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In 2001 the Toronto Public Space Committee assembled out of concern about advertising intrusion in the form of massive billboards into the public realm. Their broader goal was to protect public space from the intrusion of private and corporate influence. While the work of defending and supporting public space in Toronto has been ongoing, in 2019 with the arrival of smart city technology the need for this activism feels more important than ever.

Lots of people are choosing to use smart home technology with smart assistants, fridges, and thermostats. But it is a different proposition when smart city sensors, cameras, mobile phone location technology and smart doorbells are used in public spaces. When you buy and use these devices at home, you’re actively making the decision to allow your data to be gathered. But when these devices are used in public spaces how do we gain people’s consent? And more importantly, how can people opt-out if they don’t want their data collected but still have open, safe access to public space?

There are growing public conversations about how to communicate to people what kinds of technology are being used. The American Civil Liberties Union in 2014 released a “Model Safety and Surveillance Ordinance” to help local governments sort how to regulate the collection of data from public spaces. The recent CIGI Policy Brief “Safeguarding Big Data Captured in Public Spaces through Standardization” argues that standards must address citizen engagement, data collection and organization; and data access, sharing and retention issues.

But before we jump to framing what should happen when this technology is used in public spaces, let’s first get in the habit of asking: is the collection of these data absolutely necessary?

Whose job is it to ask these questions? Right now I think local governments are well positioned to host civic conversations about what’s next for technology deployment in public spaces. Local governments already convene and consult when there is competition or change in public spaces. Elected officials routinely have to navigate choppy political waters so their role here is important. Civil society groups with a focus on public spaces have a role to play too. Here we can learn from the legacy and impact of the Toronto Public Space Committee. The possibilities to gather these data seem endless but just because we can doesn’t mean we should.