting happening tomorrow, Waterfront Toronto has characterized public response to the first public meeting as follows in a summary report for its Quayside Committee:

Summary Report for Quayside Committee Meeting on April 19

The key messages say nothing in specific. They could be about literally any meeting on any topic. Interestingly, the areas of note/key issues all relate to data. Here it’s worse than neutral, it veers into nonsensical and false. To say that Privacy by Design and using data to improve quality of life were well received? It would be helpful to see this in a public summary report. I can only say that at my small table discussion, one of at least twenty (this is an estimate and I could be way off, open to fixing it), we didn’t talk about it. We also didn’t talk about it in the full room Q&A. So it’s important to see how and where this surfaces in the reporting. There was, however, significant concern in the room about a lack of clarity on data residency, as was reported widely the following day. Which, somehow, is not reflected in this summary.

Setting that aside, firstly, I would challenge the project team to find one person at the public meeting from a non-technical background that could explain what Privacy by Design is. Secondly, a concept like Privacy by Design, when presented out of context and without a business model, is of little to no value. For guidance on how public consultation on issues of privacy should work, consider this case study about a failed effort to launch smart cards in Ontario around the year 2000. (Bailey, Caidi, 2005). The advice here, to over-simplify, is to bring forward a very detailed and concise privacy plan, in context with the product(s), to get public feedback on its impacts. It also advises to do this as a requirement for buy-in and trust. As we head into public meeting 2, now would be the right time to bring forward details and specifics about privacy and privacy impacts. But this leads us into a second challenge, public education.

This warrants a detailed post on its own, but a few points to remember. We have an ongoing and named issue called the digital divide. Globally, nationally, and at the city level, governments and industry are spearheading a lot of new efforts in education around digital literacy. Plainly said, technology and its impacts are not well understood by the general public. I am learning new things daily about privacy and security and the models around how data is used, and I work in the space. So from a legitimacy perspective, pretending we can have buy-in on these topics over the course of five months is truly a charade. This is where subject matter experts will be brought it, which is important and good, but they aren’t a substitute for public buy-in and the attainment of social license.

Legal and Policy Issues Regarding Privacy and Consent

Related to public education is finding a way to get ourselves grounded in the current legal and regulatory environment in Canada in terms of privacy and consent. At the first public meeting, Sidewalk Toronto shared a slide (slide 35) that included a commitment to adhere to Canadian law on privacy, which is an odd thing to be explicit about. But beyond that, our laws in this realm are out of date and may not match the project context at all.

Fundamentally, our privacy laws are organized around the data of you, an individual. As you’ll notice, from day one, Sidewalk Labs has said over and over that this isn’t about individual data, it’s about aggregate data. Which is, loosely, data about a group. We don’t have a legal concept that thinks about our data as a collective or community. What rights do we have with our data as residents, as a group? What about when that data is used in products that might be sold? What about when that data might be used in a discriminatory way? The idea of privacy as a public good has not been explored widely. It’s the right time to do it. But to do that, the issue has to be on the table. As of right now, it’s all about mitigating impacts of individual privacy, when that’s nowhere near the breadth of the issue nor does it identify this legal framework issue.

As for consent, the word of the day is informed consent. What is the bar to meet to say that all the residents in Toronto a) understand what this project is about, in a narrow lens of privacy and b) consent to that being established as a norm, in policy, by an unelected agency. This again is but a light touch on an issue that needs more space, but I’ll leave on a note to recommend this paper called “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization” (Zuboff, 2015), in that it details how consent wasn’t created in any democratic or defensible way in much of the past decade, in the digital realm. This article speaks mostly to commercial and consumer tech, so think about how it sits within this project, that is now pushing into public space.

Project Framing and Narrative

From the Sidewalk Toronto public meeting presentation — Slide 14

The New York Times piece used at the last public meeting is from 2015 (above). A more recent article from 2017 appears below

New York Times 2017, by Ian Austen

Borrowing legitimacy and downplaying the sheer size and weight of the governance challenges of this project is an approach that is, funnily enough, eroding trust. People do better with hard issues when they are brought out in honest ways and managed directly and specifically. To date, this isn’t the narrative and framing that’s been used. To reset this, consider an alternative.

Do we want to use technology like what is being proposed here? That’s question number one, which we have had no policy forum, here or elsewhere, to discuss. Next comes, if we do — how might that look? There should be an exploration of several ways to do this work, involving a range of actors. And again, a vendor is not well positioned, as is totally understandable, to create that frame. So we’ve lost on that second policy conversation that we should have had and been having. There is a chance to use the Smart Cities challenge to begin to fill this in, but it’s a hard topic to engage broadly on under time pressure. Here one can feel the lack of political leadership at all levels of government.

This is important to say explicitly because the track this consultation is down is framed predominantly one way — this is a good idea, now let’s mitigate any concerns. This is not discourse that is respectful of democratic process, given where we are as a country and city on this, from a policy perspective. All the key stakeholders and actors on this project know this.

Blurring Lines Between the Private and Public sector

Using data to improve quality of life is a marketing line that’s been put forward by Sidewalk Labs. It has not been explained properly. Quality of life is a social construct created by government and its people. A corporation is not equipped with the mandate to manage the moral and ethical trade-offs inherent in defining quality of life and how to use people’s data to inform the issue. The breadth of issues presented at the first meeting was both overwhelming and frankly way out of scope for 12 acres of land. Consider the image below:

Planning Approach — Slide 27

The project is being framed so broadly that it’s beginning to resemble a parallel government structure. This is distracting from the size of the issues in the tech bucket. It’s fair to say that these are all things to be considered. Of course they are — and they always have been when Waterfront Toronto does a project. So what’s new here? A lot of what’s new is what’s tech, and a lot of what’s tech needs more attention in this process. For all the “we’re not a technology company” language, we’re people that need to talk about technology as the public. So let’s get that straight, the rest of what’s here we’ve got a great set of people at Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto to lead. As they’ve always done.

In Closing

There are ample opportunities to do new and possibly really important things with technology in the urban planning space. To get at those, we need to have an open, deep, education-heavy, honest, and at times, difficult set of conversations. Some will be about trade-offs. Others will be about accepting unknowns. But all of them need to be informed discussions. This project demands a process that will support broad and informed public and social consent. The time to pull this off is running short but there is time yet to try. The meeting invite says that “We’ve heard your ideas and concerns. Now help us start to shape the details”. The project team has definitely not heard Toronto residents’ full set of ideas and concerns, so let’s walk that back and keep talking. Hope to see you May 3rd.

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