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Page October 27, 2018

Towards a more equitable Sidewalk Toronto

By Milan Gokhale

October 27, 2018 - The city of Toronto is one year into the private sector experiment known as Sidewalk Toronto, a joint partnership between Waterfront Toronto — the economic development agency equally funded by governments in Toronto, Ontario and Canada — and Sidewalk Labs — the private company funded by Google. This real estate-tech partnership, which was announced a year ago as a tech-first neighbourhood in Toronto, has been a nightmare of conflated interests, conflicting priorities and confusing rhetoric.

For most residents, the Sidewalk Toronto project remains mysterious and vague, but for many of the people who have participated in the planning, the larger story is abundantly clear: Sidewalk Toronto is about enriching the privilege and power of a few people in Toronto, at the expense of everyone else. In the last five months, a Waterfront Toronto board member, two Waterfront Toronto digital advisors and Ontario’s leading privacy expert have resigned, and at least three more digital advisors have threatened to resign. In their statements, these participants suggest there is a lack of transparency, integrity and trust in the process and parties involved.

Faced with a legitimacy gap, two weeks ago, Sidewalk Labs proposed that all collected data will be placed in a public, civic data trust. The proposal goes to great lengths to point out that Sidewalk Labs will get no preferential access to data collected. For Sidewalk Labs supporters, “equal access for all” is a magnanimous gesture worthy of international praise. But “equal access for all” conveniently shifts the frame away from the most important question about this project: why are we collecting any data at all? Sidewalk Labs refuses to engage on this topic, because the resulting conversation would force us to consider who we collect data on today and whose interests are served by collecting data. And that may force us to confront a final, related question: if we must collect data, why should Sidewalk Labs get any access at all?

Treating everyone equally further entrenches privilege.

The idea of “equal access” is deeply embedded into the core of Silicon Valley, because many tech founders owe their success to the ultimate equal playing field for global ideas: the Internet. American tech entrepreneurs overwhelmingly support “equal access” government policies like universal health care and Internet for all. But to the tech industry, equality is inextricably linked with the concept of a meritocracy. If everyone starts on the same playing field, the logic goes, then any wealth created by the “winners” of the game was won “fairly”. The flaw in this logic is that most tech founders are young, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, white (or white-passing) men with greater access to money, privilege and power than the average person.

The ideology of meritocracy creates a dangerous feedback loop in which tech founders believe they are entitled to the wealth that comes with the future they have built. Worse, they begin to think that because they won “fairly” in the past, they are entitled to pursue more of their ideas about how societies should be built. Sidewalk Labs and its Toronto-based supporters [2] are a by-product of this world view, funded by the dominant wealth of Google and sustained on the belief that private corporations should be given a chance to create cities from scratch.

If Sidewalk Labs were genuinely interested in fairness, they would produce a data governance strategy that is rooted less in equality, and more in equity. An equitable civic data governance strategy would embrace the idea that everyone in Toronto starts at a different place geographically, culturally, socially, historically and most of all, technologically. It would force us to re-consider our biases and our privileges. And it would centre the process around historically oppressed communities in Toronto, who know best about the consequences of illegal, inhumane, unethical data access — and what a humane, just, civic data governance strategy looks like.

Equity is best defined by people who are treated unfairly.

The Toronto Police began issuing “contact cards” more than a decade ago, a practice contemporarily known as “carding”. In the last ten years, an entire swath of mostly young Black and racialized men have been terrorized by Toronto Police Services, and the resulting interactions are logged and stored in a massive database of biased carding data.

In response, led by Black community activists and front-line workers, people who have been ‘carded’ have told us clearly and succinctly what they want to happen to the practice of police carding: they want the data to be destroyed so that it can no longer be weaponized against those who have been stopped. Activist, radio host and journalist Desmond Cole has summarized the key asks(emphasis in bold is mine):

On numerous occasions, I myself have been stopped and documented by our police. If they ask me from now on I will refuse, but my resistance won’t erase the information that has already been collected about me. I may never really trust the police, but if that is their goal, I have some more appropriate first steps: the police should forward me a copy of all the carding data they have ever collected about me, and repeat this process for every Torontonian.

This data governance solution is brilliant, revelatory, and yes, innovative. Young Black and racialized people, who are illegally and unjustly stopped by police, should have the right to refuse all forms of data collection — and they must be given priority access to all data retroactively collected on them. It’s simple, concise and obvious.

This vision of civic data governance puts “equal data access for Sidewalk Labs” to shame. Sidewalk Labs has repeatedly failed marginalized Toronto residents on topics like humane data access, so their claim to a public, civic data trust is moot. Sidewalk Labs plays no role in planning or executing this resident-centric, people-first vision of civic data governance, and their project on the waterfront shouldn’t be exempt from any policy implementation.

Sidewalk Labs shouldn’t get any access to our data, and they shouldn’t get any more access to Toronto.

Beyond the obvious conflict of interest [3], the larger, developing story after one year is about the high opportunity cost that Toronto is paying for Sidewalk Labs to engage in consultation theatre that is more radical, corporate social experiment than meaningful, democratic engagement. The time to appreciate and celebrate Sidewalk Labs for proposing a public, civic data trust has passed. It is time for us to question why Waterfront Toronto has allowed Sidewalk Labs to amass twelve months of knowledge, credibility and influence in Toronto, only for Torontonians to be left with more questions than when we started.

The Sidewalk Toronto project is now preventing Toronto from having an important, equity-based conversation about the role technology could play to shape our public, civic lives. In a more hopeful, resident-centric, future version of “Sidewalk Toronto”, there is no reasonable case for giving Sidewalk Labs any access to our data, and by extension, to our city. One of my favourite technology writers, Wendy Liu, sums it up nicely on the topic of technology corporations like Sidewalk Labs and their continued quest to commoditize us through software under the guise of open source, equal access and corporate benevolence:

“[There is] no need for the pantheon of technology corporations that attempt to commodify every aspect of our lives in order to enrich a select few. We should try to imagine a world without them, in which the technologies that shape our common life belong to us in common, and are harnessed for the purpose of benefiting society and not hoarding wealth.”


[1] If you’re really keen on getting started with the pros and cons of public civic data trusts, Sean McDonald has written the definitive Sidewalk Toronto Civic Data Trust 101 post, and University of Ottawa technology law professor and Digital Advisory Panel member Teresa Scassa has insightful thoughts.

[2] The coalition of Sidewalk Labs supporters is a veritable who’s-who of private interests: technology literates (web developers, designers, project managers and tech literate people), urbanists (planners, architects and civic enthusiasts who covet the benefits of downtown urban living) and fiscal conservatives (Bay Street tycoons, venture capitalists, fiscal hawks and small government politicians).

[3] On major technology projects, the vendor of record for technology planning should not be the vendor of record for technology implementation, for the same reason your financial planner should not be your stock trader: if your financial planner knows they can use your money to buy high-reward stocks, they can easily manipulate your financial plan to make it look like risky stocks are in your best interest long-term — even when it’s only in their own interest short-term. This is a concept known as moral hazard, and it’s one of the main reasons that Wall Street bankers almost wrecked the global financial economy in the fall of 2008.