/Sidewalk Labs digital update brings new details, but many questions remain

Sidewalk Labs digital update brings new details, but many questions remain

Officials with Sidewalk Labs on Friday insisted that they don’t want to track the energy consumption of individual devices inside private homes in a contentious development project on Toronto’s waterfront, hours after the company released a document that suggested they might be doing exactly that.

On Friday, Sidewalk Labs released a 483-page “Digital Innovation Appendix” (DIA) describing all the data and technology systems they plan to incorporate into their smart city project — including a proposal for “end-use monitoring” of electricity consumption.

Several hours later, four different officials with Sidewalk Labs were struggling to explain what those three words might mean.

“I don’t know. Maybe I would take it out if I were to do it again,” said Charlotte Matthews, director of sustainability with Sidewalk Labs.

Sidewalk Labs is owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and concerns about data collection and privacy have swirled around the project since its early days.

In June, after nearly two years of consultation and drafting, Sidewalk Labs released a 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) laying out a comprehensive proposal for a huge swath of waterfront real estate.

The MIDP was immediately panned by Waterfront Toronto, the government agency responsible for overseeing the development. Waterfront Toronto chairman Stephen Diamond said the plan demanded too many financial concessions from governments, and the 190-acre plan was far larger than the 12 acres Sidewalk Labs had been retained to develop.

In September, another report from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) castigated Sidewalk Labs’ plan for being “frustratingly abstract” and making it impossible to assess the data and technology proposals.

After Sidewalk Labs dramatically scaled back their proposal, the Waterfront Toronto board of directors voted to move ahead with a full evaluation of the project, with a final decision scheduled for March on whether to greenlight the development.

(Andrew MacLeod, the chief executive of Postmedia Network Inc., which owns the Financial Post, is a member of the board of directors of Waterfront Toronto.)

A model of Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto smart city project.

STR/AFP via Getty Images

Following the Waterfront Toronto vote in October, Sidewalk published the DIA this week, with the aim of satisfying the DSAP with more details.

Most of the information isn’t new, but the DIA is meant to distill all of the digital sensors and technology systems into one document, and it offers diagrams and examples of how the neighbourhood will work.

The document makes it clear that Sidewalk Labs is not proposing to use facial recognition technology anywhere on the development, and that most of the proposed technologies have already been tried elsewhere in the world.

The technological innovations include “self-driving trash bins” which would have sensors to be able to know when a unit was full, so the garbage could empty itself.

But it’s not clear who will pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the self-driving trash bins, and Sidewalk’s Jesse Shapins, director of development and public realm, said those details are still being worked out.

Similarly, Sidewalk Labs lists a proposal for “mobility as a service,” which is basically an app for route planning, and a unified transportation subscription to use the Toronto Transit Commission, bike share, ride sharing services and e-scooters. Keerthana Rang, associate director of communications for the company, wouldn’t say if they’ve even discussed the idea with the TTC.

The TTC did not respond to a request for comment by the Financial Post.

On electricity usage, a suite of proposals aims to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, including energy monitoring.

“Suite-level electricity sub-metering measures traditional energy … consumption for each suite, and may include end-use monitoring,” according to the DIA.

Initially, both Shapins and Rang separately confirmed to the Financial Post that that means the potential for monitoring and controlling the energy usage of individual devices — such as a dishwasher or an air conditioning unit inside a home.

According to the DIA this would be managed by the building owner.

Suite-level electricity sub-metering … may include end-use monitoring

Digital Innovation Appendix report

In a follow-up interview, Matthews contradicted Shapins’ earlier suggestion, saying that it wouldn’t be possible to monitor energy use of individual devices inside an apartment.

She said the energy monitoring proposal is just about building an environmentally friendly development, and downplayed the privacy concerns.

“I think that it’s really coming from a place of suspicion that somehow Sidewalk Labs has the desire to have that outcome,” she said. “And I guess what I find problematic is that the circuit-level metering and the ability to know what energy use is being used by a device is very possible today — I mean you can have smart plugs that will tell you exactly what is plugged in and how much energy it’s using.”

Ultimately it will be for the DSAP members and Waterfront Toronto to make sense of the proposals as they do a comprehensive evaluation of the project plan, ahead of a vote scheduled for March on whether to proceed.

University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, who chairs DSAP, said he hasn’t had a chance to read the DIA yet, but he said he expects panellists to discuss the issues in January before delivering a report on the project in February.