KITCHENER—A lack of understanding about the value of data and technology led to the “fundamentally flawed” process that launched the Sidewalk Labs project, says a tech entrepreneur who sits on a digital panel advising Waterfront Toronto on the smart city proposal.
And Kurtis McBride, CEO and co-founder of Miovision, a Kitchener-based firm specializing in smart-city technology, warns that Waterfront Toronto, the city, province and federal government, need to focus more on the potential “economic value creation” of data and digital infrastructures that will flow from Quayside, a proposed smart city neighbourhood on the waterfront near Queens Quay and Parliament.
Waterfront Toronto has partnered with Manhattan-based Sidewalk Labs — an urban innovation company that is a sister firm of Google and owned by Alphabet — on a project that would include outfitting buildings with data-based sensors to measure every thing from air quality, to noise levels, the weather, and energy use.
Autonomous cars and waste disposal robots are also envisioned for the neighbourhood.
Sidewalk is planning to unveil a draft master plan for the proposal sometime next year.
McBride, who sits on Waterfront Toronto’s digital strategy advisory panel, a group of tech, data and privacy experts advising the corporation on Sidewalk’s plans, heads a company that captures traffic data from intersections and transfers it into software that helps cities understand what’s going on in their network of intersections.
Miovision has done work for dozens of European cities, and 100 in the U.S.
The firm has also worked in Kitchener and Toronto. Miovision has provided data for Toronto’s Bloor St. bike lane project, as well as the King St. transit pilot project.
On the Bloor St. project Miovision worked with the University of Toronto and looked at “conflicts” between cyclists and cars — moments when both occupied the same space on the road.
The goal of this work was to help avoid collisions.
On the King St. pilot, Toronto is using Miovision’s systems to measure traffic moving through intersections, predominantly along King before the pilot started and since.
The city had specific urban planning questions they wanted to use Miovision’s data to answer, McBride says.
In the case of Quayside, McBride believes the process was “flawed” from the start due to a lack of understanding by Waterfront Toronto — which represents the city, province and federal government — about how digital architecture can impact business models.
“What happened was (Waterfront Toronto) said “we don’t understand this technology stuff, so we’re going to bring in one of the biggest technology companies in the world (Sidewalk/Alphabet) and we’re going to have them run a process to discover what this architecture should look like,” he says.
What should have happened was a procurement process where the public first declared ‘this is what we want to buy, why, and this is how it should be structured’ followed by a search for a firm to carry that vision forward, McBride argues.
The Quayside project has been fraught with controversy. A fellow member on the digital strategy advisory panel, a member on Waterfront Toronto’s board, as well as prominent privacy expert advising Sidewalk, have all resigned this year over concerns about the Quayside project.
In a sharply worded report earlier this month Ontario’s auditor general called for the province to “reassess” whether Waterfront Toronto should be acting on its own in finalizing a long-term deal with Sidewalk.
The next day, the provincial government removed the chair and two other members from Waterfront Toronto’s board and it’s believed the corporation’s dealings with Sidewalk were partly to blame.
McBride says the potential market value from Quayside’s data infrastructure could be in the billions of dollars and policy makers should zero in on that.
“This (Quayside project) is not just a 12-acre development project. It’s a global, standard-setting project happening in Toronto. Digital architecture can move across borders instantly. It’s software, patents, intellectual property (IP) development.
“Once we build it here it will squish into every aspect of our lives as the digital domain moves across the internet with the speed of light,” McBride, 38, says in an interview at his company, one of several operations that lease space inside a massive tech hub near downtown Kitchener.
He fears the “economic value creation opportunity” from Quayside data could flow entirely to Sidewalk/Alphabet and other non-Canadian entities. Waterfront Toronto, and our political leaders need to dig in and ensure we get our fair share, McBride says.
“If you were able to find a way to capture value from that data, then you can actually share in the economic asymmetries created by giving that data to foreign multinationals. You could use that to fund infrastructure here in Canada, schools, roads, hospitals. It’s really nuanced and complicated but very important to get it right,” McBride argues.
To quell concerns over who controls the data pertaining to Quayside, Sidewalk is calling for the creation of a third-party ‘civic data trust’ that would oversee “stewardship, management and responsibility” for the data collected and used for the neighbourhood.
But McBride says rather than the data itself, the trust should control the source code, the base layer for the exchange of smart city data — like ‘HTTP” on the internet.
Code creates rules of the data economy such as the means by which data gets distributed and its format, says McBride.
“So a more democratic way of designing the protocol for (Quayside), in my opinion, would be to make the source code open source — publicly controlled and governed,” he says.
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent