Digital advisers criticize Waterfront Toronto following high-profile resignation


Multiple members of the panel advising Waterfront Toronto on its proposed smart city development are speaking out in support of a member who resigned in protest Thursday morning.

The resignation places further pressure on Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, the Google sister company seeking to build the smart city, to address data and privacy concerns ahead of the final agreement.

In a strongly-worded resignation letter, Saadia Muzaffar, founder of TechGirls Canada, criticized Waterfront Toronto’s lack of leadership and failure to address the concerns.

“Saadia’s resignation is a tremendous loss for the [panel],” said Pamela Robinson, an associate professor of urban planning at Ryerson University who sits on the now 13-member Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP). “Her experience and point of view were vital to a robust interrogation of the myriad data ownership, control, access and possession issues this project presents.

“The points raised in her resignation letter are important for us to tackle moving forward,” said Robinson.

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Muzaffar is the fourth person to resign from Waterfront Toronto or one of its advisory panels since July. Every resignation was, in part, related to the Sidewalk Toronto development.

Muzaffar’s letter, first reported by The Globe and Mail, raises concerns regarding the lack of information provided to the panel about how data collected on Toronto residents will be used.

“The most recent public roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure,” reads Muzaffar’s letter.

Earlier Thursday, The Logic reported that Waterfront Toronto is being audited by the Auditor General of Ontario. A source with knowledge of the audit said it is looking closely at the Sidewalk Toronto partnership.

Andrew Clement, fellow panel member and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information studies, echoed Muzaffar’s concerns around how the parties are approaching data governance. He said there has been a “serious avoidance on [Sidewalk Toronto’s] part, given how fundamental data and the digital layer are to their whole proposal.”

Clement also noted that the lack of clarity around Sidewalk Toronto’s business model is “troubling, since that’s largely what drives the development.

“I would reconsider my role on the panel if there isn’t a really substantive response and, of course, then substantive improvement,” he said.

Talking Point

Professors Andrew Clement and Pamela Robinson echoed some of the concerns outlined by Saadia Muzaffar, the TechGirls Canada founder who resigned in protest from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. The resignation places further pressure on Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to address data and privacy concerns ahead of the final agreement.

Carlo Ratti is another member of the panel who shares some of Muzaffar’s concerns. Ratti is an MIT professor who directs the school’s Senseable City Lab; his studio designed the Dynamic Street prototype touted by Sidewalk Labs.

“My suggestion is that Saadia’s letter is the starting point for discussion at the next committee meeting,” Ratti said.

Panel member Mark Wilson, a former IBM executive and former chair of Waterfront Toronto, told The Logic he is optimistic that many of Muzaffar’s concerns will be addressed before the final agreement.

“I don’t think that has been settled yet in any way,” Wilson said. “I think the IP issues and ownership issues are still to be addressed in the [final agreement].

“To say, today, that they have not been addressed is really unfair.”

Muzaffar is the second person to resign from the advisory panel. John Ruffolo, former CEO of OMERS Ventures, resigned in July, citing a “vague and broad” non-disclosure agreement.

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“I am still unclear what exactly the nature of the confidential matters might be and I cannot sign such a vague and broad agreement as I do not even know exactly what I am agreeing to,” Ruffolo wrote in his resignation letter.

Will Fleissig stepped down as CEO of Waterfront Toronto in July. At the time, sources told The Logic there were internal tensions regarding his communications with the board and his oversight of a decision to allow Sidewalk Labs personnel to temporarily occupy office space in the Waterfront Toronto headquarters.

Later that same month, leading developer Julie DiLorenzo resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s board of directors, citing concerns surrounding the Sidewalk Toronto partnership.

Muzaffar’s resignation letter calls for greater accountability from Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs.

“My gravest concern is that while the panel is showing up in good faith, I have yet to see evidence that Waterfront Toronto shares the urgency and concern that has been raised in multiple fora—as evident through how the public meetings continue to be run, who is running them, and what is consistently left unsaid and unaddressed,” she wrote.

The DSAP was assembled by Waterfront Toronto in April 2018 to help guide the organization on its approach to data privacy, digital systems and the ethical use of new technologies in the revitalization of Toronto’s waterfront, most urgently for the Quayside smart city development.

“We are committed to helping shape the future of data and digital policy in Canada, and I will be working with Waterfront Toronto and my fellow panel members to make sure that the DSAP can achieve what it set out to do, namely to provide expert advice on emerging issues related to privacy and data ownership” said interim panel chair Michael Geist. “The panel is in its early days and now is the time to get it right.”

“We are unwavering in our commitment to serving the public interest and look forward to receiving the advice of the panel,” said Michael Nobrega, acting CEO of Waterfront Toronto. “We are also well supported by external privacy and legal experts including a former Federal Privacy Commissioner, and continue to welcome the comments and interest of a broad base of community members.”

The next meeting of the DSAP will be October 18. The final agreement, called the Master Innovation and Development Plan, is expected to be completed by spring 2019 before going to both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs’ boards for approval.