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Sidewalk Labs outlines further plans for Toronto waterfront development

Vacant lots in the Port Lands area, the future home of Sidewalk Labs in Toronto are shown on Tuesday, June 25, 2019.
Vacant lots in the Port Lands area, the future home of Sidewalk Labs in Toronto are shown on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Lahodynskyj

TORONTO – Sidewalk Labs has released a 482-page document updating its plans for a development on Toronto’s waterfront in a bid to alleviate some of the privacy concerns that have swirled around the project since its proposal.

The so-called Digital Innovation Appendix from the Google sister company outlines planned “innovations” and what data they will collect, expanding on a 1,500-page “Master Innovation & Development Plan” released earlier this year.

READ MORE: Waterfront Toronto board approves interim terms with Sidewalk Labs

“Sidewalk Labs recognizes that technology alone cannot solve urban challenges, and that digital technology should only be proposed when it truly can make a meaningful impact on key public policy outcomes,” the new document reads. “For this reason, this list is not hundreds of different gadgets or speculative ideas.”

Instead, the document claims, Sidewalk has exercised “digital restraint” and doesn’t plan to use facial recognition or implement “tech for tech’s sake.”

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The digital innovations outlined in the report range from weather-responsive heated pavement meant to prevent ice and snow build-up to pedestrian detectors at crosswalks.

While some of the tech will collect personal information, the company has committed to not selling it, using it for advertising or sharing it with third parties – including other companies owned by Google parent-company Alphabet – without explicit consent.

Waterfront Toronto reaches agreement to allow Sidewalk Labs to continue Quayside development plans
Waterfront Toronto reaches agreement to allow Sidewalk Labs to continue Quayside development plans

The document also reiterates the company’s commitment that Waterfront Toronto, an agency composed of representatives from three levels of government, will take the lead on data governance.

Waterfront Toronto approved that change last month, along with a reduced scope for the Sidewalk Labs project.

The decision to relinquish control of the data was an about-face for Sidewalk, which had previously proposed the establishment of a new agency to manage data from the project.

It came after two years of criticism and fears about who would manage and have access to data collected by the project.

Ontario’s privacy commissioner was among those who raised concerns about the project in a letter to Waterfront Toronto in September.

Sidewalk Labs unveils detailed plans to transform Toronto waterfront
Sidewalk Labs unveils detailed plans to transform Toronto waterfront

Commissioner Brian Beamish said the previous data governance proposals had a lack of independent public oversight, a cumbersome mandate that overlapped with existing regulators, and not enough of a role for the City of Toronto given its experience of delivering services in the public interest.

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Beamish said in a statement Friday that his team had a copy of the Digital Innovation Appendix and was poring over the document.

“If we have concerns, we will provide our feedback to Waterfront Toronto,” he wrote. “I am pleased that Waterfront Toronto will continue to seek independent feedback from leading privacy experts as it develops an approach on these important issues.”