Let Toronto Public Library hold smart city data, says Board of Trade

Around the world municipalities are eager to become smart cities, but struggling with who should control and set privacy rules over any public data generated from street, movement, utilities and other sensors gathering information.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade has weighed in with its opinion in the middle of Waterfront Toronto’s controversial Quayside project: Give data policy control to the city’s public library.

A “development-focused agency [Waterfront Toronto] does not have the mandate or the resources to develop broad technology policies for the larger city, nor is it resourced to provide independent enforcement or oversight over still-emerging technology practices,” the board said in a paper released Wednesday.

Instead the library, which has expertise in open data management and democratic governance, would form a data hub to set rules on a range of issues from where sensors could be installed, storage, privacy and intellectual property.

It would also assess applications from public, non-profit, and private organizations that want to use the data collected from Toronto smart city projects to help ensure that the benefits to the public are maximized.

While the library is covered by Ontario’s Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the board also recommends the hub be overseen by the provincial privacy commissioner. The commissioner should also be given the ability to lay fines for the misuse of data held by the library or the data hub.

The report comes as Waterfront Toronto, a federal/provincial/municipal agency developing a chunk of the city’s lakefront, is dealing with a proposal from Sidewalk Labs that an independent Civic Data Trust should control the collection and use of data gathered in the so-called smart city Quayside community within the Waterfront Toronto land. Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google’s parent, Alphabet Inc., originally would have overseen the data as the technology partner of the project. However, last October, in the face of complaints, it suggested the civic trust.

Waterfront Toronto hasn’t yet decided on a data governance model. In fact, Kristine Verner, the agency’s director of innovation, sustainability and prosperity, said Wednesday it will shortly release a discussion paper on various models to spark public debate before making a decision.

The board report is “a helpful input into the conversation,” she said in an interview. “It elevates the conversation beyond the just Quayside project and looks at smart cities more generally throughout the region. The issues being raised by Quayside … are ones smart cities have been grappling with for a very long time.”

Verner also noted that the city, federal and provincial governments — and not Waterfront Toronto — may have the final say on data governance in Quayside.

However, privacy expert Ann Cavoukain said she’s “baffled” by the board’s idea.”It’s crazy, I don’t see the advantage of it. It just complicates things.”

Cavoukian, who resigned as a Sidewalk Labs advisor over worries the company couldn’t promise that all Quayside publicly-collected data would be anonymized, said has no trouble with Waterfront Toronto overseeing data governance as long as data is de-identified.

“Sure, involve the city of Toronto” she said in an interview, “but Waterfront Toronto has been running this. They’re very committed to privacy and my request that [publicly-collected data] be de-identified at source. That’s critical, because with smart cities you’re going to have data collected 24/7 and no opportunity to obtain consent or notification … My problem was never with Waterfront Toronto running this. It was the direction that Sidewalk Labs was taking, and that has been reined in. So I don’t know why you’d want to go to the public library system.”

She also objects to the board’s recommendation that the provincial privacy commissioner be given the power to levy fines if anyone misuses data held by the proposed library data hub. It can take years to amend provincial legislation, she pointed out.

“Waterfront Toronto is being very responsible, They’re doing a very good job of ensuring privacy is embedded into the process, They’re open to various models of data governance they can work with … so I don’t know why there is this new proposition.”

According to Brian Kelcey, the board of trade’s vice-president of public affairs, the group feels the issue of governance of publicly-gathered data is a city-wide issue. “Even if Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk  can work through their challenges to make Quayside work, we need an agency that had a good reputation city-wide and experience with data policy to set the agenda beyond the boundaries of Waterfront Toronto’s jurisdiction.” Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are negotiating a commercial agreement, he noted. And no matter what the arrangement Waterfront Toronto isn’t a data enforcement agency.

The Quayside project has raised a number of issues including privacy and control over any intellectual property Sidewalk Labs or its partners may gain by the collection and processing of data in the community. Sidewalk has yet to submit its plan for the community, which would have to be approved by Waterfront Toronto.

However, the Board of Trade argues data governance should be handled by a third party, “not the project proponent [Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto].”  The city of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto should retain their existing responsibilities for land use, urban planning and land management as well as the final decision for related issues with the Quayside project, it adds.

The structure of the data hub would be left up to the library, the board said, including options such as creating an independent data trust or a ring-fenced data repository. The data hub should also consider giving the public ‘right to be forgotten’ on publicly-collected smart city data.

Toronto residents should share in the financial benefits of intellectual property (IP) that is commercialized at Quayside and other public realm Internet of Things smart city projects, the board also said. The library should consider using an academic consortium or Intellectual Property / Technology Transfer Office approach for that.

Issues like data and IP governance are “highly-specialized regulatory issues” beyond Waterfront Toronto’s core mandate, the board argues. And while it commends Sidewalk Labs for relinquishing control of data and suggesting the civic trust, neither it nor Waterfront Toronto should set the rulebook.

The Toronto Public Library already has an open data policy for datasets it holds.

“The Toronto Public Library is an institution regulated by provincial law, with a strong reputation for sound information management and data savvy, a keen sense of public mission, and a mandate broad enough to accommodate the public interest without crowding out legitimate economic and business opportunities,” said the board.

The report only touches on the many data governance issues any smart community, such as Quayside, might face. For example, a resident installing a smart thermostat in their apartment for their own might not have to go through the proposed data hub if there are consent measures already built in through the installation app. On the other hand if the building management wanted to install smart thermostats in all units and have access to that data, data hub policies would safeguard public and personal information.

Waterfront Toronto’s Verner noted there are a number of data governance models among smart cities, or communities preparing to become smart cities. Barcelona has a centralized city-run data management system, Estonia has a decentralized model while the University of Windsor has been designated as the data manager for a Windsor smart city project.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of ITWorldCanada.com and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including ITBusiness.ca and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@] soloreporter.com

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