Urban Data + Sidewalk Labs

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

I am a staunch advocate of privacy because of its disproportionate intrusions into poor and minority communities. Sidewalk labs (an Alphabet co] had long been on my radar for their hostile LinkNYC kiosks. Those data collection devices, advertising surface and machine learning ingestion points are deployed across NYC sans any public dialog.

Why wasn’t a democratic process put in place to understand the benefits of all their ‘urban-data’ collection?. A clear and tacit public understanding of ‘urban data’ collected and the associated value exchange is needed.

This week I watched stunned as Sidewalk Labs testified in Canada trying to defend their process in front of The House Ethics Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. It did not go well.

Misunderstood or Second-Order Thinking Failure?

The more I learn about Sidewalk Labs, the more I am completely puzzled by the massive missteps in rolling out their key offerings.

Surprisingly when digging into Sidewalk Labs’ vision reimagining cities to improve quality of life. Large scale data-driven smart cites, to raincoats for buildings, It’s not all evil empire. There is much to like of their views, framework and offering.

Dare I say – Sidewalk Labs may be misunderstood, most of it stemming from self inflicted wounds.

That said, there is no excuse for the tactical data directives or the lack of any kind of transparency playbook. If there was a plan, no one in the cities they are approaching or live in knows it. This is by design.

“For Alphabet, the project presents a chance to experiment with new ways to use technology — and data — in the real world. “This is not some random activity from our perspective. This is the culmination of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology could improve people’s lives,” said Mr Schmidt.

FT – Eric Schmidt

Ten years of thinking.

Let’s not go over all the tactical fails or massive strategic blunders. Let us instead focus on the single issue that every city in this nation needs to solve for right now.

The Hubris

Here in the US we are just beginning to understand our vulnerabilities around digital and social networks. The impact of psychological and behavioral targeting taking place needs to be understood and to what consequence.

This graph from the Toronto Star sums up the nations consciousness nicely.

It doesn’t take long before the idea of sensors tracking every move of every adult and child who lives, works or even passes through the district starts to sound ominous. Especially in an era when data collected for one purpose by one entity is routinely repurposed for an entirely different use, and the people at the centre of all that data are often completely unaware of what’s being done and to what end.

Toronto Star

Sidewalk Labs rolls out anyway and targets new cities that are now revolting against their dystopian secret offerings. Why would they launch before answering critical questions around the above aptly described dystopian future?.

It is because they have arrogantly decided for everyone what is acceptable ‘urban data’ for them to collect and use. We still do not know what that is.

At the launch of Hudson Yards aka Surveillance City, this quote stood out because it implies the use of facial recognition and emotion detection software.

We can say how many people looked at this ad, for how long. Did they seem interested, bored, were they smiling?” he said.

Related Hudson Yards president Jay Cross (Credit: University of Toronto)

Silicon Valley’s technology vision for cities – technology can make our lives better – Sidewalk Labs wants to be who we trust “to improve quality of life.” but their failure to engage the citizens they want to service is strategy that’s turning into a dance of thousand cuts.

Who Owns Urban Data?

The surveillance economics taking place are: Sidewalk Labs is harvesting our life events (aka – ‘urban data’) through behavioral analytics. That data is an asset class that becomes occurring revenue to benefit Alphabet /Sidewalk Labs shareholders – not the citizens of the city.

Questions around ‘urban data’ every city needs to define right now:

  • What defines public urban data ?
  • Do municipalities need to hand over control to private companies, why?
  • What demographic process took place to define this?
  • What urban data is now being considered personal at initiation? (are peoples gait, face, shape all considered fair game by entering the public space? we defined that, does it comply with the law)
  • What is the imperative to collect it?
  • Who are the deciders governance?
  • Who owns it and has access to it?
  • Who regulates it?
  • How can urban data be kept separate from online data?


The questions not being asked are even more important. Data collection points have been weaponized and the public is unaware. Sidewalk Labs role here should have been public utility not government/private spy org.

Any talk of governance of data needs to account for machine learning and AI capabilities. You don’t need to save data to derive value from it.

Democratic Process + Discussion

What where they thinking not setting these critical issues for public discussion?. Sidewalk Labs collect first, ask questions later is a mirror held up to the men at the table defending the position.

Whats Next

A legal injunction needs to be put in place stat to stop the deployment and collection of urban data. This process needs to be re-started.

Done correctly everyone could benefit. Right now Sidewalk Labs are setting themselves up for a potential fall in Canada, a real hatred for their NYC kiosks and future legal ramifications for their product.

It could have been a block party.

Related reading:

How China Turned A City Into A Prison [nyt]

A.I. Experts Question Amazon’s Facial-Recognition Technology [NYT] At least 25 prominent artificial-intelligence researchers, including experts at Google, Facebook, Microsoft and a recent winner of the prestigious Turing Award, have signed a letter calling on Amazon to stop selling its facial-recognition technology to law enforcement agencies because it is biased against women and people of color.

Link Round Up


Australia passes social media law penalising platforms for violent content [theguardian]

Video: Demis Hassabis, Co-Founder & CEO, Google DeepMind The Power of Self-Learning Systems [youtube]

Video: Jailbreaking the Simulation with George Hotz at SXSW 2019

No one should have to travel in fear [medium] Apple employee detained by U.S. customs agents after declining to unlock phone, laptop [WAPO]

Hacker Eva Galperin Has A Plan To Eradicate Stalkerware [WIRED] “Stalkerware is considered beneath the interest of most security researchers,” Galperin says. “Changing norms takes time. But it starts with someone standing up and saying this is not OK, this is not acceptable, this is spying.”

The Myspace Dragon Hoard (2008-2010)A wide-ranging collection of 490,000 mp3 files from MySpace.com, accomplished using unknown means by an anonymous academic study conducted between 2008 and 2010. These files are arranged by the filenames assigned by MySpace’s Content Delivery Network, the key of which is in the metadata.tsv file in this collectionMD5 and SHA hashes are also provided from the original project, and included in the main directory.

NOW PLAY THISA Festival of Experimental Game Design

Big brands zoom in for their Instagram close-ups [FT] According to researchers at AdStage, the median “cost per click” to advertise on Instagram fell 80 per cent to $0.83 year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2018 — though the platform’s median click through rate also jumped 121 per cent to over 14m clicks. In the same period, the cost per click was highest on LinkedIn and YouTube, at $3.72 and $3.61 respectively, compared to $0.57 for ads on Facebook’s news feed and $0.40 for those on Twitter.