global tech

Sexual-Harassment-Reporting Apps Help Stop Abuse in Global City Streets

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No one should plan their schedule around avoiding sexual harassment, but that doesn’t mean many people don’t do exactly that. Whether it’s taking an indirect route to avoid a poorly lit park or opting for a private car instead of risking inappropriate comments or touching on public transportation, vulnerable populations around the world — for the sake of the following examples, women — are constantly maneuvering themselves around their abusers, taking time out of their own pursuits to accommodate the behavior of would-be harassers. But to do so, women must first know where they can and can’t go, information that until recently could only be learned through personal experience or by word of mouth.

“It’s very easy for us to subconsciously adjust our movements, our behavior, and our mobility to not deal with sexual violence,” said Elsa D’Silva, founder of SafeCity, a crowdsourced mapping platform for individuals in India, Kenya, Cameroon, and Nepal to report abuse anonymously. SafeCity, along with platforms like HarassMap in Egypt, #WalkFreely in Kosovo, HarassTracker in Lebanon, and the Rapid Response Unit from Society Without Violence in Armenia all provide women with the opportunity to share their story, pinpoint the exact location where abuse took place, and raise awareness about the pervasiveness of gender-based violence in their countries, on both a broad and hyperlocal scale. To users, these apps and websites act as guides, enabling women to have a greater sense of agency in determining their own safety, as well as providing them with confirmation that they’re not alone.

Many of these kinds of platforms use Ushahidi, a data collection and visualization tool, which allows anonymous users to report not only through the apps and sites but also through email, SMS, Twitter, and RSS. SafeCity, which is an initiative of the Red Dot Foundation, launched a custom-made iOS and Android app last year — although the majority of their stories are still gathered through face-to-face interactions, either at workshops or on the ground in low-income communities. After collecting the stories in person, representatives from the organization upload the information to the platform. Reports are then assigned categories such as stalking, taking pictures, commenting, indecent exposure, touching/groping, and rape/sexual assault, which can then be filtered by users.

“Even if it’s anonymous reporting, it helps you identify the extent of the problem,” explains D’Silva. While the outpouring of stories that resulted from the #MeToo movement’s initial call to action demonstrated the pervasiveness of gender-based violence, the responses were impossible to analyze and present in any cohesive manner.

SafeCity uses a single depository for all of its entries, making it possible to easily consolidate the findings and locate patterns, such as sexual harassment hot spots like public transportation, street markets, and schools. That was the case in Kibera, a slum in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, where Kenyan activist Jane Anyango used the cluster of SafeCity entries around schools to confirm stories of widespread abuse of girls by their male teachers. She included the platform’s data in formal reports, leading her to work with local education authorities in creating safe spaces for the students and with the children directly to train them how to recognize sexual violence and respond to it. Anyango now has a project with the United Nations Population Fund to conduct similar work within 45 of Kibera’s schools.

Since SafeCity’s data is open, community members, media, and government officials can access and analyze the citizen-generated reports. In the past, that has taken the form of alerting the police, holding community interventions, or providing the information to authorities who can implement infrastructure improvements to cut down on assaults in public places. “Data provides the evidence necessary to convince these stakeholders that they need to do something about it,” says D’Silva.

Since SafeCity was started 2012, it has accrued over 10,000 reports from more than 50 cities worldwide. However, one of the biggest challenges facing programs like SafeCity is that, globally, 75 percent of victims don’t report — they either believe that it’s futile, are ashamed, or that sexual harassment and abuse is just a normal part of life and not a crime. The collated statistics are what prompt action; rarely are individual, ostensibly disparate personal accounts enough to influence the status quo.

Kosovo’s #WalkFreely (or #EcShlire in Albanian) is another open-source map for reporting — and avoiding — sexual harassment. Helmed by Blerta Thaçi, #WalkFreely was launched in February 2016 through a partnership between Open Data Kosovo, Women’s Network Kosovo, and Girls Coding Kosovo. It shares many of SafeCity’s goals and motivations: Thaçi and her colleagues aim to raise awareness of the ubiquity of gender-based violence, reframe the conversation around sexual assault so it’s viewed as unacceptable, prove that technology has a critical role in activism, and ultimately, supply data to those who need it. #WalkFreely has already collected more than 500 reports and is being used in six different languages.

The beginning stages of any platform reliant on user input demand heavy outreach, and like any other nascent app, #WalkFreely faces significant challenges. At this stage, the app alone cannot provide full support for victims. Although the team has created a proposal for how the app could transmit reports directly to the police and bypass the official reporting procedure needed to open a case, #WalkFreely lacks the funding to implement such a massive institutional change.

It’s a common dilemma: Lack of funding means an inability to fully market the product, which slows the rate of adoption, and in turn, makes it harder for investors to see its value. With a sexual-harassment-reporting app, the usual obstacles facing a new app are compounded by larger societal ones, like the underreporting of sexual violence and the normalization of harassment.

“Public spaces in general — you get a lot of sexual harassment even if you’re just walking by,” said Thaçi. In Kosovo, she says, it’s common for men in vehicles to speed up toward women and then stop just short of hitting them, purely to scare them. According to the app’s analytics, almost 60 percent of all reported incidents took place on the street, in another public place such as a park, or on public transportation. A report published by the Council of Europe notes that “74% of Kosovars believe that women bring sexual harassment on themselves by dressing or acting provocatively,” and “41% think that young women like to be harassed.”

Clearly, gender-based violence and the attitudes surrounding women in general need to change. However, until that happens, crowdsourced maps like #WalkFreely and SafeCity can help arm women with the knowledge they need to stay safe.

These Digital Maps Help Women Find the Safest Routes Home