Toronto's 'smart city' needs to address privacy and equity

Being smart about smart cities.

Being smart about smart cities

The site of Toronto's proposed "Quayside" smart city designed by Alphabet, Google's parent company. (Sidewalk Labs)

As our digital lives become increasingly connected to our physical world, the idea of a smart city is being imagined.

Last year the City of Toronto introduced plans to develop an ambitious smart neighbourhood at the waterfront, just southeast of downtown.

That smart utopia will be known as Quayside, a joint effort by the federal government agency Waterfront Toronto, and Sidewalk Labs, a tech agency owned by Alphabet Inc., Google's parent company.

Quayside plans to make city living "smarter," from fixing traffic woes with shared self-driving vehicles to identity management systems where residents and visitors log in to access the neighbourhood. Ultimately, Quayside will be a testbed for other cities, and critics are already concerned about what open data might mean for residents and visitors.

Nasma Ahmed is the founding director of the Digital Justice Lab. Most of her work is at the intersection of technology, social justice and policy. She's among a wave of community activists in Toronto pushing for citizens to practice and learn about their digital rights.
Nasma Ahmed, founder of Digital Justice Lab (Becca Ricks)

Ahmed spoke to Spark host Nora Young about Sidewalk Labs, and the ways youth are learning about their digital rights. Here is part of their conversation.

So part of your concern around the potential for this is that it might become a 'surveillance city' as opposed to a 'smart city'?

Yeah.  It's really important to note that in many cases smart cities are often surveillance cities. One of the first examples I remember learning about smart cities was in Brazil. I think we all remember that really mega photo of all those computers watching the city. I think Sidewalk is definitely trying to figure out ways of approaching not being a surveillance state. They are trying to alleviate concerns, but I do believe that it is something that is the government's role: to play a bigger position on these matters. There has been really great resistance [to too much surveillance] and also alternatives that have been provided as well. And so I want to focus on that more.

As a young person working in tech, why do you think that young people in particular should be paying close attention to Sidewalk Lab Toronto and other kinds of smart city initiatives and how they're rolling out?

I think young people in many ways are always the most impacted by development projects. Partially because we have to grow up in those projects, whether it's participating in the public space or whether it's access to jobs. I do think this is something that we should be following, partially because is this the way that we want cities to be shaped? One of the biggest concerns with a project such as Sidewalk Toronto (and the reason why it's had such global coverage) is we are a test lab in many ways for a larger initiative that can be brought into other cities across the world. And it is our civic responsibility to ensure that we are not a test bed to something that is not equitable and that is not justice focused. And what is the role that we want for corporations? I do think for young folks it is really important for us to play a big role in shaping this conversation because we are going to be continuously impacted by it whether it be affordable housing, or transit, or jobs.

Can we talk a little bit about digital rights in this, and how those digital rights affect our day-to-day lives when you look at things like Sidewalk Toronto?

In many ways we're using digital technologies in our everyday life right now, whether it be the phone that we have, or the need to access the internet to apply for jobs. There are large amounts of data being collected about us. But it's important to recognize that digital rights is not just about the data collection. We're talking about internet access and the ability to afford internet and at the moment we don't necessarily have a really strong strategy around what digital rights can look like in a city, even though there are some projects that are happening around the world. There's a lot of work that's happening in New York right now around digital rights and what's ok and not ok when it comes to algorithms, for example.

Also, how we think about equity and access to digital technologies so that we can not only be users, but creators as well. I do think it is important within local context because that's our everyday experience whether it's us going through and moving around public spaces or whether it's us accessing public services.

You do have this local-first focus with the Digital Justice Lab, but often when we talk about things like privacy and surveillance we talk about it on a global level. Why do you think that local lens is so important?

Because even the way we define privacy is so particular to our own context. What we think of digital privacy for is different for a young black youth in Scarborough [a part of Toronto] than it will be for someone living in a rural area. And so it's really important for us to think of local context because the actual words in many ways have different meanings here. I think it's important for us to know that the definitions change all the time.

You grew up using the internet, but you've also said that you didn't necessarily envision yourself as a person who was going to go into working in tech, it just sort of happened naturally. So do you think that Millennials and the generation after your generation are aware of how much their lives are entwined with digital issues or how important things like digital rights are?

I do think that people are aware, and the reason why is because it impacts us in our daily life, whether it's this little thing that you posted when you were 12 years old potentially being used against you when you're applying for a job, or not being able to have access to the internet at all. The ways in which our social relationships have shifted, I think about that a lot, about anxieties I end up having around social media platforms. I think it's unfortunate that most people don't think we are also trying to navigate a system that we didn't create.

I think anybody who's on the internet—which obviously includes a huge swath of the country—is aware of digital privacy issues but the knock on young people is often, 'oh they don't care about privacy'.

Yeah, which is shaming them. We did not build this massive ad economy. We can't blame young people for wanting to be online first of all and not knowing enough about the data practices—because have we all read through an app's terms and conditions and it's a difficult document to go through. And so if we're not making any of that accessible we should not be coming from a place of shame at all. Because we're also trying to thrive and survive on these platforms, and trying to build community, and in many cases it's deemed a negative thing.