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.