Google Sidewalk Project is Still Too Sketchy and Undemocratic

Sidewalk Labs

New Orleans    Maybe I should shut-up about the Sidewalk development project being proposed by Google in Toronto on 800-acres.  ACORN and some of our allies went after them from the day they won the bid to submit proposals on the issue of the lack of affordable housing in a city that is caught in an affordable housing crisis.  The more than 1000-page proposal they submitted this week actually makes concessions to our demands.  Of the 35,000 housing units now proposed, they claim that 40% would be affordable.  That’s a win, but is that enough to make us stomach the role of Google, the fakery of the consultative process up to this point, and, frankly, the neoliberal corporate control and privatization of public process, regulations, and responsibilities.

I’m not going to pretend that Google isn’t a tech wonder even as it has become a world power.  It’s not as creepy as Facebook, but it’s unaccountable with a business model that pimps out all of us who use their services.  I have a google address for some personal business.  I use Google Maps to navigate my way around the world.  ACORN has a YouTube channel.  When PalmPilot went under, I had to switch to Google calendar.  I’m not a hater.

ACORN Canada even uses Google to host their email system, despite the fact that Google is crystal clear that they never destroy anything.  The depth of their data mining operation is unlimited and unfathomable.  They want to make the Sidewalk project a data motherload for Google as well.  The company’s proposal claims that they will turn everything over to an independent data trust, sanctioned by the government, so that they, and others, can access the data.  Privacy experts are not so easily assuaged.  Neither am I.  Isn’t such citizen experience with public goods something that should remain purely the responsibility of government accountable to citizens, rather than accessible to a private business like Google or other private concerns?  If the city of Toronto or any other city announced that it was collecting data on its citizens and was then going to sell it, people there and anywhere else would be up in arms.

Google, as a private company, simply doesn’t get the fact that there are boundaries.  They are part of the “apologize later, never ask for permission” crowd.  Their proposal ignores existing Toronto zoning laws for example, and I couldn’t read any piece of this without feeling they were usurping the authority of government and the people.  That’s what neoliberalism is, the transfer of public rights and authority to private concerns.  If Google was hired to be a designer and developer, why would they believe that allows them to own the show and run it forever.  A developer, for good or evil, usually sells their “castles in the sky” and then gets their money and runs.  Google seems to think they should own this project forever.  Google needs to taught about limits.

The New York Times quotes Jim Balsille, who was the co-chairmen and co-chief executive of BlackBerry, once the ubiquitous smartphone of the business set, headquartered in Ontario in the Waterloo-Kitchener area, saying,

“I am keen to see the end of this faux consultation charade, an ugly 18-month, psychological public relations game….Google has deliberately weaponized ambiguity, subverted democratic process, obfuscated key elements of concern such as data governance and revealed information to the public only when smoked out by aggressive criticism or through a media leak.”

This just doesn’t seem like it’s going to end well.

ACORN Canada will continue to hold any and all feet to the fire on affordable housing, but perhaps all of us just need to thank Google for whatever good we see in the plan, ignore their attempt to buy support with their own investment masked as infrastructure spending, but recovered through selling data, and retake control of any development and hire contractors to provide whatever services public entities can’t provide.

Public entities have to be able to trust their partners, and Google is not a trustworthy partner at this point.  Google can bid like anyone else, but should not run or own anything.  Haven’t we learned that lesson from Silicon Valley by now?

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The City of the Future is Not a Technical Problem

New Orleans We have been lucky the last month. ACORN International has enjoyed the help of a smart and adventuresome young woman, Luba Batembergska, from Sofia, Bulgaria with wide interests in social justice, environment, education, and social welfare. We have tried to embed her deeply in various organizing field experiences to give her tools and techniques that would advance her work in various projects and campaigns when she returns home from this Professional Fellows program coordinated by the Great Lakes Consortium focusing on younger people from Eastern Europe. As her time runs down for the last ten days, my piece has been to meet with her several hours a day as her sounding board on various ideas about strategy and tactics.

Recently, we spent a lot of time talking about community benefits and how to structure demands and negotiations around developments in Sofia and along the Black Sea. As a talking point, we have used the proposal offered by Google/Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs for a huge project along the waterfront in Toronto. She spent some time looking at the Sidewalk Labs website and came in very excited about what she felt it offered. Not having read the Model Lab background, I was confused. I kept asking her where people fit into these various models. We ended up at the same dock after a half hour of dialogue, but for a long time we were two ships passing in the ocean which was rare for our conversations.

She sent me a link, and I read it in order to get a better grip on what Sidewalk Labs was selling, and how my organizing colleague might have found it so seductive. Boiled down to its essence their argument is that the secret to building a better city is data. They believe for some problems where they cannot test differing realities and make conclusions that they can adapt anonymous cellphone data to determine how people move and then build models or simulations that could be used by transit planners for example. In another section they went to some length on “population synthesizers” that were basically a ways and means to slice population characteristics for planning purposes and then link them to Bayesian Networks, which is a mathematical construct that is critical to a lot of algorithm construction.

What we were missing became clear as I read. I kept asking Luba where people intersected the process, and she kept answering that they could interact with the models. I had countered that an assumption that this would all be internet interactive left out most of our low and moderate income constituency, and she kept responding that the levels of the simulations were designed for input. Indeed, people were at the heart of the Sidewalk Lab population synthesizers, but they weren’t real people, they were real data points. The notion that there might be real people acting collectively about their interests would have been an outlier point in the mathematics. The notion that there are systemic inequities that permeate the needs and demands for public services doesn’t really synthesize. The Sidewalk argument is an advertisement for the speed and delivery of big data, which is no doubt invaluable, but there’s a hole in the middle where real people fit and where they seem somewhat clueless.

Here’s an example: “We believe convex optimization gives analysts a more logical framework to make trade-offs among competing “truths”…” I’m pretty sure we would be classified as advocating a competing truth. There is also no concept in the “optimization” for power. Describing another tool that is not quite ready for prime time called the Doppelganger they say it “will create a synthetic population that matches each of the marginals perfectly. If the marginals are not internally consistent, which is almost always the case in practice, the user must tell Doppelgänger which of the marginals are more or less important.” I’m pretty sure that we – and our concerns – would be a “marginals,” and unless we are well organized and hitting our fists on the door, the so-called “user” that decides what marginal concern is “more or less important” is not going to be us or anyone factoring in our issues importantly. Elsewhere in the “models” section, Sidewalk Lab lets it slip that much depends on the “assumptions” that input into the models. It’s probably that same user, a software engineer or perhaps an urban planner, who will be making them.

Widgets unite! We have nothing to lose but our cities if we don’t organize now as people!

***

Please enjoy Neil Young’s Already Great

& The Urban Renewal Project’s Hide.

Thanks to KABF.

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