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According to Gillies(2018) “In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs emerged as a competition winner for the Quayside redevelopment project (Sidewalk Toronto or The Project) awarded by Waterfront Toronto. This project envisions to build Quayside, a 4.9 hectares site in Toronto’s East Bayfront neighbourhood, as a world’s first truly smart-city packed with latest technologies and internet connectivity with a purpose to enhance the quality and performance of urban services by addressing common city problems such as the high cost of living, crowded transportation system, inefficient energy usage and shortage of affordable houses”. Some stakeholders advocate the implementation of this project, appreciating the bold innovative step by the government towards future development while keeping the bigger picture in mind. But there is a significant vocal population objecting this implementation and making sure the project doesn’t see the light of day. Key concerns for people opposing the project are data security and personal privacy. This matter is still in debate and the next round of discussion is expected to take place in January 2020.
The purpose of this report is to thoroughly analysis the Sidewalk Toronto project from all angles and provide my recommendation on whether the government should proceed ahead with the project amidst taking required precautions or completely abandon it. My stand is to proceed ahead with caution.
The scope of this report covers the major benefits and concerns from the point of view of all the key stakeholders involved – for and against the project. It aims to provide an unbiased view regarding the project attributes. It will provide the reasoning behind the various claimed benefits, such as better traffic monitoring, a cleaner and sustainable environment, more job opportunities, and a better quality of living. I will also address the key pain points brought forth by the people such as security breaches and hacks, monitoring of individual lives through various sensors deployed across the city, and details on data storage and protection practices.
Sidewalk Labs is a Toronto-based technology company, backed by Google and a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. It was founded in 2015 with a vision to improve urban infrastructure through technological solutions. Sidewalk Toronto project will be the pilot program for the Sidewalk labs and the project will be supported by all the three levels of government, Waterfront Toronto and City of Toronto. There are two main components of this project: the physical layer and the digital layer. The physical layer will consist of four different parts that are Buildings, Mobility, Public Realm, and Infrastructure. The digital layer contains Maps, Sensor, Model, and Account. The combination of these layers will provide a unique living experience for its residents that is never experienced before anywhere in the world. The prime objective of the government for this project is to serve as a model for sustainable neighborhoods for the whole world and to establish an inclusive community that fosters engagement of people from diverse backgrounds.
After studying the details of this project, I have identified key benefits that are particularly unique for this project. These benefits will go a long way in shaping our way of life going forward. They will set a global standard for expected living quality and will ultimately reward our future generations immensely.
Benefit #1: Promoting Innovation and Inclusiveness
Houses and buildings will be based on modular structures center around typologies that contain the Loft structure which can accommodate a variety of designs such as flexible street-level shops, reconfigurable workspaces. The space can be shared or resized by multiple organizational depending upon the demand. These flexible spaces are perfectly suitable for aspiring start-ups aiming to develop the next generation innovative products and solutions. Modular housing will be constructed using cost-saving technologies such as assembling structures from prefabricated customized components manufactured off sites.
The public spaces will contain free-flowing common spaces embedded through the neighborhood laced with heated pedestrian lanes and paths that melt snow in winters. It will embed a raincoat that will be open automatically when there are hot warm summer and shield people when there is cold and snowing. This first-of-its-kind public space will alter the way people interact. There will exhibitions, events, and activities for all age groups throughout the year and people will take up in it without worrying about the weather.
Quayside will consist of high bandwidth wireless communication which is extremely important in reporting the environmental changes such as temperature, noise, carbon levels, and vibrations. The benefits of Internet of Things (IoT) are already visible to us right now. Taking this setup to the next level will bestow unprecedented benefits in tackling environmental and climate changes.
The infrastructure will be entirely constructed underground centered around the system of utility channels that accommodates all the network utility such as electric wires telecom, heating pipes, water pipes, and cooling infrastructure. These utility channels will also include multiple Robots lanes where Robots will make deliveries and transport waste traveling building basements, reducing the usage of trucks and cars on the street.
Benefit #2: Affordable Housing and Promoting Equality
In the last three years, the cost of rent in Toronto has increased by 12 percent, however, the average salary of citizens has marginally increased by 4.6 percent. This has made much harder for Toronto residents to either to rent or to afford the houses that suit their needs. Sidewalk Labs urban innovation platform will provide affordable flexible houses for all income groups and constructed in a manner to enhance the accessibility of various public amenities, promoting diversity and inclusivity.
Sidewalk new standard policy aims to solve the affordability issues by providing housing model which will be based on 40 percent below-market housing for low and middle- income group people. For example, in 2017, Amsterdam adopted a similar model 40-40-20 to address the issue of providing affordable houses to its citizens. Accordingly, this project aims that about 40 percent of residential space will be priced below-market including 20 percent low income and 20 percent middle- income group.
Markets, cooperated offices, and universities will be not be separated from neighborhood covered by streets and parking lots. The public space in the realm will be designed around the pedestrian. Thus, people will be able to spend more time doing outdoor activities such as exhibitions, community works regardless of the weather, consequently, enhancing inclusiveness and encouraging diversity.
Benefit #3: Eco-friendly Society
Buildings will be constructed using timber, a sustainable cradle to cradle construction material, to prevent greenhouse emission and to produce zero waste. The heating and cooling of the spaces will be designed by implementing smart power grids that would tap the energy from electric power, rather that using fossil fuels. This model will function as the Neighborhood Energy Utility(NEU) implemented by the City of Vancouver in 2010.
In electricity production, Sidewalk aims at reducing energy and greenhouse gas emission by implementing a smart thermal grid that will use clean energy resources such as unused heat in the form of thermal energy. In addition, Sidewalk targets to divert 80 percent waste, which is currently 20 percent for Toronto multi-tenant apartments, by installing a smart disposal system which will include smart chutes and a pneumatic refuse system to initiate pay as you throw disposal.
Benefit #4: Sustainable Mobility
For Toronto, car traffic congestion has always been a big problem in the city. Quayside objective is to design the street around people and not around cars. It promotes the use of cycling, transit and walking over driving a car for every kilometer covered by connecting all the pedestrian’s pathways and bicycle lanes across the neighborhood so that people can travel conveniently to any place using their bicycles rather than cars. The project aims to replace cars by electric autonomous vehicles with zero emissions to maintain a clean environment. Self-driving transit shuttle, allowing the door to door autonomous transportation system, will be serviced for busier routes carrying multiple passengers to reduce congestion, travel time and carbon emission in urban areas.
While Sidewalk Toronto is intended to demonstrate innovation in sustainability and social equality for making everyone’s life better and easier, people are concerned about the other side of this project which is drawing a lot of concerns and scepticisms. The major apprehensions of the concerned citizens primarily lie in the next component of this model, which is the Digital layer.
Digital Layer behaves similarly to an operating system collecting and storing the data for all the spaces in the neighborhood. This report will examine the mounting concerns raised by people over this project.
Concern #1: Data Breaches impact on the community
Different institutions in the neighborhood – Hospitals, Banks, Schools, Retail Shops – can get affected by these data breaches. Currently, data from these institutes are handled at their end in silos but centralizing the connectivity will make it relatively easier for getting access to systems of these institutes.
- Hospitals have sensitive patient’s data which if hacked can bring a lot of trouble. Patient’s medical history, treatments, government health card details, and health insurance details if hacked can be modified or deleted as per hacker’s wishes. For example, deliberate malfunctioning of devices can prevent the ongoing critical treatment of the patient.
- Financial Institutes such as Banks contain a variety of their customer’s critical data such as bank account details, transaction details, investment amounts, insurance information, credit card history, social security number etc. Any compromise on these data can bring a lot of distress to the city’s economy.
- Educational Institutes such as Schools and Universities contain student’s academic information including assignments, marksheets, transcripts, awards, exam details and personal information such as social media accounts. There are cases where hackers steal this information and, pretending to be a staff of the institution, blackmail students to carry out illegal activities such as selling drugs.
- Retail Shops and small businesses are also at risk of getting their systems and data compromised, leading to loss of business and livelihood.
Concern #2: Lack of clear information about the Data Stewardship
People of Toronto are concerned about data privacy which includes possible commercialization of their data, and a lack of transparency from the government and private sector. With an increasing number of data breach incidents, no big high-tech company can be given control to oversee the public data. Although Sidewalk Lab has given an assurance that the data will be regulated and managed by non profit independent organization ”civic data trust”, but it has not clearly addressed the procedure about how Sidewalk is going to collect and use the data, who will be the beneficiary of the trust and the standards and ethical laws on how that data will be shared with third-party organizations.
Concern #3: Confidentiality and Trust Issues
Google primary business is based on collecting and monetizing private data. The company captures public data and then sell that data to third-party company in order to help advertisers target their users on the various social media platforms. Thus, people of Toronto are concerned about their personal information which when used by Sidewalk Lab, without even taking their consent, can lead to a data leak. For example, in March 2015, a similar case happened when Tech giant Facebook data was stolen by a third- party company named Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge gained access to millions of users’ information and used that data to influence voters which consequently impacted the Donald trump’s elections.
Concern #4: Issues concerning Data Localisation Laws
The sidewalk also states that collected data will be stored in the central repository as opposed to being stored locally. Data localization is the major concern for Canadians as people don’t know whether their information will be retained within the Canada. If the data moves to the Unites States, it will not be subjected to Canadian laws, rather American companies will have a right to snoop in with this data.
Studying the project details and its impact on our society, I certainly believe that the project should move forward albeit taking a cautionary approach. In my opinion, the advantages outweigh the concerns and proceeding with caution is the most pragmatic approach. Instead of abandoning the project or blinding allowing it to proceed is harmful for everyone involved. All the concerns are valid and there might be even more unforeseen issues that may spring up in the future. But, I believe, as a progressing society we should not let these concerns hamper our growth. Proceeding with caution is the most pragmatic approach and all the issues should be identified, documented, well prepared and provisioned for before commencing the construction of the smart city. The effect this project will bring is going to be a game-changer for Toronto as well as Canada, making it the global hub of urban innovation. Often these bold steps turn out to be an inflection point for a country, offering it a chance for a supernormal growth for many years to come.
Though people of Toronto are excited about the innovation and development that Quayside will bring to their city, Sidewalk Toronto should also address major concerns and build trust among the general public regarding the accountability and transparency of the data. There are several gap areas that Sidewalk Labs, Waterfront Toronto, and the government need to fulfill before proceeding. This report will address my few recommendations, which are by no means not limited to, that can help the Sidewalk to make a vital contribution:
Recommendation #1: Data stewardship
A data trust must be a non-profit organization comprised of experts from different departments. The data must have specific rules and guidelines regarding who can access, use and share that data. To gain the public trust it should demonstrate the following:
- The Sidewalk must describe the process of how they are going to analyze the data and more specifically what privacy protection laws and regulations they will use to sensitize that data so that personal identity remains anonymous. Additionally, Sidewalk must develop some mechanism regarding the data re-identification and how they are going to reduce de-anonymization risks.
- The data trust should demonstrate different levels of accountability within the public-private organization structure such as Risk assessment, policies and procedures, monitoring and verifications and transparency. It should clearly state who will be accountable for what risk and how that risk will be priced in the future, by measuring and calculating the overall risk. The Sidewalk must talk about the different approaches for implementing accountability which include comprehensive data privacy and security standards and policies outlining business ethics.
- The data trust should demonstrate the business model describing how rules and regulations will be followed by third parties before accessing the data repository. Quayside should ensure that data used for innovation and intellectual purpose will be returned to the trust, governed by the ethical rules and regulations.
Example: The Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), non-profit independent cooperation, allows researchers to collect and evaluate a vast variety of health-related data with strict privacy laws and regulations. It has been recognized as the prescribed entity for protecting the privacy of health information by Ontario’s Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIIPA). ICES, being a prescribed entity, have authority and right that it can analyze and share the data to other researchers in accordance with ethical laws and standards designed to protect and maintain the confidentiality of health information. This involves defining accountability and transparency of data, limiting the gathering of data, protecting data through passwords and encryption mechanism, accessing and sharing data govern by privacy laws and practices, de-identification of the personal identification information.
Recommendation #2: Data Collection
Sidewalk Toronto should concentrate on addressing the public fear of taking their data without their consent. Everyone in the resident should be informed about the ethical policies made in accordance with the public interest and take permission before gathering data in the sensor-driven environment.
Example: the Soofa company, in Boston, has installed, multiple solar powered, smart benches in parks and bus stops. This smart bench will charge your mobile phones and help you connect to free Wi-Fi while just sitting on the bench. These benches will collect the data neat the bench area for recording the activities such as pedestrian movements, level of heat and noise in the public space. The Company uses this data for making innovation and claims that they have applied a cryptographic mechanism to anonymize personal information. However, the company is planning to put various signs in this area to inform the general public that if they wish they can have an option to opt out of this area. Given the scale of sensitive data Sidewalk project possess on its residents, it should frame policies and standards to take consent from people before getting their data.
Recommendation #3: Regulation for accidents related to autonomous vehicles
The Sidewalk and waterfront Toronto must state who is going to take responsibilities of the risks associated with autonomous vehicles malfunctioning and the accidents on the pedestrian streets. For example, The Motor Vehicle Safety in Canada regulates all the safety guidelines that all the manufacturers and importers need to follow including the documents, license, and test methods.
Recommendation #4: Housing funding at perpetuity
While the Sidewalk is working on making affordable houses and buildings for everyone, it should also guarantee the residents of Quayside that they will be provided for the affordability at perpetuity, and not for a fixed period. People normally receive funding for their accommodation for a specific period and are required to leave that area once that period is expired. Thus, this step will allow people of Toronto to live in houses for a longer period which would otherwise have not been possible. Providing funding for affordable houses at perpetuity can help Sidewalk Toronto to contribute toward a strong and more stable community. For example, Mandatory inclusionary Housing(MIH) in New York City has a requirement under a new project to make houses that will be affordable to all income groups under perpetuity.
Thus, if the above-mentioned recommendations are implemented and the government’s preparedness to safeguard our interests from future threats is exhibited then I believe this project and its future upgrades will completely transform our way of lives not just for people of Toronto or Canada but for the whole world. Successful implementation of the Quayside project will position Toronto as a global hub of innovation and a leader in emerging urban technologies.
- Gillies, R. (2018). Google’s first urban development project.National Post. Retrieved from https://nationalpost.com
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