Civic Tech vs Big Tech: how citizens can reclaim agency
Bianca Wylie will speak at Ouishare Fest 2021, an in-person festival that will take place in Paris from June 23-25 and will address the world’s biggest issues in the economic, technological and political fields through the lens concept of “time”. Interested ? More information on our website here !
How did the opposition movement to Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto start?
Bianca Wylie : In 2016, I started to write an online column on civic technology in a local publication. When the Sidewalk Labs project was launched in 2017, I kept writing on it and I think it helped a lot in a context where we were uncertain about what was going on. Writing wasn’t about knowing or saying what the policy should be, but rather expressing fears, concerns, problems, identifying problems and asking if we had appropriate government policy in place, which we didn't. We were also in the midst of Cambridge Analytica ; it made us pay more attention to the Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto. It is the sort of timeline you don’t control.
What did you do then?
B. W. : We held community meetings. Our invitation was: hi, whether you like it or not, this project exists so please come, we will share some of the things we are concerned about and maybe they will resonate with you. We had to overcome the challenge that some people were concerned about the project, yet, did not know how to express it. We had to share words so that people could feel confident enough in using those words afterwards.
Another challenge was that we lacked crucial information on the project. It’s really difficult to get people involved when you do not fully understand what you’re fighting against. So one of the key moments for the opposition movement was when a document containing information about the actual scale of the project, ideas of public services, revenues, deliveries, governance etc, leaked. It provided enough information for people to say Hold on, this is their plan, what is ours? It also brought a lot more people that were worrying about the balance between public and private powers.
You did not have much information on the project and still, Sidewalk Labs put a lot of efforts on communications, didn’t they?
B. W. : All the entities supportive of the project were very convincing at showing how beautiful and good it would be for our economy, which made it difficult for the people to resist it. Their narrative and pictures of the waterfront were very powerful, and we lacked a strong media to do its job and confront these stories. The first people that the newspapers got rid of in the Canadian journalism industry were the photographers, and as a consequence, we lost the capacity to imagine what a beautiful waterfront might look like from any other perspective than the one from Sidewalk.
But at the same time, behind the pictures and stories, Sidewalk Labs made sure that people could never get the full picture of what the project really was. They even employed former public officials because they knew people would trust them.
Civic technologies make sure that in the technologies impacting our democratic life, there is space for public governance.
Which role did the city play in this story?
B. W. : Well actually, the City of Toronto was not technically a partner in the Sidewalk Labs project. The deal was done with a public agency called Waterfront Toronto that was in charge of the big piece of land on the waterfront. But this agency has no democratic accountability. And at the end of the day, the City of Toronto still signed off on the procurement and wanted this project. It did not fulfil its duty to educate people nor to represent their interests. To be represented, people had to show up for themselves.
That’s where you call for civic technologies to step in?
B. W. : Civic technologies make sure that in the technologies impacting our democratic life, there is space for public governance. It does not mean that technologies have to be made by governments, but that the terms of the technology include a way for the public to oversee the governance. Saying it differently, it is about laying the rules to say how the system should function. I am sincerely concerned about the encroachments of tech companies in very young classrooms, universities, cities, health care. We need to maintain public control over how these technologies work and how tech firms make decisions. How do you keep the public power there? How can we create accountability, and not just transparency? How do we make sure to have a remedy if something does not work the way it should? In governments, when something goes wrong there is a pretty clear accountability chain, and we need to build the same thing in the technology system.
The individualistic mindset of the Silicon Valley is actually anti-democratic.
In the opposition movement, did you make a case for these civic technologies?
B. W. : During our meetings, we tried to address the power issue between private and public entities but it was not easy. The conversations were very much about which data were going to be collected rather than who will use them and what for. But actually, what you can do with data is really different if you are from the private sector or from a public entity or the state. That’s why I’m very interested in the data trust concept.
Today, most of us agree and consent on terms and contracts that we don't read. It shouldn’t be. A data trust is a mechanism to set terms for use of our datas, but together in a conversation. Let’s say you are a company and you work in my neighborhood, then you get the people, the city and other private stakeholders around the table and you hold that kind of conversation: okay, data is being generated here, what are we comfortable with and what are we not comfortable with? How do we hold each other accountable for it?
We all heard once somebody telling us: if X uses my data, it’s OK for me, I have nothing to hide, if you have a problem, go fight that battle… This is really bad because it fractures us when we should be united against the things that can have a negative impact on some of us. This is why the libertarian culture from Silicon Valley is particularly pernicious and insidious. This individualistic mindset is actually anti-democratic. On the contrary, data trusts are based on a common governance, following Elinor Ostrom's work about the commons. It’s about sharing assets that everyone could theoretically benefit from.
At the city level, people lack the capacity to understand these issues and take informed decisions.
How do you make sure people participate in this shared governance process?
B. W. : Data trust relies on fiduciary responsibility: you identify some people who you know will look over your interest and have to by law, as to your contract. I’m actually worried about the systems that rely on individual responsibility to look after your data. It’s very elitist! They increase the level of work people have to do although they don't have enough time, money, skills or energy to pursue this. We are not even reading the terms, how are we going to know if something is being done to us? Some of these ideas would be really dangerous in North America where the social safety net is not functioning well.
Why don’t cities engage in those civic technologies and data trusts?
B. W. : At the city level, people lack the capacity to understand these issues and take informed decisions. It’s not completely different from the federal level where the government is not thinking for itself on technology matters: companies such as Deloitte advise it.
But it’s also related to how priorities are set. In Toronto, the national government saw Sidewalk as a great economic opportunity. They were very excited to have a Google office on the waterfront and to be a leader in Smart City technologies, so they pushed for it very much. At the city level the story was slightly different. There were various interests and jurisdictions spaces among urbanism, transportation, housing, etc. They were completely different conversations going on at the same time with Sidewalk and all these conversations never had the chance to join all together in a democratic debate.
So what can cities do today?
B. W. : First, build literacy and capacity in the digital field. Let me give an example. No public lawyer, paid with public funds, read the documents and understood the consequences of privatizing the governance of the public space in the Sidewalk projects. I don’t think these lawyers were malicious, but they lacked knowledge regarding digital rights. And this is a scary tendency because it could happen again tomorrow. This is why I think we need civic technologies and education. It takes time but I already see some evolution here in Toronto : we now have a policy on technological infrastructure.
This leads me to my second point : be better at procurements. The cities have to set the terms and requirements for every procurement they make. It cannot be only about IT specifications and competition matters, assessing whether or not the bid was fair. We need to listen to the civil servants that know and work on the city. They have strong technical expertise and we must speak their language so that they are comfortable with saying that this or that solution is garbage or a scam. What we need for healthcare is not the same as what we need for education nor for cities. We also know that to tackle climate change in our cities, putting sensors all over the place is not the solution to the problem. That’s why we need these sectoral perspectives. Listening to public servants in procurements will allow governments to build the tools and infrastructures they really need to do their work and serve the public interest.
Bianca Wylie is an open government advocate with a dual background in technology and public engagement. She is the co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, the co-founder of Digital Public, and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.