Crowdsourcing app aims to make cities safer for young people
As 22-year-old Yashi Shrivastava walks to college in the Indian city of Jaipur, she inputs data on an app that is helping build a safer environment.
Shrivastava and her friends use Safetipin, an app which maps safe and unsafe areas, which she has since also introduced to college exchange students who do not speak local languages. “It gives me a sense of responsibility and a sense of inner safety,” she says.
The app has its origins in the aftermath of the 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi — an incident that sparked nationwide protests over violence against women and highlighted the dangers they face in urban areas.
For Kalpana Viswanath, Safetipin’s co-founder and an expert on gender and urban safety, the key to overcoming those dangers was to get input from young people and crowdsource data on where city authorities were failing to protect the public.
“The idea has always been to [identify] the problems in the city and take that to local governments to actually fix it,” says Viswanath.
The app, which she set up with her husband, tech pioneer Ashish Basu, enables people to input details of elements such as street lighting, CCTV and pavement quality on to a map, along with a perceived safety score. Safetipin then offers safer routes and notifies users of the nearest safe spot in an unsafe area.
It is underpinned by more than 339,000 safety audits, where Safetipin’s data is cross-checked with information from governments and other sources. A separate Safetipin Nite app allows trained staff from local partner organisations to take photos to be turned into data, which can also feed into the audits.
“If you actually start designing safety and cities in public spaces for women . . . you’re building cities that are more inclusive for everybody. That will be children, older people, but also for me,” Viswanath says.
Nikita Verma, a 21-year-old user of the app in Jaipur and a member of Cities For You(th), an urban wellbeing project in Rajasthan, agrees. “A city cannot be developed just by asking one person. It has to be a collective effort,” she says.
Young women are particularly at risk, says Verma. “Whenever I step out of the house, and I use this app, I’m able to see the blackness of the city . . . The places are not safe. They make us uncomfortable. There’s no proper lighting and no proper footpaths.”
Despite the app’s serious goal, it is also meant to be fun. Users receive points for adding information or making referrals, so Shrivastava and her friends treat it as a game. “Like a competition, at the end of the day, we check the score,” she says.
The lessons from the project are particularly relevant to developing countries with so-called youth bulges, where infant mortality has been reduced but fertility rates remain high, meaning a large part of the population is comprised of children and young adults.
The need for walkable neighbourhoods, pedestrian access and public safety have also been highlighted by UN-Habitat, a UN agency that promotes sustainable towns and cities.
Safetipin shares its data with city governments and other organisations so they can carry out improvement work. The New Delhi municipal government has used the information to reduce the number of dark spots in the city by more than 60 per cent from 7,438 in 2016 to 2,780 in 2018. The police have also reformulated their patrol routes.
Juma Assiago, global co-ordinator of the Safer Cities Programme at UN-Habitat, explains the importance of walkable cities compared with those built around driving, which “deprive [young people] of the play and walk that they always had . . . that built their sense of citizenship, that sense of community values”. How young people experience their walk from home to school is as much a part of their learning as going into the school itself, he argues.
Safetipin is now operating beyond India in 65 cities across 16 countries. One of its partners is Fixed in Johannesburg, an urban safety and community consulting company. Barbara Holtmann, Fixed’s director, says the metrics are common but how important they are depends on the context.
In Cape Town, communities living in informal settlements across the Cape Flats face long journeys with poor sanitation compared with wealthier, middle-class communities along Table Mountain, a legacy of Apartheid. “People say ‘I will send my child closer to the mountain because that’s where the opportunities are’,” Holtmann says.
The key to improving these urban spaces is a three-way partnership between users, community service providers and local authorities, Holtmann adds. “You can’t just go and dump [the app] somewhere. You need to build relationships.”
Angie Palacios Coello, an urban mobility specialist at CAF Development Bank of Latin America, agrees, contrasting Safetipin’s implementation in Buenos Aires’s favelas with their broader audit — both official districts and informal neighbourhoods — of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.
“It doesn’t matter if you work within informal settlements, it still feels separate from the formal city,” she says. “You’re going to have different accessibility issues . . . Moving around in favelas relates more to religion and security. It’s a migrant population, so you have many layered issues.”
The challenge, says Palacios, is gaining critical mass and supplementing Safetipin’s information with more qualitative data, which can be gathered through interviews. “In the participatory mapping we did, we saw differences with the results of the maps that we did with Safetipin,” she says. “And that’s why we do the qualitative part of it, to understand those nuances and gaps of information.”
What becomes clear, Palacios argues, is the need to change how land use is determined. “Is there enough mix of residential buildings and commercial buildings? Are there parks?,” she asks. “It’s not just about putting cement on a road or putting in sidewalks and light.”