Side­walk Labs al­ready in­volved in ex­per­i­ment with data col­lec­tion


Side­walk Labs is still in the midst of pub­lic con­sul­ta­tions for its datadriven smart city project on Toronto’s water­front, but doc­u­ments show that the com­pany has al­ready started ex­per­i­ment­ing with other data col­lec­tion projects in the city.

On Thurs­day, Side­walk Labs will make a pre­sen­ta­tion to the Dig­i­tal Strat­egy Ad­vi­sory Panel (DSAP) of Water­front Toronto, as the fed­eral-provin­cial-mu­nic­i­pal agency grap­ples with pri­vacy, in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and gov­er­nance is­sues re­lated to ur­ban data sys­tems in the pro­posed Quay­side Side­walk Toronto project.

The brief­ing doc­u­ments for the DSAP meet­ing shed new light on what kind of data col­lec­tion Side­walk Labs en­vi­sions for Quay­side, and the doc­u­ments also in­di­cate that the com­pany is al­ready ex­per­i­ment­ing with data col­lec­tion in Toronto to see how peo­ple use pub­lic space.

Side­walk Labs, which is af­fil­i­ated with Google, built a smart­phone app called Com­mon­Space and part­nered with the Thorn­cliffe Park Women’s Com­mit­tee to track how peo­ple are us­ing the RV Burgess Park in the Thorn­cliffe Park neigh­bour­hood of the city.

Sabina Ali, chair of the com­mit­tee, said her group has been work­ing to make the park space more wel­com­ing and widely used, es­pe­cially for the im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties who live in the nearby apart­ment build­ings. The com­mu­nity group has week­end mar­kets in the spring and sum­mer.

“We re­ally wanted the res­i­dents to use this park as their back­yard, and we en­gaged the com­mu­nity,” she said.

Vol­un­teers used the Com­monS pace app to ba­si­cally do the same sort of thing that was pre­vi­ously done with a pa­per and pen on a clip­board. Us­ing geospa­tial sys­tems, they could place dots on a map of the park to note peo­ple who were us­ing the pub­lic space, and make ob­ser­va­tions about the per­son’s ap­prox­i­mate age, gen­der, and what ac­tiv­i­ties they were do­ing.

Side­walk Labs wrote up a Re­spon­si­ble Data Im­pact As­sess­ment (RDIA) for the project that is dated Sept. 19, but they didn’t pub­lish the doc­u­ment un­til Dec. 7.

No­tably, this ap­pears to vi­o­late Side­walk Labs’ own pro­posal for ur­ban data col­lec­tion stan­dards, which Side­walk Labs’ head of data gov­er­nance Alyssa Har­vey Daw­son pub­lished on Oct. 15. “RDIAs would have to be filed with the Civic Data Trust be­fore the col­lec­tion of ur­ban data takes place, and they would be made pub­licly avail­able — to cre­ate trans­parency and help hold com­pa­nies and agen­cies ac­count­able,” Har­vey wrote.

Side­walk Labs didn’t is­sue any pub­lic an­nounce­ment on the project be­fore it hap­pened, although there was a blog post about it on the web­site for Park Peo­ple, an or­ga­ni­za­tion de­voted to com­mu­nity parks in Canada, which played match­maker con­nect­ing Side­walk Labs with the Thorn­cliffe Park Women’s Com­mit­tee.

Ac­cord­ing to the RDIA, peo­ple in the park may not have known that the data col­lec­tion project was hap­pen­ing. “In­di­vid­u­als be­ing ob­served are not ex­plic­itly no­ti­fied of a study be­ing con­ducted, but sur­vey­ors are trained to an­swer ques­tions about the study when asked,” the Side­walk Labs doc­u­ment says.

While Side­walk Labs said that the risks as­so­ci­ated with this kind of data col­lec­tion were “min­i­mal,” the RDIA did ac­knowl­edge that even ag­gre­gated pop­u­la­tion data can have some risks, es­pe­cially when it comes to marginal­ized or at-risk groups. “Data col­lected us­ing Com­mon­Space and made pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble could be mis­used to sup­port an agenda of dis­crim­i­na­tion or em­bar­rass­ment,” the com­pany said in the RDIA.

Side­walk Labs has pro­posed that all ur­ban data at the Quay­side project be held by a civic data trust that would man­age all the pol­icy is­sues and make de-iden­ti­fied data equally avail­able to all par­ties, but be­cause the data trust hasn’t been set up yet, in the case of the RV Burgess Park ex­per­i­ment, Side­walk Labs is cur­rently in pos­ses­sion of the data, while Park Peo­ple is do­ing data anal­y­sis on it. Once the fi­nal anal­y­sis is done, it will be up to the Thorn­cliffe Park Women’s Com­mit­tee if they want to make the raw data pub­lic. Ali said she’d like to see the data posted on­line.

Side­walk Labs plans an ex­hibit on the project at its pub­lic show­room at 307 Lakeshore Boule­vard East in the Quay­side neigh­bour­hood.

The brief­ing doc­u­ments in the DSAP pack­age also of­fer other clues about other forms of data col­lec­tion that Side­walk Labs might want to see for Quay­side.

On the streets, cam­eras, in-pave­ment sen­sors, and li­cence plate read­ers may track ve­hi­cle move­ment and op­ti­mize traf­fic flow and park­ing. In build­ings, sen­sors could dy­nam­i­cally con­trol heat­ing and cool­ing sys­tems to op­ti­mize en­ergy us­age. The com­pany says it could also use data for flood mit­i­ga­tion along the water­front by track­ing weather and stormwa­ter flows. All these ex­am­ples are marked “for il­lus­tra­tive pur­poses.”.


Side­walk Labs, a Google af­fil­i­ate, will be ad­dress­ing, with a govern­ment agency, pri­vacy, in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and gov­er­nance is­sues on Thurs­day re­lated to its pro­posed Quay­side Side­walk Toronto project. The com­pany has been test­ing a smart­phone app called Com­mon­Space to track how peo­ple are us­ing the RV Burgess Park in Toronto.

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