TERRY PENDER, THE RECORD.COM (NOV 3, 2018)
New York City-based Sidewalk Labs has big plans for the east end of the Toronto waterfront
Kurtis McBride believes there is untold wealth from companies not yet founded waiting under a litter-strewn patch of industrial wasteland along the Toronto waterfront.
The co-founder of Kitchener smart city technology company Miovision and the Catalyst137 Internet of Things hub wants Canadian tech firms to share in the economic benefits if a Google company builds a high-tech neighbourhood there.
New York City-based Sidewalk Labs has big plans for the east end of the Toronto waterfront, but so far there is no agreement in place for collecting and sharing the data produced by its future residents. How the data will be used and shared has been the subject of great debate.
The absence of a data agreement concerns McBride, who was appointed to the digital advisory panel announced six months ago to help Waterfront Toronto negotiate an agreement with Sidewalk Labs.
“I have been part of all the discussions,” said McBride. “Maybe I have been too Canadian in my approach. Maybe there is a more direct approach that has to be taken, to kind of drive home the point that this is important, and we can’t get it wrong.”
There will be thousands of sensors in the Toronto neighbourhood, generating data about how residents live, work and play on the streets and in the buildings of the 12-acre site. Sidewalk Labs says it wants to design the new community “from the internet up.”
From the very beginning, the technology deployed in the new neighbourhood must be designed to ensure the data is shared with digital entrepreneurs who can mine it for new products and services, said McBride.
“If you look at the last 20 years the companies that have grown the most are built on data,” said McBride. “Data is really valuable. I think it is important that we get this right.”
– Kurtis McBride, CEO of Miovision
Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former information and privacy commissioner, resigned two weeks ago from the project’s digital advisory panel over concerns individual privacy will not be adequately protected as Sidewalk Labs collects data from the project. The company recently proposed the creation of a Civic Data Trust with an independent board that will oversee how the data is shared.
McBride, Miovision’s CEO, wants data sharing to be built into the digital foundations of the new neighbourhood. He explains that there are two layers to internet technology — the applications and the underlying architecture.
When online shoppers buy something or watch Netflix they are in the applications layer. Behind the apps is the underlying layer that makes it all work, what McBride calls the architecture layer. Sometimes, it is called the operating system or the protocols. That’s what Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk Labs and the digital advisory panel should focus on, McBride said.
“There is value in the applications layer, but there are orders of magnitude more value created in the architecture layer,” he said.
“In my view, there has to be a willingness to talk openly in public about what is that architecture layer, and who is going to benefit from it.”
Many companies, including Canadian firms, should have opportunities to deploy their technology in the underlying digital architecture for the Sidewalk community.
“But if we continue to avoid talking about the architecture layer then what’s going to happen is one company is going to capture all of the value of that architecture,” said McBride.
He fears Sidewalk Labs will placate critics by pointing to the applications layer, where data will be made available to startups and cities.
“It is a really abstract concept that’s hard to articulate,” said McBride. “But it is super critical that we get it right because the architecture layer is where the next company with a $100-billion market cap lives.”
An agreement is expected sometime early next year, and McBride readily acknowledges it has been a challenge to educate the public sector players about the issues.
“I don’t think it is a choice they are even aware they need to make,” said McBride.