20 Minutes with Bianca Wylie on Sidewalk Toronto and COVID-19 Government Tech

A chat with the technologist for public good and one of Sidewalk Toronto's most vocal critics

Listen now to a talk with Bianca Wylie for RedTail.

In our troubled world, technology often has been perceived, with little scrutiny, as a savior that will make things right. As both a technologist and advocate for open government, Bianca Wylie straddles a fine line between supporting the positive potential of tech and raising awareness of its messy and potentially damaging impacts on civil rights and democracy.

biancawylie_smallThere’s a chance you’ve heard or seen Wylie’s commentary about Sidewalk Toronto. A partnership between Google-sibling Sidewalk Labs and Toronto’s waterfront revitalization group Waterfront Toronto, the now-defunct effort would have transformed a neighborhood in Wylie’s home of Toronto, Canada, into a futuristic, data-fueled metropolis.

As Wylie put it during a talk this week for RedTail, the problem with the project, at its heart, was its potential to outsource government functions to a corporation. The purposes and goals of corporations, of course, often do not align with those of governments.

“As a technologist I love the things that can be done with technology, but it’s how it’s governed and applied,” said Wylie. “You can’t accidentally privatize the governance of policies of people – whether it’s public health, climate, cities, education.”

“As a technologist I love the things that can be done with technology, but it’s how it’s governed and applied.”
– Bianca Wylie, technologist and open government advocate

Wylie and I talked about what she learned from her Sidewalk Toronto activism, what’s necessary to create awareness and understanding of tech’s impact on peoples’ everyday lives, and how she’s helping to ensure that its people – not corporations – who determine the design and controls of infrastructures that govern our public lives. And, yes, we also discussed the mad rush to implement tech responses to COVID-19.

You can listen to my talk with Bianca Wylie here:

Wylie was a among the more vocal co-founders of Block Sidewalk, an activist movement to stop the Sidewalk Toronto project. Simply put, the group argued that “Development should prioritize city needs first, not the needs and interests of a private corporation.”

Her background in tech and work as co-founder of Tech Reset Canada – a group that pushes for innovation projects that benefit the public good – give Wylie’s words and insights heft. She’s not some tinfoil hat-wearing tech hater.

Citizen opposition to Sidewalk Toronto grew through two years of planning surprises, privacy flops and a maligned approach to community engagement. Sidewalk Labs pulled the plug on the project earlier this month. If you’re not familiar with the Sidewalk Toronto saga, you can learn more here or here.

Sidewalk Labs, in part, blamed the project’s demise on the all-encompassing COVID-19 crisis. It’s no coincidence that both the Sidewalk Toronto implosion and government responses to the pandemic have many of the same issues at their core: unquestioned tech use, government policy, civil rights and the future of democratic institutions.

Listen now to this twenty-minute talk and if you like it, please share it!

Shameless Plug: If you’re interested in digging into the fascinating realm of Sidewalk Labs, check out my extensive coverage of its offshoot, Replica, here in RedTail, in Geekwire and most recently, Fast Company. The urban mobility and city planning tech firm has its own problematic partnership in Portland, Oregon. Some of that reporting recently received a first place technology reporting award from Society of Professional Journalists.

About Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is a journalist who tells deeply-reported stories with words and sound. Her work has been published in Protocol, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, OneZero, Fast Company, and many other outlets, and it’s been heard on NPR, American Public Media’s Marketplace and other radio programs and podcasts. Kate has been interviewed about her work across the media spectrum from Fox’s Stossel show to Slate and NPR’s Weekend Edition. Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KateKayeReports

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