What Toronto’s Quayside project has taught us about smart cities and data

An artist's impression of Sidewalk Lab's Quayside smart-city project in Toronto. Image: Sidewalk Labs.

Toronto’s proposed Quayside community was supposed to be a brag-worthy global showcase for what a smart city, “built from the internet up,” would look like. Instead, the joint partnership between Waterfront Toronto and U.S.-based Sidewalk Labs swiftly got caught in a 12-month, $50m negotiation and consultation process. Those involved in Quayside have been surprised by the concerns raised about the project and the resistance to it.

A public meeting in March — only their second in five months — failed to fill in basic details about the nature of the partnership, including how the for-profit Sidewalk Labs would actually generate income from the project. Perhaps most surprisingly, officials at the meeting revealed that they were still privately negotiating the most fundamental components of their partnership, namely what data would be collected, who would control and own this data, where it would be stored and how it would be used.

The two sides are also negotiating who will control the intellectual property (IP) that comes from a project that has been designed to produce lots of IP.

Coming to terms with a data-driven world

These are not trivial issues. Smart-city infrastructure requires data collection — in fact, data is best conceived of as the fuel that powers smart cities. Without a constant stream of new data, smart cities cannot be as responsive in delivering public services.

In this respect, Quayside is not unique. Infrastructure projects will increasingly include data components, and municipalities and other levels of government — to say nothing of the citizens whose data these projects will collect — will face challenges similar to those currently encountered by Waterfront Toronto.

Government officials and our fellow citizens can learn a great deal about how not to approach such projects by examining Waterfront Toronto’s negotiations with Sidewalk Labs.

We suggest three key principles to consider for future smart city infrastructure projects:


1. In data-intensive projects, data is the whole game

Most of the flat-footedness related to the Quayside project to date can be traced back to Waterfront Toronto’s original request for proposals (RFP). The document treats data instrumentally, focusing on what it can enable rather than treating it as the main product.

There is very little in the RFP that directly references the issue of data control, and the RFP is silent on who will determine what data will be generated. Instead, these and other related issues are left to be determined after the fact, with the RFP requiring only that “the Partner will work closely with Waterfront Toronto to... create the required governance constructs to stimulate the growth of an urban innovation cluster, including legal frameworks (e.g., Intellectual Property, privacy, data sharing)... deployment testbeds and project monitoring... reporting requirements and tools to capture data.”

2. Set your governance policies in advance

Here, we cannot do better than Bianca Wylie, head of the Open Data Institute Toronto: “You don’t write policy with a vendor.”

By not knowing — or not thinking through — what it wanted on data and IP governance, Waterfront Toronto has left itself to negotiate a deal that has fundamental implications for privacy and data security, and that may lead to de facto privatisation of formerly public services.

While issues such as privatisation are potentially legitimate policy options, typically they are decided upon before the fact.

3. Focus on data collection, control and use

Everything about data — from the decision to collect it to the way it is used — has a societal impact and therefore requires careful thought. Data-governance policies should, at the very minimum, answer the following questions:

Who controls the decision over what data is generated, its direct and indirect uses, the data itself and the platform through which the data is collected, including access to that platform?

How are decisions about the generation, collection and use of data made?

How will the data be used?

What are the social and economic consequences of these actions?

A national data-governance strategy

Not all of the blame for this situation rests with Waterfront Toronto.

Canada, as others have noted, lacks a data-governance strategy.

As Wylie has remarked in the context of the Quayside project, our entire legislative framework is woefully out of date, and “we haven’t had a national discussion about our data, related public infrastructure, and the degree to which we want big tech influencing our governance and public services”.

Nonetheless, Waterfront Toronto should have set their data-governance demands in advance, and then sought out vendors. Much of the resulting confusion about Quayside can be traced to this initial mistake.

Fortunately, this is a learning opportunity for other governments. Almost everything government does now has a data component. This understanding must be built into their procurement prior to engaging with vendors.

The ConversationBetter yet, governments should create an overarching data governance plan and use that to guide interactions with various stakeholders. The stakes are too high to leave such consequential policies to chance.

Blayne Haggart, Associate Professor of Political Science, Brock University and Zachary Spicer, Visiting Researcher, University of Toronto.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.