Sidewalk Toronto — “Sold Out” Public Meetings and Sidewalk Labs’ Sole Source Contract in Illinois

The next Sidewalk Toronto public meeting (the third of five) will be happening August 14th and August 15th. As I learned when I went to register last night (which is a courtesy, not a requirement) I found out that these public events are full, no spaces available — they’re “Sold Out”. So is access to the democratic process I guess? Eventbrite’s canned language is pretty jarring here.

Public Engagement is not Public Relations

Public Meeting is “Sold Out We’re two weeks away from the next public meetings for the project and the registration for the meeting says the events are full and to join a waitlist if you want to try to attend. I don’t know how long this has been the case for, but with more than two weeks to the meetings it’s not a good look. This is a somewhat wild public process to be following in the first place, to require sign-up to get a spot.

In public consultation processes the default is to prepare for your meetings to include people that may not be online nor want to register. The Sidewalk Toronto process is now effectively mandating online registration to access a democratic process. Registration is a courtesy to the organizer, not a requirement. I don’t know what the capacity is at 307 Lakeshore Road East, Sidewalk Labs’ office in Toronto, where the meetings will be hosted (aside: this is not a neutral space, another public consultation faux pas). But if Sidewalk Toronto is surprised by high demand for the public meetings, after having it for all the meetings so far, well, I don’t know what to say. I’ll share more details on this as I receive them.

Agenda is More Urban Fare, Nothing Explicit About Data and Digital Governance From the public meeting agenda: “participants will learn about and discuss initial thinking for public realm, streets and buildings that is coming into focus for Quayside.” What we need front and centre on the agenda right now is Data Governance and the Plan Development Agreement.

Waterfront Toronto has assembled an advisory panel to provide advice to Waterfront Toronto about the digital/data aspects of this project and others in the future. The panel had their first meeting on June 7th. It would make a lot of sense to summarize the panel’s input and share it at the next public meeting, particularly in light of the fact that there are no public notes from this meeting yet, 6 weeks later. Then in another odd move that really doesn’t leverage the thinking of this group, the next panel meeting (its second one) is happening *after* the third public meeting, not beforehand. This means the group isn’t being asked to provide feedback on public meeting materials, a wasted opportunity to prioritize the digital/data items for public conversation.

Hopefully at this public meeting, there might be some talk about existing data use by Sidewalk Labs in their product offerings and some learnings from it. Also how their current data use feeds into intellectual property and products they might sell to governments as part of their business model, given that intellectual property was part of the RFP for Sidewalk Toronto.

This March, Sidewalk Labs received a 3.6 million dollar (US) sole source contract for a product called Replica , purchased by the Illinois Department of Transportation. The Department of Transportation said it had to be sole-sourced to be able to be used “for trial or testing”. It uses a population synthesizer and data from people’s cell phones as an input, amongst other sources— a summary from the Illinois Department of Transportation:

“The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is giving notice of the intent to enter into a sole source contract with Sidewalk Labs, Inc. for an analysis tool (Replica) which uses a number of sources, including mobile carrier data, location data from third-party aggregators and Google location data, to generate travel data for a region. The use of these various data sources provides a large and diverse sample of travel data for agencies to work with. Having this large sample to draw from helps remove bias in the data collected and the data sample is not limited to only Android devices. Additionally, these data are collected from individuals for months at a time, allowing for a complete picture of individual travel patterns. Household travel surveys, which traditionally serve as the best source of data for the travel patterns of a region’s residents, are generally only able to collect data from a small sample of households for one or two travel days.”

This whole things needs its own analysis, I just found it today, so more when I have it. Any thoughts you have are welcome. The point I’m making is this: Sidewalk has sophisticated and complete data products. This company has done a lot of thinking about how to manage data in its products. We haven’t heard about these products in the public sessions, along with any lessons to share from that line of business.

The Plan Development Agreement

The Plan Development Agreement is another item that should be getting some space on the agenda. According to recent draft board minutes (page 5), the Plan Development Agreement is due to be voted on by the board on Tuesday July 31st. From Waterfront Toronto: “The Plan Development Agreement (or PDA) is a governance document meant to guide the working relationship between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs as we work towards the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP). It defines the roles, process, timeline, and funding in preparing the MIDP.”

If this agreement is approved it will be made public, and the Waterfront Toronto board is preparing a special communications plan for this too, as per draft board minutes (page 8). The Plan Development Agreement is said to contain “commercially sensitive information”, which is one reason that members of the digital strategy advisory panel were asked to sign Non-disclosure agreements. As recently reported by Amanda Roth at The Logic, several members have challenged and continue to refuse to sign the NDA, and one panel member, John Ruffolo of OMERS Ventures, left the panel due to the requirement.

Finally, don’t miss this great recent piece from John Lorinc at Spacing about Waterfront Toronto’s CEO Will Fleissig resigning earlier this month, and what could be next for the organization in the wake of the change.

K — another post coming up soon on this upcoming meeting and some things to think about to get ready for it.