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Crowd-Sourced Data and a Mobile Phone Application Are Making Cities Safer for Women

Mayors and activists at the World Urban Forum 9 place their signature on a placard supporting safer cities for adolescent girls by 2030. Credit: Manipadma Jena / IPS

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Feb 21 2018 (IPS) - When Shiba Kurian alighted from Chennai’s city train, the evening office-returning crowd was thick and jostling. Having booked a ride-hail cab she walked out to the entrance. Instead of the cab for which she had to wait an hour, ribald comments and derisive laughter came her way from a group of roadside Romeos.

Kurian a journalist did not take it lying down. She went the next day to the train station and pinned it an unsafe place in her GPS-enabled mobile application called Safetipin. Henceforth every time women using this smartphone application are around this station it would ping them an alert.

“Safety is a social issue. A city becomes safe not so much by policing and closed-circuit television (CCTV), but by people especially women being able to use all public places without fear, which then empowers them by facilitating access to social and economic opportunities,” Kalpana Viswanath who co-founded the Safetipin application told IPS at the ninth session of the World Urban Forum (WUF9, February 7 -13) that ended last week in Kuala Lumpur.

On the theme ‘Cities 2030-Cities For All: Implementing the New Urban Agenda,’ WUF9 was organized by UN Habitat and attended by 22,000 participants from 165 countries. The global community committed to localize and scale up implementation with the Kuala Lumpur Declaration which calls for urban centres where no-one and no place is left behind.

This was the first Forum to convene since the New Urban Agenda (NUA) was adopted at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016. The NUA aligns with SDG 11 on making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Gender equality (SDG 5) is among its various other aims.

Cities face unprecedented demographic, environmental, economic, social and spatial challenges, with six out of every ten people in the world expected to reside in urban areas by 2030. According to UN-Habitat, more than 90% of this growth will take place in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. For the first time in history, more than half the world’s population now lives in cities. Given this growth, urban areas are central to economic opportunities and growth and women cannot be left out of it.

But today women and girls across many countries find it challenging to move out safely in cities and realize their potential.

A Malaysian participant walks past the exhibition booth of Abu Dhabi, organizer of WUF10 in 2020 where progress in women’s urban safety, a major current event focus is expected to be stringently reviewed by the global community. Credit: Manipadma Jena / IPS

Unsafe streets and public transport stunt women’s economic growth

A participatory study by global NGO Plan International for its programme ‘Because I am a Girl’ involving over 1,000 adolescent girls from 5 cities across the world reveals that fear of sexual violence is creating ‘no-go areas’ for girls.

Only 3.3% of girls in Delhi reported always feeling safe when using public transport while 45% of girls in Kampala faced with sexual harassment in public transport. In Lima, a miniscule 2.2% of girls reported always feeling safe when walking in public spaces, this earlier study finds.

The Safetipin mobile application, which is free, has been downloaded 85,000 times across 20 countries, most of it in Indian cities, Manila, Nairobi, Jakarta and Bogota.

Easy to use, it has a set of nine parameters that represent how safe a person feels after dark and helps users audit public spaces like Kurian did.

Parameters include how lighted or not a place is and how open or hemmed in and are objects and people clearly visible. The fourth parameter is a check on people being around or is it deserted; are other women using the space and if a security guard or police is around. The next parameters checks if public transport is readily available. But the most important of all is how the user feels about the place.

The application also directs users to the safest route evaluated on the basis of users’ crowd-sourced data. It displays colour-coded alternate routes and once a route is chosen a Google maps opens up. Pick-a-pic is another feature showing two images side by side for users to decide which to go with. If the users are in a new or unsafe place, an alert notification pops up on the screen.

Viswanath said she invariably activates Safetipin’s geo-tagged ‘Stay with me’ feature to her husband’s phone when returning late from the airport in her hometown Delhi, who can then monitor real-time her cab’s movement.

Young working women in the 25- 40 age group are the largest users of the application. It’s when they start living independently that safety becomes a huge concern for women, according to Viswanath. When in a new city, these women check out safety of hotels and paying-guest accommodation neighborhoods.

“Interestingly, while younger women of 18 to 20 years old as long as they are living with their parents are not too concerned about their own safety, their parents download the application to monitor their safety,” she added.

Besides the crowd-sourced data from users, Safetipin integrates a second application that captures night photographs of a city, mounted on a vehicle. These real-time photographs, crowd-sourced data and Google’s big data analysed together, present robust, confirmative technical data that is helping city governments to take remedial action for unsafe spots.

In Delhi, the data and photographs indentified 7800 dark public places that the government had to take note of and fix street lights. In Bogota, Safetipin in partnership with the municipality mapped the 230 kilometres of bicycle road. Based on the findings, CCTV cameras, bicycle docks and lights were fixed on the track to improve women bikers’ safety.

Adolescent tourists safely take the walkabout in Malaysia’s George Town, UNESCO heritage city that ensures women’s safety as its tourism sector booms. Credit: Manipadma Jena / IPS

Adolescent girls are making cities safer for themselves

“Each month, 5 million people move to cities in developing countries. By 2030 nearly 1.5 billion adolescent girls will live in cities, but too often they are under-represented in urban safety policies,” according to Plan International.

“Girls in cities contend with both increased risks and increased opportunities. They face sexual harassment, exploitation and insecurity, yet they are also more likely to be educated, politically active and less likely to be married at an early age,” Alana Livesey, Plan’s global manager for its ‘Safe Cities for Girls’ programme told IPS at the WUF9.

Using innovative and participatory tools, Plan’s programme has been able to increase girls’ safety and inclusion in cities.

In Hanoi, a third of adolescent girls in the Plan International survey said they could not access emergency service, notably the police. Lan and Linh (last names not mentioned for protective reasons) two of the young leaders from Hanoi attending the Kuala Lumpur Forum said they undertook group walks at night in dark areas to map risks and raise community awareness about girls’ right to safe public spaces.

“Nearly 10,000 girls use public buses everyday in Hanoi,” 13-year-old Lin told IPS. They have distributed leaflets and comic books to over 8000 public transport drivers and ticketing staff to drive home the message that safety of girls is their responsibility too. The girls’ campaign has succeeded in getting the government to fix cameras in buses and issue official guidelines against over-crowding.

While there is momentum in addressing women’s safety in public transport in India (and other developing countries), ‘urban transport investments are largely gender blind, with a limited understanding of the interrelationships between gender and transport inequities,’ a policy brief by the New-York based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) said.

‘Sustainable urban development will remain elusive without integrating women and girls’ safety, comfort, convenience and affordability in urban transport,’ it cautions.

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