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Quayside: Alphabet pushes for a smart city that would run on data

Katie Krzaczek
Associate Editor

Google’s parent Alphabet is trying to make the case for its smart city plans on a 12-acre lot on Toronto’s waterfront. Alphabet has promised to commit $1.3 billion to the project, dubbed Quayside, if it gains approval.

“So the idea is to use cameras and sensors to track people in cars and basically make things more efficient and more ecological,” Yahoo Finance Canada senior editor Jeff Lagerquist explained on YFi AM. “There's all sorts of crazy bells and whistles like giant buildings made of timber, illuminated sidewalks, curbs that go up and down, heated bike lanes, but the real issue here is the data.”

Sidewalk Labs, the sister company to Google spearheading the project, released a 1,524-page document detailing the plans for the area. The company promises to protect the data collected in the mini-city, which will be almost completely outfitted with sensors to track everything from pedestrians’ movements to cars to the weather.

‘Think of the consequences’

Where Quayside would be. (Photo: Alphabet)

Alphabet has faced backlash for the project since it was first announced in 2017, but the recent document is the most comprehensive look at how the company wants to implement the vision.

The latest outline proposes all that data would be entrusted to a government-sanctioned entity and thus out of the hands of Sidewalk and Alphabet.

Such a plan was in the works when the project’s privacy lead stepped down in October. The Toronto Star originally reported the resignation of Ann Cavoukian, former Information and Privacy commissioner of Ontario, who was heading up Sidewalk’s privacy efforts.

In her resignation, Cavoukian asked Sidewalk Labs to “think of the consequences: If personally identifiable data are not de-identified at source, we will be creating another central database of personal information (controlled by whom?), that may be used without data subjects’ consent, that will be exposed to the risks of hacking and unauthorized access.”

A closer look at Alphabet's proposal for Quayside. (Source: Alphabet)

‘The first neighborhood built entirely of mass timber’

The development plan includes “the first neighborhood built entirely of mass timber, dynamic streets that can adapt to a neighborhood’s changing needs, weather mitigation systems, and a thermal grid for heating and cooling.”

Sidewalk Labs is promising Quayside would be “a place where people are more engaged with their world than with their phones.” The documents states that would include safer streets, more breathable air, and more walkable streets.

All of the tech needed to create the kind of self-regulating city Sidewalk is proposing lends itself to an almost endless influx of data points primed for collection.

The Parliment Quay area of the Quayside portion of the Sidewalk Labs development. Sidewalk Labs unveiled a conceptual scale model of the Quayside development, all the buildings will be tall timber buildings with the tallest at 35 stories. in Toronto. June 24, 2019. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

For example, the mini-city’s “Overview of the ‘Building Efficiency’ Pilot,” makes the case for data collection in order to “optimize energy use.” This includes installing “new sensors and [using] existing data sources, such as energy bills.”

Sidewalk Labs has created a fully taxonomic language in order to better understand what data is would be collected and how, as well as what it will be used for. But the plans for the government-sanctioned trust to protect the data have not been finalized.

What has been confirmed by the city’s extensive plans is that all the data collected from the Building Efficiency pilot will be stored “on servers located in the U.S. The data is not sold to third parties or used for advertising.”

Should this pilot program be successful and later implemented in other sectors of data collection, the storage of data in the U.S. would likely become standard.

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