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Joining Together to Map a City’s Safety

Women’s safety is a hot-button issue in India, and some see technology as part of the answer. Kalpana Viswanath, co-founder of the Safetipin app, hopes women themselves will provide the information that keeps them safe.

Written by Pamposh Raina Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A woman uses her mobile phone in Srinagar, India. AP/Mukhtar Khan

After the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a Delhi bus in December 2012, women’s safety became a highly charged issue in India. From the use of pepper spray to emergency apps, much has been said about a woman’s best course of action when she is in distress.

But what can women – and men – do in their everyday lives to make cities safer? Record and share their experiences of safety – or lack of it – in public spaces, says the company behind the smartphone app Safetipin.

“A safety pin is used to join things together – Safetipin tries to get communities together to improve safety,” said Kalpana Viswanath, the app’s co-founder. A safety pin is also a very common self-defense tool for women in India, used to prick and repel groping men on public transport.

Utilizing data that’s mostly crowd-sourced, Safetipin awards safety scores to neighborhoods, markets, highways, streets and other places that qualify as public spaces. And it draws on vital information, working in partnership with taxi firms and Uber, to score on factors such as lighting and crowds – through cars equipped with cameras that take photos of the city at regular intervals.

These safety audits appear within the app as colored pins on a city map, indicating the level of safety. The most recent version of the app, MySafetipin, is available free of charge.

Launched in Delhi in November 2013, the Safetipin app has been downloaded 50,000 times, with 80 percent of the downloads in India, where there is active data collection in 10 cities. Safetipin is also working with city governments in Nairobi, Bogota, Jakarta and Manila, and collecting data in eight other cities worldwide, including Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Kuala Lumpur.

Viswanath, a social scientist by profession, has been working on women’s safety for the past two decades through several projects with U.N. agencies as well as Indian NGOs. She explained to Women & Girls Hub how she hopes to make public spaces safer.

Women & Girls Hub: What is the objective of Safetipin?

Kalpana Viswanath: The idea of Safetipin is to put knowledge in the hands of people to help them make safer decisions. For instance, if you think you are in a place with a little bit of danger, you can press the “stay with me” button. It allows people [you added to the app when you registered] to get an alert on their phone saying, “So and so would like to stay with you,” and you’ll see who’s watching you. We also have a feature called “safest route” so that if you are going to go from Place A to Place B, you can choose the safest route. Besides individual users, the second audience of Safetipin is the government. Our idea is not just to say that an area is not safe, but also to give that data to somebody who can do something with it. We are not here just trying to brand places; we are really trying to say that we would like to make the city safer.

Women & Girls Hub: What demographic do you think is making the most of this app?

Viswanath: The biggest demographic is the young working woman. When you are single in a city you need information; you need to be out at night. People go out to pubs. If you are going out to a pub with your friends, wouldn’t you like to know, is that pub in a neighborhood that’s safe? Is the rating of the neighborhood “three” [out of five] or is it “one”? If it’s a one, maybe I won’t go.

We actually found that even men use our app, it’s not only women. There are two reasons for that. First, every app in the world is used more by men simply because men use technology more than women. Secondly, it’s useful information; as a guy going out somewhere with your girlfriend, you don’t want to go to a very shady neighborhood.

The other demographic is parents. Who worries about young people? Parents. Most of the young people I ask, “What do you do when you are in trouble?” say “I call my mother” as their response. Which is possibly still true! There is an age when you become responsible for yourself and that’s when you would need Safetipin.

Women & Girls Hubs: How do you measure the safety of a public space?

Viswanath: There are various parameters used to determine if the safety in a particular public space is poor, fair, good, very good or excellent: lighting, crowds, walking paths, openness, visibility, security, gender diversity and density. I hear girls in Delhi saying, “I never go out after six.” Why is that? Has something actually happened when they have gone out after six? No, but they are scared.

Safetipin is not claiming that when you are in a really dangerous situation we are going to help you, but it tries to address the fear of safety by getting you information about what makes you feel safe and unsafe.

For example, for measuring an area’s lighting, there are four options: no light, little light, enough light and bright light. We are trying to eliminate too much subjectivity. So you are not saying the lighting is “just OK”; what does OK mean?

Openness is another criterion, which means, can you see into the distance? How open is the area? Another factor is visibility. Visibility is something called “eyes on the street” – can you be seen when you are on the street? Are there shops or windows that overlook the street – is there somebody who can see you when you are on that street?

Other criteria look at whether there are people, is there security, how close is public transport, is the walking path good? If the walking path is broken, then you can’t walk there if you are in a situation of danger.

Women & Girls Hub: Much of the data that you collect is through self-reporting by the app users. As a potential user, how do I know that this data is dependable?

Viswanath: It is an issue. We try to address it in two or three ways. One is that we do not immediately upload the first audit any app user does; after you do a few audits and you seem reliable, we let you automatically upload the audits. We also made it easier and faster for more people to do an audit, since the crowd balances itself. The symbols are very obvious, and we have tried to make the user interface such that you don’t have to be highly literate to do it. [The app is also available in Hindi.]

We also get information through the Safetipin Nite app, which is not available to the public, but only to cab companies with whom we are working to collect data. A phone gets attached to the windscreen of a cab, which automatically takes pictures of the city every 100m [330ft] to inform our score parameters.

Women & Girls Hubs: Where is Safetipin heading next?

Viswanath: We want this data to improve public spaces. For example, the Public Works Department and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) have both taken our data and said, “OK, you are saying that these stretches are dark stretches, we will improve the light.”

I have told NDMC that once you make those improvements, in six months I will redo the safety audit in those neighborhoods and see if the safety score has improved. I can actually measure if safety has improved.

My vision is to make the city safer for women. That’s not just the government; even a restaurant owner will try and put a light outside or a safety guard. The metric of success for me is whether someone actually improves something to make it safer.

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