Autonomía digital y tecnológica

Código e ideas para una internet distribuida

Linkoteca. Toronto

“Quayside,” a 12-acre slice of Toronto waterfront in line to be developed by Sidewalk Labs, the urban-tech-focused subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet. Launched in 2015 by its CEO, Dan Doctoroff, and a number of other Michael Bloomberg affiliates, Sidewalk Labs makes much of its urbanist bona fides. The company is now primarily focused on turning the patch of Toronto-owned land into what it calls the “world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”

Quayside would test a novel “outcome-based” zoning code focused on limiting things like pollution and noise rather than specific land uses. If it doesn’t bother the neighbors, one might operate a whiskey distillery in the middle of an apartment complex.

a data-harvesting, wifi-beaming “digital layer” that would underpin each proposed facet of Quayside life. According to Sidewalk Labs, this would provide “a single unified source of information about what is going on” to an astonishing level of detail, as well as a centralized platform for efficiently managing it all.

Those residents might not have a choice in how much privacy they give up to call Quayside home, even if they don’t like the terms of use. The same could be said for anyone who uses its public spaces.

Cavoukian was an adviser on the Quayside project, but she resigned after Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk refused to unilaterally ban participating companies from collecting non-anonymous user data.

Nearly every city-fixing proposal from Sidewalk Labs combines civil engineering with some element of data collection—what the vision document calls “ubiquitous sensing.” Quayside reduces carbon not just via a thermal grid, but by embedding each home and office with Alphabet’s Nest smart thermostats, which use “occupancy sensors” and predictive modeling to autonomously adjust temperatures throughout the day.

The city is literally built to collect data about its residents and visitors, which Cavoukian was clear-eyed about when she signed on to be an adviser. She’s worried about Sidewalk using all these cameras and sensors to track people on an individual level, to create real-life versions of the personal profiles Google already uses to track people online. Without anonymization, she said, a single person’s activities could be connected across multiple sources and varying databases to track his movements over the course of the day.

“I think it’s important to note that this project seeks to accomplish many things,” he said,“including delivering large amounts of affordable housing, a highly sustainable neighborhood, and economic activity and new jobs. All of that needs to happen along with policies that protect the public interest, including with regard to data. But, data is just one piece of this conversation.”

Quayside may very well accomplish these things, remaking the city as we know it and setting precedent for future projects like it. But the controversy has shown that it may need to reimagine not just traffic patterns and thermostats, but a set of rules for data, privacy, and corporate “innovation” in a context that has never existed anywhere else on Earth. Thus far, at least, that’s proved the most difficult project to pull off yet.

Sidewalk Labs says the sensor information would also support long-term planning. The data would fuel a virtual model of Quayside, which urban planners could use to test infrastructure changes quickly, at low cost, and without bothering residents. It could also be stored in a shared repository that entrepreneurs and companies could draw on to make their own products and services for Quayside.

Unsurprisingly for a company spawned, in part, by technologists, Sidewalk thinks of smart cities as being rather like smartphones. It sees itself as a platform provider responsible for offering basic tools (from software that identifies available parking spots to location-based services monitoring the exact position of delivery robots), much as Google does with its smartphone operating system, Android. Details are still under discussion, but Sidewalk plans to let third parties access the data and technologies, just as developers can use Google’s and Apple’s software tools to craft apps.

Though Sidewalk Labs says the data would be used for a community purpose, such as giving transit discounts to low-income residents, regulating building temperatures, and keeping trash cans from overflowing, not everyone is convinced. “There are definitely questions about whether Sidewalk Labs will try to make money by tracking people’s daily interactions,” says David Roberts, who studies cities at the University of Toronto. “What data will be collected, how personal will it be, how will it be used, and who will have access to it?”

a plausible urban future based on cities acting as important sites for ‘data extractivism’ – the conversion of data harvested from individuals into artificial intelligence technologies, allowing companies such as Alphabet, Google’s parent company, to act as providers of sophisticated and comprehensive services. The cities themselves, the project insisted, would get a share of revenue from the data.