Public libraries should lead on setting smart policies for smart cities: Report

Lindsay Borthwick
January 16, 2019

A public institution that traces its history back more than 200 years should lead Toronto into the future as a smart city, according to a report released last week by the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

Titled BiblioTech, the report recommends that policymakers assign the oversight and development of public realm data policy to the Toronto Public Library (TPL). In the long-term, TPL would establish a civic data hub—the Toronto Data Hub—that would be overseen by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

The report also states that the public must share in the financial benefits of intellectual property commercialization from smart city data, and recommends TPL work with other stakeholders to identify tools to capture that for Toronto residents.

The Board of Trade’s proposal is a response to the fierce and ongoing debate over who will own, manage and profit from data generated by the Quayside project, the 4.9-hectare neighbourhood under development on Toronto's waterfront that is meant to be a testbed for urban innovation. But the proposal also seeks to offer a scalable solution to some of the privacy, security and financial issues that are arising as communities everywhere become more connected.

“If you’re going to have a hub for data that are collected from the public realm in a city like Toronto—or Montreal, Vancouver or wherever—the logical institution is the public library system,” said Brian Kelcey, the Board of Trade’s VP Public Affairs, in an interview with RE$EARCH MONEY. “It is already dealing with issues of open data and data privacy, and protecting the public interest in terms of access to the right information, and it is important to the fabric of city life.”

The tri-government agency Waterfront Toronto is leading the waterfront revitalization at Quayside. Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent corporation Alphabet, has been selected to develop a master plan for the project, which is expected to be unveiled by mid 2019. But before development can proceed, the thorny issues of data governance and management of intellectual property rights must be resolved.

“I don’t think our existing privacy legislation is adequate to address the risks that smart cities pose." - Nabeel Ahmed, smart cities researcher

Cities from San Francisco to Singapore are grappling with similar issues, as are communities across Canada, some of which are competing for millions of dollars in funding through Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge. But the involvement of Sidewalk Labs and the broad scope of its vision for Quayside has put Toronto in the global spotlight. If Toronto gets smart city building right, it could have a competitive advantage, according to the report.

“I think the most valuable part of the Board's report is that it makes this a public conversation again,” Nabeel Ahmed, a smart cities researcher and member of the Toronto Open Smart Cities Forum’s steering committee, told RE$EARCH MONEY.

But Ahmed was cautious about endorsing the Board’s recommendations. Instead, he underscored the need for more leadership at the provincial and national level.

“I don’t think our existing privacy legislation is adequate to address the risks that smart cities pose. The conversation about smart cities has also raised questions about digital rights, algorithmic bias, and surveillance. Those are policy debates that we need to have as a country. Moving forward with this proposal feels like an interim measure in the absence of those broad conversations,” he said.

Balancing technology and public interest

BiblioTech was produced by the Board of Trade's policy team, which started with the assumption that data governance at Quayside should be overseen by an independent public agency rather than by the project proponent. Furthermore, that third party should have expertise in data handling and management, the authority to uphold privacy laws, and the trust of the community.

According to Kelcey, the team members were unanimous that TPL, which operates 100 branches across the city and has established both an open data policy and an innovation council, was the ideal choice.

TPL was not involved in the report’s development, however, in an update to the community published the day after its release, City Librarian Vickery Bowles signalled that the library would consider the Board’s recommendations. She also wrote: “Public libraries are defenders of digital privacy and have expertise in data policy and information management. We have long played a role in city building and welcome the opportunity to discuss how we can continue to evolve this role in the civic data realm.”

In response to the report, TPL raised concerns about whether it has the resources to expand its role, according to Kelcey.  But he said that because TPL would serve as the vehicle for developing new data policies by engaging with partners and other stakeholders, the demands on its resources could likely be managed. In BiblioTech, the Board also outlines a funding model for sustaining the proposed Toronto Data Hub.

The report also addresses head-on the problem of accountability. TPL lacks enforcement power, which is why the Board recommends that the Toronto Data Hub be overseen by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC). At the same time, it acknowledges that IPC’s enforcement powers must be strengthened, perhaps alongside those of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

“We’re not sure that our recommendations are perfect, but we’ve helped push this debate to the point where, within a few weeks, everybody who has been involved is going to be tacitly talking about assigning the responsibility to somebody,” Kelcey said.

Last year, in the face of criticism that private interests were dominating the debate, Waterfront Toronto assembled an arms-length Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. The Panel is scheduled to meet again this week and an open data hub is on the agenda.


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