Google plans to build a city that starts with the internet

In many cities, add-ons like internet networks are secondary to other public utilities like water, electricity, and sewage. Left to the private business sector to contract with customers in order to provide the service, not many cities incorporate WiFi networks in the general design.

One rural Alabama town has worked to remedy the lack of internet access among its citizens – particularly its students – with city-wide mesh WiFi networks. Piedmont, Alabama, a town of under 5,000 people, supports a school population of whom two-thirds receive free or reduced lunch from the government. Like most rural towns in the US where 40% of the students are unable to access the internet at home, 21st Century technology initiatives would prove useless without some way to bridge the home-school divide. In 2009, city officials partnered with grant funding agencies to not only provide laptops for all students in grades four through twelve, but also to build city-wide internet infrastructure to provide free access.

Unfortunately, it was not an easy, seamless, or inexpensive undertaking.

Creating a digital city

That kind of hoop-jumping doesn’t have to be the norm, though, and a new Google plan for an “internet-up” city in Toronto is basically planning everything around internet networks. Sidewalk Labs, owned by parent company Alphabet, is revitalizing a virtually abandoned section of Toronto’s waterfront area, starting with the things it will need to create a digital city. The goal is more than just breathing new life into an eyesore, though, but rather becoming a model for urban planning and creating healthier, more environmentally-friendly spaces.

What about data privacy?

Unfortunately, some of the details of Sidewalk Lab’s proposal are leaving residents and city officials concerned. One of the chief areas of concern is in how data is collected from the many “sensors” that this city of the future will incorporate. Motion and speed sensors, pollution sensors, and others will provide valuable feedback to the city, but there hasn’t been a lot of transparency – at least not enough to satisfy some critics – about the full scope of this data collection and how it can be used.

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