As Smart Cities Become Our Norm, We Must Be Smart About a Data Strategy

February 15, 2019

Canadians’ attention has been drawn to the issue of smart cities by the public debate over the merits of Sidewalk Labs’ proposed Quayside development in Toronto. The project brings home a vision of cities embedded with sensors that continuously harvest data about infrastructure and human activity alike.

The intense discussions that have broken out around the Quayside project give the impression that smart cities are something new in Canada. They aren’t. Although a from-the-ground-up smart development is new, municipalities across the country have been adopting, on an incremental basis, a range of technologies that gather data about infrastructure and about human activity. Cities or their private sector partners may also use sophisticated analytics to draw meaning from these data.

Today, GPS systems on public transit vehicles give planners insights for route management while at the same time allowing for the development of tools for riders that predict transit vehicle arrival times. Tap-and-go transit cards collect data that provide insight into ridership patterns; at the same time, the data may be shared with law enforcement officials seeking to trace the movements of specific individuals. Police services have been adopting predictive policing technologies to enable them to anticipate where crime is likely to occur and when.

These are only a few examples of smart technologies that have found their way into our cities. While these technologies are not as seamlessly integrated with one another as in the vision for Quayside, they are manifestations of the apparently irreversible trend to use big data and analytics both to identify urban problems and to solve them. This trend will only be amplified by the spiralling growth of artificial intelligence. Because of their incremental adoption, these initiatives have not attracted the governance debates that enfold Quayside—but perhaps they should.

The evolving vision of the smart city sees urban data as a resource that can be used by many actors, including all levels of government, the private sector, and researchers. The potential for reuse of data in innovative ways is often a selling point for the “smart” city, with touted benefits to the community through jobs and economic development. But the collection, use, and reuse of smart-city data raises a host of issues that relate to privacy, transparency, discrimination, social justice, and ethics. So much of smart-city data is human behavioural data of one kind or another. How do we build and realize the potential of “smart” cities in which residents are more than just lab rats in an increasingly intricate maze?

The evolution of smart cities has complicated our conventional governance frameworks, which have relied upon somewhat dated freedom-of-information and privacy laws to set rules for the collection, use, and disclosure of data by municipal governments. Other municipal data policies, such as those relating to open data, also apply.

The Quayside project has highlighted a challenge that arises when cities partner with the private sector for smart technologies: is the collected data municipal data, private sector data, or both? Can or should it be released as open data? What rules should govern its use, by whom, and under what conditions?

Ontario’s data strategy consultation, launched on Feb. 5, does not mention smart cities directly, but the impact that data governance issues have had on the Quayside development can hardly be far from mind. The federal government also launched consultations on data and digital transformation last year, which deal with the privacy implications of data use.

The recent provincial auditor general’s report on Waterfront Toronto called out the province for its lack of “a policy framework to guide the development of a mixed-use smart city such as the one being contemplated for Quayside.” Of course, the auditor general called for a much more comprehensive framework than one simply focused on data. The government’s data strategy press release talks simply of creating “data-driven opportunities” in a context that adequately protects privacy. Nevertheless, this data strategy consultation is an important moment for discussing the law and policy foundations we need. Hopefully this discussion will include fair, privacy-protective, ethical data collection and reuse, not just in smart cities but across a rapidly developing data economy.

This article originally appeared in The Hill Times

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Teresa Scassa is a CIGI senior fellow. She is also the Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy and a full professor at the University of Ottawa’s Law Faculty, where her groundbreaking research explores issues of data ownership and control.