Torontonians should take control of their data

As Google-affiliated Sidewalk Labs proposes building a high-tech neighbourhood on the waterfront, citizens should demand ownership of data collected in public spaces

Do you know what’s being done with your data?

It may be a question you’ve only partially considered as you scrolled down an app’s terms of use and hastily clicked accept. You may have even settled into the notion that Big Tech, not unlike Big Brother, already knows everything about you anyway, so handing over another piece of your data won’t matter much. 

But in the wake of the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, in which the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users was sold to politicians to influence voter opinion, it matters in a big way.

Who owns your personal data online and how it, in turn, is collected and used is dominating global conversation, prompting calls for users to take control of their own data and bring a kind of democracy to Big Tech’s information oligarchy.

But as the Internet of Things is turning everything into, well, the internet, the data you produce is increasingly breaking away from the confines of the screen and emerging into physical space. So while we’re waking up to a new vigilance about our data online, we should be just as vocal and demand ownership of our data in our public spaces.

A smart city is knocking at Toronto’s door. Sidewalk Toronto, a joint venture between Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google parent company Alphabet Inc., and Waterfront Toronto, is proposing a high-tech neighbourhood called Quayside for the city’s eastern waterfront. A Master Innovation and Development Plan is in the works and set to be submitted at the end of 2018 for government approval.

The 12-acre smart city, which will be located between East Bayfront and the Port Lands, promises to tackle the social and policy challenges affecting Toronto: affordable housing, traffic congestion and the impacts of climate change. Imagine self-driving vehicles shuttling you around a 24/7 neighbourhood featuring low-cost, modular buildings that easily switch uses based on market demand. Picture buildings heated or cooled by a thermal grid that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, or garbage collection by industrial robots. Underpinning all of this is a network of sensors and other connected technology that will monitor and track environmental and human behavioural data.

That last part about tracking human data has sparked concern. Much ink has been spilled in the press about privacy protections and the issue has been raised repeatedly by citizens in two of four recent community consultations held by Sidewalk Toronto. 

In a recently released Responsible Data Use Policy Framework, the Sidewalk Toronto team has made a number of commitments in the privacy area, such as not selling personal information to third parties or using it for advertising purposes.

But to frame the issue largely around privacy six months into the planning process skips over more fundamental questions that were never, or have yet to be, discussed with the public, such as whether we want our behavioural data tracked in the public realm in the first place. And if we do, who owns it, who has access to it and how will it be used?

We don’t know yet. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are negotiating who will own the data collected in this new neighbourhood.

“If the data is instructive to us as to how we should improve, change and model the city, why would we not own that?” asks Bianca Wylie, founder of Open Data Institute Toronto. “To me the question is the other way around: why would you ever let someone else own it?”

Wylie is an advocate of government ownership of data, calling it the “democratically informed way to manage what the people decide to do” with the data collected.

Currently, certain data sets owned and collected by the City of Toronto are available under its Open Data Master Plan, meaning it can be freely accessed and used by anyone – interested citizens to app developers – for the public good. An app called Toronto Cycling, which makes use of the city’s open data, tracks user’s rides with GPS to help the city improve cycling infrastructure. 

Data that isn’t open because it contains personal identifiers or information that may pose security or confidentiality concerns is subject to staunch federal privacy laws, which restrict the government from using the data for anything other than its intended purpose or from sharing it between departments. 

However, Canada’s privacy acts haven’t kept pace with the speed of the internet. There aren’t any protections around collective privacy or collective ownership of data, for example. A National Data Strategy is in the works, but implementation is a long way off. 

Wylie argues that government ownership is ideal in the absence of policy or laws that have yet to adequately protect citizen data. The first time she heard about the Sidewalk Labs partnership with Waterfront Toronto, which was announced last October, alarm bells went off.

“The first thing I thought was ‘we’re not ready for this,’” she says. “When did we as a society say that however we move around in public space – that this is something we want to share and commodify? We need to really think about what it means to have a private company operating in what historically is public space.”

Those concerns prompted Wylie to create an open list of questions, first published on Torontoist, that residents and the tech community can both add to and reference. It’s an accountability tool in that it provides citizens with the questions they should be asking the Sidewalk Toronto team. There are over 100 questions and counting.

Despite Sidewalk Toronto stating that it will work with government, stakeholders and citizens on governance issues, Wylie remains skeptical.

“Of course they’re going to say they are, but they have no legislative requirement to be the steward of data in the same way the government would be.”



Data is a rich resource – “the new oil” as it’s enthusiastically called – and it can be mined in a number of ways, from licensing it for commercial purposes to making it open to the public and freely shareable. What citizens don’t want to do with it is cede control.

“The notion that we’re going to hand over all of that data, especially to private companies, without public debate should concern citizens,” says Kurtis McBride, CEO of Kitchener-based Miovision. “In the next decade someone is going to profit significantly off of that civic, publicly generated data and it’s either going to be the private sector or the citizens directly.”

McBride is on Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, an arms-length body that will provide advice on transparency, privacy, data governance and security. He’s also a member of the Council of Canadian Innovators. He goes a step further by arguing cities shouldn’t just own the data, they should own the architecture, too, for example, the sensors collecting data.

If monetization is the approach citizens want to take, ownership of data alone isn’t necessarily a way to make money. Using the metaphor of water delivery, McBride says “what’s really important is that cities are able to monetize the equivalent of the pipes, because whoever owns the pipes that deliver the data makes the money on the data.”

Dr. Teresa Scassa also sits on the panel. She’s the Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy at the University of Ottawa and her research on the evolution of open transit data in the U.S. provides an illustrative example.

In the mid-2000s, a number of municipalities, including San Francisco, contracted a private sector company to install automatic vehicle location technology on public transit. Developers saw an opportunity to use the location data to create apps that would predict when buses arrived at stops. Some municipalities made the data available only to have the private company, which provided the hardware and software, assert its control over the data as per the contract, causing cities to either renegotiate for or clarify ownership of the rights.

“From the company’s point of view, they can get a lot of supplementary value from the data by creating new products and services and selling them back to the municipality,” says Scassa. “But from a public perspective why should you pay to have a company put the tech on your buses, pay them again for the data and then pay them again for the products or services that come from it?”

Of course, private companies have the capital to fund smart city infrastructure and the know-how, which can be attractive to cities that are either cash-strapped or eager to establish their reputation as global tech hubs.

Sidewalk Labs has invested $50 million in the year-long research and testing phase, and its presence can benefit a tech ecosystem as large as Toronto’s, which boasted 4,000 active start-ups and over 22,500 new tech jobs from 2015 to 2016. Any city would want to make itself attractive for private companies to invest in and then ensure a return on that investment.

But Scassa argues cities shouldn’t “make themselves and their citizens vulnerable by giving away the data farm” and that governments have a fairly strong claim to the data output because “the city is providing the laboratory: the access to the city space and to its residents,” which is no small resource.

In its policy framework, Sidewalk Toronto has stated its work on data governance – including infrastructure ownership, whether the data will be housed in Canada or overseas, and usage terms – remains in development. But if it is serious that it “will not move forward” with the project unless it incorporates what citizens as well as stakeholders want in a smart city, as Sidewalk Labs’s chief policy officer Rit Aggarwala said in a community consultation in March, the public is entitled to firm and transparent decisions on these issues sooner rather than later. 

A plan development agreement, which would lay out the scope of the project, was supposed to be made public in April. Waterfront Toronto officials are now saying it isn’t expected until the summer. The lack of clarity and the short timelines, particularly of the consultations, have led Wylie to question the legitimacy of the stated desire to incorporate public input.


If we’re talking citizen ownership of data, the question remains: why don’t we, the citizens, band together in some kind of Marxian data revolution where we overthrow private and state ownership and take control of the means of production?

The concept of a public data trust speaks to this grassroots, collective ownership. Under it, individuals would pool their data into the trust, stipulating the conditions under which it could be used. A mutual organization would be formed to manage the data on citizens’ behalf.

Barcelona provides one such example with its DECODE platform, a European Union-funded project that allows citizens to donate their data (or not) to the city. Local communities and tech start-ups then use the data to build apps or provide services in the public interest.

Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s chief technology and digital innovation officer, spearheads the project. In March, she tweeted: “Citizens should own their own data. We need public alternatives that are decentralized, privacy-enhancing and rights preserving. We need democratic control and ethical digital standards for tech platforms  to protect the digital sovereignty of citizens.”

The benefit of the data-trust approach is it can be implemented relatively quickly as opposed to enacting legislation to form a government body charged with holding and managing data in the public interest. 

Wylie speculates, however, that data trusts could create a “techno-deterministic” body  where digital savvy and super-data-literate professionals could monopolize the conversation.

“We want the kinds of laws and policies that protect and support our ideals, where you never have to look at your data to know that you’re able to use technology in a safe way and things aren’t happening that you didn’t consent to,” she says. “We shouldn’t be adding an extra layer of complexity where now you’ve got to do this extra governance work to make sure that you’re safe.”

Safety will be paramount as smart city initiatives, such as Sidewalk Toronto, push citizens into the murky territory of businesses managing our data in the public sphere. Moreover, it’s a model with broader implications. In the midst of NAFTA renegotiations, American companies are lobbying for changes that would deregulate data across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, meaning that the “new oil” would be under the governance of the private sector and citizens would have even less power.

It’s clear that whatever is decided, from what governance model is used to how our data is shared and where it’s housed and protected, citizens should be the ones deciding.


Data has enthusiastically been called the “new oil.” But Miovision CEO Kurtis McBride says the designation holds true only because data, like oil, creates class warfare, permitting those who own it to control the agenda and those who don’t to be left at their mercy. With the flow of data now contributing more to world GDP than the flow of physical goods, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, there’s a lot at stake for the different players. Here’s how they benefit:


They are the primary beneficiaries of personal data, monetizing it through advertising and marketing sales


They leverage open data for the public good, improving quality of life for citizens via data–driven design and policies


The largest generators of data, people trade their data for customized choices, such as receiving online ads tailored to their search histories, while incurring zero financial compensation in return | @missrattan

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