Report suggests Toronto library should handle data governance for projects like Quayside

Toronto's Eastern Waterfront is seen in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Sidewalk Labs

TORONTO – As the debate over privacy and data collection for a proposed high-tech neighbourhood in Toronto continues, a new report suggests the city’s public library should assume responsibility for data governance in all such projects.

The report released Wednesday by the Toronto Region Board of Trade says the library should be tasked with creating a data hub that protects personal privacy and provides opportunities for economic growth, including policies and protocols for the collection and use of data.

It recommends that enforcement of the policies, however, be handled by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario and include the ability to impose fines, which would require that the province expand the commissioner’s powers.

READ MORE: Sidewalk Labs to consider suggestions from panel on Toronto smart city project 

The board’s president and CEO, Jan De Silva, says that while the issue of data governance was thrust into the spotlight by the Quayside waterfront development project, it is part of a much broader conversation about how to ensure the city stays economically competitive and relevant.

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Waterfront Toronto announced in the fall of 2017 that it had chosen Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs to design a high-tech neighbourhood for the Quayside project.

The project, which features environmentally friendly design and innovative infrastructure, has faced questions over how data will be collected, kept, accessed and protected, even after Sidewalk Labs released its privacy proposal.

The proposal shows that Sidewalk Labs does not intend to own the data it gathers in public spaces, and plans to establish an independent organization that will set the rules around data use. The document says little about intellectual property, however.

The company said Wednesday it welcomed the board’s report and hoped others would follow with their own proposals.

“The launch of Sidewalk Toronto has sparked an active and healthy public discussion about privacy, data ownership, and governance in cities,” said spokeswoman Keerthana Rang.

READ MORE: Waterfront Toronto not resisting smart city data demand: Cavoukian

“We truly believe that Quayside will set a new standard for responsible data use and our proposal to build an independent Civic Data Trust is just one example of our commitment to this principle.”

Waterfront Toronto, meanwhile, said it is doing some work with the MaRS Solutions Lab on civic data trusts and looking at different models, including those involving libraries.

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Kristina Verner, Waterfront Toronto’s vice-president of innovation, sustainability, and prosperity, said the issue needs to be examined regardless of what happens with the Quayside development.

“This report elevates the conversation from simply being focused on the Quayside project to the broader regional conversation that needs to happen around smart cities and the impact the data will be having on the region as we move forward,” she said.

READ MORE: Ann Cavoukian, former Ontario privacy commissioner, resigns from Sidewalk Labs

The board of trade – one of the largest chambers of commerce in Canada, representing the business interest of 12,000 members – said that while many stakeholders agree that data should be governed outside the Quayside project, its report is the first to make concrete recommendations about who should take on that role.

“It quickly became evident that our biggest barrier at the moment in moving from great research and talent that’s leading that research to actual commercialization of that research is the inability to deploy new tech in the city,” Da Silva said. “This is why we stepped in and wanted to open the discussion and propose a way forward.”

Ana-Maria Critchley, a spokeswoman for the Toronto Public Library, said the organization would consider the recommendations in the report.

“We have long played a role in city building and welcome the opportunity to discuss how we can continue to evolve this role in the civic data realm,” she said.

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“Given the complexity of the issues and the expertise and consultations that would be required to inform the work, we would require extra resources.”

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