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From London to Lisbon to Toronto, mayors grapple with public backlash to tech in cities

Mayors Sadiq Khan, John Tory and Fernando Medina discuss the tough questions facing their cities — and how COVID-19 has made it even tougher.

From London to Lisbon to Toronto, mayors grapple with public backlash to tech in cities

"What we're trying to do is give Londoners and others confidence about emerging technologies," said London Mayor Sadiq Khan in conversation with Protocol.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

For the mayor of any modern city, an increasingly large part of the job entails managing the public backlash to new technology being deployed in those cities. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to public fears about surveillance and data sharing. As tech tools are being used to track who's infected with the virus and who they've come in contact with, local government officials are facing a crucial question: Who gets to know?

For this year's virtual Web Summit, Protocol spoke with Mayor Sadiq Khan of London, Mayor John Tory of Toronto and Mayor Fernando Medina of Lisbon about how they're adopting new technologies in their cities — from the London police's new real-time facial recognition pilot to Toronto's failed smart city partnership with Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs — and what new challenges COVID-19 poses. The mayors discussed how they're grappling with public expectations and trying to fend off tech's many unintended consequences.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

This summer, the city of London announced a new emerging technology charter that is going to dictate standards and protocols around how new technologies get introduced in the city. I think that's an interesting framework that other cities could learn from. What spurred that idea and how do you hope that charter will be applied?

London Mayor Sadiq Khan: One of the things that we know is for good reasons or bad, some members of the public are a bit nervous, cynical, scared, frightened about some of the downsides of technology. And what we're trying to do is give Londoners and others confidence about emerging technologies, but also to give advance notice to those in this area about what our expectations are.

We use technology in lots of ways in our city. We, for example, have data that looks at people's journey patterns that's anonymized. We know which stations and undergrounds are busy. We know, for example, that there is a new emerging technology around facial recognition that can be used for crime-fighting tools. We also have the National Health Service and other health services across the world looking at how they use health data. So what my Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell has been doing is working with colleagues on our Smart board on what would be a tech charter that would be transparent and that would give the public confidence about addressing the concerns they've got. The reality is: The genie's out of the bottle. When it comes to some amazing technology, some disruptive technologies, what we want to do is to make sure in the absence of national regulation, we have clear rules of the game. And the Emerging Tech Charter is one example of London leading the way in this new area.

How much input will Londoners have in how those emerging technologies get deployed in their city under this charter?

Khan: We'll do lots of work listening to Londoners, talking to experts, talking to those in the private sector, innovators, about what they're planning and what Londoners expect. I'll give you one example: During this pandemic, the government wanted to introduce an app on people's phone to track and trace. If you are in close proximity to somebody who may have the virus, or has been in contact with somebody who's had the virus in the last 14 days, your phone will let you know about that. There was a big concern, though, about who would have that data, who would own that data, and concern about "Big Brother." By talking to and listening to Londoners and others across the country, what the government agreed to do is to make sure there's no central ownership of the data. The data's being pinged from people to people, rather than people to the government. And so it really is a good example of us engaging with and listening to Londoners.

You brought up facial recognition in your first answer. Facial recognition is something that a lot of privacy advocates are concerned about, and research has shown that there are discrepancies between how facial recognition tools detect faces of people of different ethnicities, different races. I know you have expressed concern, yourself, about facial recognition technology in the past. But this year, the Metropolitan Police did begin rolling out the live use of facial recognition technology to catch criminal suspects in London. So I'm interested to hear a little bit more from you about how this particular application of that technology addressed your personal concerns, addressed the public concerns and how you guys will be vetting it long term.

Khan: Aside from the fact that I used to be a human rights lawyer, I'm a big fan of Tom Cruise's "Minority Report." On the one hand, I want the police service to evolve and find new ways of detecting and fighting crime, just like criminals evolve and find new ways to commit crime. But we've got to make sure that technology that isn't foolproof has proper checks and balances.

What the police service has been doing in the absence of national legislation is piloting the use of facial recognition when it comes to big crowds where they know somebody is "wanted." Skilled trackers can be aided by the use of facial recognition. What's clear to us is there are some false positives in relation to using the facial recognition technology by itself. So we aren't relying just on that. It's a combination of human beings checking against the technology.

We've seen in London, and across the U.K., a massive increase in the last 20 to 30 years of closed-circuit TV that we call CCTV. And the challenge is using the new technologies in a way that reassures the public and also deals with concerns they've got about ownership, about false positives, about inadvertently discriminating against people who are Black. There's a big concern about technology and people's skin color in relation to false positives. So it's really important that we give the public confidence before this technology is rolled out even more. That's why it's important to test these pilots before there are mass rollouts.

Mayor Tory, Toronto undertook maybe the boldest experiment that we've seen in trying to deploy smart city technology in your city through your partnership with Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet. Earlier this year, Sidewalk Labs pulled out of that project. They cited complications due to the pandemic. This is a project that had gotten international attention and tons of public scrutiny. So I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the lessons you learned from your partnership with the Sidewalk Labs?

Toronto Mayor John Tory: I should say, first of all, that [project] didn't go forward because of an inability to reach a business deal. Everybody had their own reason, and it was all very polite, and so on, and Sidewalk and Google still have a very substantial presence employing thousands of people here. But that deal didn't proceed in the end because we couldn't reach terms of a business deal.

But I will say we made a huge amount of progress because the one thing I think we had more or less put to bed was the question of data, which was a huge concern for people. Because there is this kind of fear with respect to outside multinational companies collecting data. Without boring you with all the details, we had basically designed a mechanism whereby that data would all go into a public trust. And there would be trustees there who would decide on and safeguard on the use of the data, so that any fear that existed — for example, that a multinational company would exploit or transfer it to other people — was going to be put to rest. Interestingly enough, while the business deal didn't go forward, it gave us a model that I think had a lot of public confidence that we will be able to use going forward with respect to future dealings of that kind. And I think it has made the public more comfortable with the fact that we can do these kinds of deals.

And that piece of land [that Sidewalk Labs was going to develop], by the way, is still there. And we're about to have a new [request for proposals] to get somebody new to develop it. So the good news when a land deal goes away is that the land is still there. We regret the fact that that deal didn't happen. But we learned from it on the data side.

I know a big concern in Toronto was this Silicon Valley company coming in with all of its swagger, and its big promises and then pulling out just as easily. Did you feel like this was a company leaving the city high and dry? And if you could do it over, what would you do differently?

Tory: By the time we got going on [creating] the public trust for the data, it had built up into such a huge controversy that you had people that had convinced themselves no good could come from this. I would go slower in the sense that — and this is a lot of what Mayor Khan was talking about, too — you've got to have the public confidence when you use new technology, whether it's in policing, or whether it's in development of a new neighborhood like this. You've got to have the public's confidence in terms of what's going to be done with the data: How intrusive is this technology going to be in this data collection in their lives? And in this case, we were trying to fix that after the debate had broken out, as opposed to having that all in place.

I'm being very honest in saying that I think the announcement was rushed. When the announcement was rushed, all these t's weren't crossed, and the i's weren't dotted on things like a public trust for the data, which somebody would have thought of, as we did. But by then, you know, the negative momentum built up. Sometimes the negative momentum becomes difficult to deal with.

But the notion that we're gonna get away without private public partnerships, including with the nonprofit sector? I mean, government knows how to do certain things very well. But the expertise and the ingenuity and the money, quite frankly, often rests outside of government. And well it should. And the notion that we're going to sort of do all the things we have to do in the public domain without the help of partnership with the private and nonprofit sector is just not happening. So we've got to find ways to make sure we maintain public confidence when we form those partnerships. And that means careful consultation as Mayor Khan referred to.

Toronto is also using data as part of its Equity Action Plan to address COVID-19. Can you talk a little bit about how data is factoring into that?

Tory: The provincial government said they weren't going to collect data based on demographic characteristics. And we said from the beginning, we were, because we knew this was going to be a treasure trove of information for us to try to not only deal with the virus, but address some of the root causes. The virus has hit harder in lower-income neighborhoods that tend to disproportionately have racialized communities in them, and so on. And so by having all the data that showed that was absolutely the truth — and I'm not proud of that, it's just a fact — it allowed us to target our resources and to say we were targeting our resources to fight the virus. It gave us great guideposts as to where we should do it and with whom, but it also allowed the rest of the population to understand why we were doing that. We were able to achieve some goals that we had in terms of trying to produce equity for those neighborhoods to begin with. But also it was going to be more effective in our fighting of the virus.

Mayor Medina, there was a lot of hype at the beginning of this pandemic about the role that technology was going to play in helping fight the virus, whether it's with contact tracing apps or data analysis to better deploy resources, as Mayor Tory mentioned. I know you're experiencing a resurgence now. In your experience, what is working in terms of technology's role in all of this? And what is not? What were the over-promises?

Lisbon Mayor Fernando Medina: We are using a lot of data now that we were not using some months ago. For instance, I have, in my cell phone, a geo-referential map about every new infection that happens in the city. It's an amazing technology that was developed for this pandemic. We mobilized mobile teams — physicians or social services — just to see if people are OK, if they need anything to be confined and [told them] to stay at home. It was very important when the crisis hit — for instance, more poor areas — it was very useful to have those teams that went to their houses and asked the person: Do you need any pocket money to sustain these days confined?

But the big issue was not a question about technology in itself. It was the question of: Are we institutionally organized to give the public safeguards so that only the right people had the right access to information? And there was a strong debate inside national authorities and local authorities. How do we use this information? How do we share it? And it was difficult.

The system that we designed was that only physicians and nurses had the addresses of people and individual information about the person. The city can have access to some information. So we know the neighborhood, but the private information is in the hands of the physician only. These institutional arrangements — how we deal with information and protect information from each other — was probably the most difficult thing, it was not having the technology. A lot of companies were very quick on developing solutions. But finding these arrangements of institutional protection was the most difficult part to tackle.

You also announced a plan, related to what you've seen in the decline of tourism, to turn a lot of these Airbnb-style rentals in Lisbon into affordable housing for frontline workers. What kind of pushback or response have you gotten from Airbnb and these other companies that I imagine very much do not want to be pushed out?

Medina: We had, before the pandemic, and we still have, and we are going to have after the pandemic, a very big problem with affordable housing for the middle class and young people. In the beginning of the crisis, we had 20,000 to 25,000 apartments that were in the Airbnb system. This raised dramatically in the last five years. We are trying to solve this problem structurally. We are building thousands of new houses of affordable housing. But building takes time. So what we saw in the crisis was that we had an opportunity. We decided to launch a program where we go to the owners who have their houses on Airbnb, and we rent those houses and then we sub-rent those houses to young people and the middle class for a price that is lower than what we rent. The maximum they will pay is one-third of their net income per month.

For the first time in many years, we have thousands of houses that were available, they were completely operational, they were up to date, they had furniture. We have 300 apartments that we started with in July. And now we are on the second phase of the program, which will stay open during next year. Each month we're putting more houses in our program.

Have you gotten any pushback from Airbnb since you're buying out their inventory?

Medina: At the moment, no. I think they are occupied dealing with losses all around the world. Our biggest difficulty is the owners that think this pandemic is short term. They think that soon they are going to return to profitability. I don't think they are right, I think we will take some time to recover. I think this problem is going to rise in the next month, and we are going to fulfill the needs for much more people.
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