After Sidewalk Labs, the 'techlash' movement turns its eyes to contact tracing apps

The Swiss government wanted to quick launch its contact tracing app, but parliament slowed down its original rollout plan citing legal concerns. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Organizations including #BlockSidewalk and the Canadian Civil Liberties Union orchestrated a powerful resistance movement against Sidewalk Labs’ Waterfront Toronto project, amid concerns over the Alphabet-owned company’s handling of issues such as data collection and surveillance. Now that Sidewalk Labs has pulled out of Toronto, these same groups are turning their sights on big tech’s newest public infrastructure endeavor: contact tracing technology.

In May, Sidewalk Labs announced that the company would no longer be pursuing the Quayside project, citing “economic uncertainty” caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Local activists, however, had been anticipating an end to the project for months, after the city forced the  company to scale back its plans in October. 

The #BlockSidewalk campaign, a coalition of community members, technologists and business owners, formed in the fall of 2018 in response to the lack of transparency that surrounded the project. From its inception, the plan had drawn criticism from community members and skeptics abroad, who pointed out that Sidewalk Labs’ failure to identify systems of ownership and management for the steady stream of fine-grained data required to run its digital infrastructure would leave Toronto residents vulnerable to privacy breaches. Throughout the project’s development, Sidewalk Labs struggled to shake its association with its sister company, Google, whose history of user data collection worried those with a  post-Cambridge Analytica perspective on Silicon Valley.

The Sidewalk saga is the latest occurrence in a wider “techlash” in many cities, a groundswell of skepticism toward technology companies that also helped put a stop to plans for the establishment of Amazon headquarters in Long Island City, New York, and Google offices in Berlin. #BlockSidewalk, alongside other resistance groups, has in several ways created a new system of accountability and community oversight over municipal procurement and local implementation of technologies. 

For Bianca Wylie, an outspoken technologist and founding member of #BlockSidewalk, the Sidewalk Labs experience revealed years of neglect on the part of Toronto legislators in creating policy surrounding digital governance. “This stuff is not new… What [#BlockSidewalk] did was provide that tension, it created friction in the community and got people to show up and challenge the government, which currently lacks a lot of technical capacity,” Wylie says. “So finally you have people who work in tech partnering with communities, who are not only asking what’s the deal with this Sidewalk tech, but also, what about technology in cities are we not getting a chance to imagine by letting private companies do it for us?”

Resistance and the sunlight it provides can be a tool for political change, one that #BlockSidewalk now says needs to be mobilized once again, as high-density urban areas become testing grounds for private technology companies scrambling to provide contact tracing technology to governments. 

In places such as Taiwan and South Korea, which have become global models in the fight against the coronavirus, contact tracing technology has played a crucial role in tracking and containing Covid-19. In order to effectively monitor citizen behavior, these systems rely on a rigorous surveillance infrastructure. In early March, South Korean officials announced that they would be employing a “Smart City Data Hub” that the government has been developing since 2018. The hub provides access to urban data that is used in tandem with CCTV footage, cell phone location tracking, and credit card transaction information in order to populate text messages to citizens that detail the exact movements of local infected individuals, providing information on individuals’ age, gender, and a minute-by-minute log of activity. 

While surveys have found that the South Korean public supports the government’s sharing of location data in the context of the pandemic, privacy is a major concern for other countries looking to implement contact tracing technology. In early May, Google and Apple announced that they would be partnering to build a decentralized, Bluetooth-based system of contact-tracing technology that would be built into their mobile phone operating systems. In order to establish a standard of privacy, the framework for the companies’ API was based on Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Tracing (DP-3T), an independent contact tracing project developed by a cohort of privacy researchers and technologists across Europe. The technology works by providing the tools for governments to build contract-tracing apps in order to track proximity via a system of anonymized Bluetooth keys and push “exposure notifications” to those who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus. 

The API’s initial release was met with opposition, as some countries, such as the UK, pushed for a centralized model that would provide government and public health officials with more control over data, in spite of the general public’s concerns over privacy. In the months since, 13 countries, including Italy, Malaysia and Japan, have either deployed or begun development on contact tracing applications that utilize Google and Apple’s API, with countries such as the UK and Germany returning to the API after initial resistance. 

For the most part, these apps have been received positively by the general public. Japan’s COCOA (Contact-Confirming Application) saw 4 million downloads within its first week, and in Switzerland, about 12% of the country’s population have downloaded the SwissCovid contact-tracing app, a collaboration between Google and Apple as well as DP-3T, within weeks of its release. 

Still, these numbers are nowhere near the 40% adoption rate experts have identified for contact tracing apps to effectively contain the virus. In an interview with Radical AI, Seda Gurses, a professor at TU Delft and a contributor to DP-3T, warned that governments should be wary of forfeiting the construction of digital infrastructures to large tech companies for apps that may not work, arguing that doing so could exacerbate inequities. “Fairness assumes that we universalize some sort of objective for algorithms, but these computational infrastructures [large, private tech companies] were building a very unfair society [before COVID-19] even as they were claiming they could make their algorithms fair,” she said.


In the United States, momentum surrounding contact-tracing apps has slowed in the wake of protests and rising dissent in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In a press conference held in early July, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety alarmed privacy advocates when he compared police departments’ investigative work into protester activity to contact tracing. According to Daren McKelvey*, the director of marketing and communications for the exposure notification app Coalition, missteps like the Minnesota commissioner’s false insinuation, or cases such as North and South Dakota’s bungled rollout of its Care19 tracing app, are harmful to the overall objective of contact tracing, “[It] hurts public health, it hurts public trust. We’re open to working with governments and we know that it is essential, but we are honestly very wary of what their intentions are as well. We don’t want people’s data to be used [incorrectly]”.

Coalition, whose Bluetooth framework has been used in both France and Sengal’s contact-tracing efforts, is a non-profit application created by the developers behind Nodle and FireChat. According to the blockchain architect Eliott Teissonniere, who co-authored Coalition’s Whisper Tracing Protocol, public education on how contact-tracing apps work is essential to building public trust and buy-in. 

“People need to understand that our protocol is built so that even [our company] cannot see the data, it’s not a matter of exchanging names for Bluetooth identities,” he says. “We don’t even see who the people are. [Our technology] generates proof that two people met and that’s all. We don’t record who the people are. There is not even a central database that we or the government can access to find this information”.

Nigel Jacobs, a civic technologist who heads Boston’s New Urban Mechanics office and served as a consultant for Sidewalk Labs, notes that product development companies attempting to work in the public right of way often face backlash due to the incongruity of business objectives with consensus-building practices. “[They] already know what they want to do, they have these products that they have designed and are trying to roll out. So what is the point of public engagement meetings, when you are coming to the table with all the answers?”

A recent survey found that only 30% of American smartphone-owners indicated that they would download and use a mobile contact-tracing app. Among Black smart-phone owners, a group already disproportionately affected by Covid-19, only 22% indicated that they would be likely to download a tracing app, compared to 32% of White Americans. 

Covid-19 has laid bare the racial disparities in public health and health care. As communities of color continue to be disproportionately affected and protests against systemic racism rage on in American urban centers and beyond, it has become clearer than ever that our cities were never built equal and thus, the data-gathering systems for optimizing public health and the built environment as they are proposed may never be the impartial tools of arbitration that they are sold to be.

For governments and companies with plans to roll out contact-tracing technology, there must first be an awareness of the barriers that will stand in the way of successful adoption. According to Jacobs, who has consulted on some of Boston’s contact-tracing technology initiatives, it is a matter of building trust holistically on the ground, something that big technology companies struggle to do. “You have to be willing to build bridges to people,” he says. “It’s coming to them with an understanding that previously they may have had a reason to distrust public health officials and police officers. In having these conversations you have to be aware that no one is going to download an app put out by city hall if they can’t even trust you to do normal things like pick up the trash”.

*Correction: This article originally mispelled the surname of the director of communications for the app Coalition. His name is Daren McKelvey.​

Isabel Ling is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has also appeared in Eater, the Verge, and Hyperallergic. Follow her on Twitter.

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.