Using technology for feministing cities: The Story of Safecity

This series establishes an understanding of women’s safety and sexual violence as a public health concern and offers an overview of how tech based solutions are increasingly making an effort to address related issues of sexual violence in India. In this piece we speak to Elsa Dsilva, Founder of (Safecity) Red Dot Foundation, about her journey of using tech for addressing issues of women’s safety and their newly launched app, Safecity.

Vandita: Tell us a little about your personal journey and motivation towards this work and the building of this app?

Elsa: A little over 4 years ago, Jyoti Singh was gang raped on a bus in Delhi and she lost her life. Her story was terribly shocking. At the time, I was working in the aviation industry with Kingfisher Airlines where I was Vice President Network Planning. The incident kind of shook me up, made me reevaluate my choices. I was at a crossroads with my career and looking for my purpose. A few weeks prior to the incident I had heard of a crowd mapping initiative in Egypt and thought it an essential idea to implement in India post the gang rape.

To be honest, this incident was an inflection point that blew the lid on the issue of sexual violence. Every conversation during this time, I recall was about personal experiences and I was forced to remember all the times I had been sexually harassed in public spaces. I wanted to do something concrete that would have a lasting impact and so along with a couple of friends, I started Safecity.

Safecity is a platform that crowdsources personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces. This data, which maybe anonymous, gets aggregated as hot spots on a map indicating trends at a local level. The idea is to make this data useful for individuals, local communities and local administration to identify factors that causes behavior that leads to violence and work on strategies for solutions.

Since our launch on 26 Dec 2012, we have collected over 10,000 stories from over 50 cities in India, Kenya, Cameroon, Nepal, Nigeria and Trinidad & Tobago and directly reached over 400,000 people.

Our platform consists of a web app, a missed call facility, email and social media on Facebook and Twitter. However we felt the need for a mobile app to make it even easier to report sexual violence, access this data, create a community, take action and have resources for help at one’s fingertips. So we are very pleased that this app is a reality and was launched on 21 September 2017.

Vandita: How have you/Safecity been engaging in work relating to the safety of women?

Elsa: As mentioned earlier, Safecity was launched to encourage women to share their personal experiences of sexual harassment anonymously. Statistics show that sexual violence is a global pandemic. UN Women states that 1 in 3 women around the world experience some form of sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime, yet 80% of women and girls don't speak up or report to any official authority.

Our aim was to bridge the gap between official statistics and daily reality as this under reporting was making the issue “invisible” and the under communication was creating “insecure cultures” where the women and girls were expected to stay silent, accept their fate/destiny whilst the perpetrator got away scot free. Lack of data means there is no obligation on the part of the authorities to act or to act with urgency.

Our first aim was to get women and girls to share their stories anonymously. However we quickly found that most of them were not aware of the spectrum of violence, they were afraid to speak up because of the taboo and shame associated with it and the fear of dealing with the police and the justice system. Many women and girls tend to ignore the verbal and nonverbal forms of harassment because they thought it was too trivial when in fact they could be extremely debilitating to many, limiting choices, movement and opportunities as well as affecting mental health. So broadly our work falls into 3 categories - a) increasing awareness on the issue, the spectrum of violence and the legislation b) facilitating reporting through technology and c) creating opportunities to use the data to find local solutions through community engagement and institutional accountability

Thus far we have conducted workshops for over 15000 people including children, parents, youth, corporate employees and community adults. We have engaged communities through partner NGOs in several cities and implemented solutions that have improved over 20000 lives. Through our digital and community centered campaigns we have reached over 400000 people directly.


Vandita: How have you been using technology to address issues relating to the safety of women?

Elsa: Technology is an easy way to connect people on an issue as well as educate them. We have used it very effectively through our crowd map to crowdsource stories, visualize them as hotspots and connect people through alerts and notifications. We use social media to discuss a broad range of issues that impact women and girls. Our twitter account is a curated account where we invite people to take over our handle and discuss sexual violence through their perspective. This has helped individuals to speak up about this taboo topic and encourage them to take a stand on the issue. It is easier through a handle that is not yours. Every week we have a tweet chat on Friday evenings at 9 pm IST which has about a million impressions.

We hope that the data and stories posted on our website allow people to improve their situational awareness of a location so that they can make better choices regarding their safety. For e.g. they can decide what time to go, what transport to take, be prepared with the right solutions. They can also use the data as a starting point for a discussion in their community to find local solutions or even hold institutional service providers accountable in doing a better job. For e.g. In Kibera, Kenya, our partner was able to engage religious authorities to talk to young men about appropriate and inappropriate behavior especially as we noticed that some hotspots were near a mosque. It had an instant effect.

We also share our data with the police in Mumbai, Delhi and Goa. Having this information in the public domain, allows citizens to build a relationship with their local police as safety is everyone’s concern. It is a new dataset that can be complemented with existing ones to provide further insights into local issues and help identify factors that contribute to the violence. We have several examples where on being presented with the data the police have changed beat patrol timings and increased vigilance whilst municipal authorities have fixed street lighting and made safe public toilets available.


Vandita: Tell us more about the Safecity app?

Elsa: The Safecity mobile app is available on Android and iOS. It allows for easy reporting - just tell us the location of the incident, exact date and time, a description of the incident, pick categories that best describe what happened and additional material like pictures, videos and if it was linked to ethnicity/race, disability or sexual orientation. This helps us analyze the data for trends at the location level, category wise and based on day of week or time band.

The app is also meant to create an online community. So you can invite your friends to join, you can post blogs, news or start a discussion thread, you can create events to discuss issues in your community or join existing meetups, you can post safety tips and make suggestions for improvement, access information on legislation or resource centres like police stations, hospitals, etc. You can also send an SOS to a predetermined list and be on someone else’s care list. We want people to use this app to not only report violence but also be active bystanders to end it.


Vandita: How do you plan to assess the impact of your tech based interventions?

Elsa: Safecity aims to make cities safer by encouraging equal access to public spaces for everyone especially women, through the use of crowdsourced data, community engagement and institutional accountability. We will be measuring the increased propensity to report, increased understanding of the issue and the increased willingness to take action to end sexual violence.


Vandita: How do you plan to address the issue of access relating to such interventions?

Elsa: Our app is available in English, Hindi and Spanish, we will be adding other languages based on the need and partner interests. Every report or post that is entered is reviewed by an administrator and only made public if it is meets our guidelines - it must be about an incident of sexual harassment in a public space and personal names of people are screened out. For those with no internet connection, they can give us a missed call in India. We will continue to be accessible through our web based platform, email and social media. We also have partners on the ground who collect the data through paper forms and then upload into our system.


Vandita: What is missing in current tech based interventions aimed at addressing social issues, especially those pertaining to women?

Elsa: A lot of the solutions are focused on the SOS functionality. When in trouble, press a button and send an SOS. We believe we are in the pre-emptive space where we are focusing on predicting trends and patterns that are either location based or behavior related and these are based on actual historical experiences.

Also by encouraging women and girls to share their story, we are empowering them to break their silence and document the incident. The current discussion around the #MeToo campaign highlights the widespread nature of sexual harassment and the difficulty in speaking up about it. This campaign has given voice to many women and their stories and it is surprising that many people are taken aback by the scale of the problem. This validates the Safecity platform - ability to give voice to people who experience abuse and harassment, documentation of their experiences (anonymously if they choose to) and capturing trends and patterns so that solutions can be found. Our aim, with our web based platform and the the app, is to break down the taboos around the issue and make it easier for people to report as well as intervene to prevent the occurrence of incidents of sexual violence.

Not many are focused on that aspect which is the first step in the healing process. In addition, reading others’ stories connects you to them in solidarity as you now know you are not alone. Society has conditioned us to believe that we are victims and we internalize this believing that we were the cause of the incident through our choices, our clothes, etc. But when you have data to prove it is happening to many in the same location or similar incidents are happening across locations, it can no longer be about the individual. It shifts the perspective and forces us to think of the location as the comfort zone of the perpetrator and how might we change that.


Vandita: Any thoughts you would like to add on similar apps/tech interventions outside of India?

Elsa: Ours is a comprehensive reporting app that can be used by any organization around the world. We would like to invite partners - groups working on women’s rights or ending violence against women and girls to use our platform to report these incidents. We can facilitate the data analysis and help them think through solutions.


The Safecity app is available for Apple and Android users and continues to be available as a web based platform.

Disclaimer: Vandita is the Policy, Legal and United Nations Liaison Officer at Safecity.


About the Author

Vandita Morarka

Vandita Morarka is the Founder and CEO of One Future Collective and the Policy, Legal and United Nations Liaison Officer at Safecity (Red Dot Foundation), tweets @vanditamorarka.