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Safetipin: A Tool to Build Safer Cities for Women

May 11, 2016

By Kalpana Viswanath

The gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a New Delhi bus in 2012 sparked national outrage in India. Since then, other brutal acts of violence have taken place in India’s cities, including the rape and murder of a 30-year-old law student on April 28 in Kerala. There were 337,922 reported crimes against women in 2014, among them over 36,000 were rape. And these are the incidents that are reported; sadly, many are not.

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Today, more and more women are migrating to India’s cities in search of work, which has led to increased concern over the last few years about their safety in urban areas. Delhi alone accounts for 15.4 percent of crime against women in Indian cities, and witnessed an 18.3 percent rise in reporting of crimes against women in 2014 compared to 2013. One of the effects of the 2012 case was growth in consciousness and increased reporting of crimes against women.

The fear of violence in public spaces affects the everyday lives of women as it restricts their movement and freedom to exert their right as citizens of the city – freedom to move, study, work, and leisure. The rapid pace and nature of urbanization taking place throughout the world has thrown up new challenges for governments, citizens, as well as social scientists and activists. Urban spaces provide new opportunities for people to build their homes and lives, but at the same time, can reinforce existing inequalities and often create new ones. While violence and fear impacts a city’s population as a whole, marginalized groups are much more vulnerable.

Creating a safe environment involves much more than just responding to violence. It is important to create the conditions by which women are able to move about safely and without fear of violence or assault. Fear often plays a key role in women’s experience and access to the city. Therefore, in order to create greater levels of safety and comfort, both actual violence and the fear of violence need to be addressed. Research has shown that many factors play a role in determining women’s access to the city including urban design and planning, community involvement, improved policing, and usage of space. The question was how to gather that information to build safer cities.

In 2013, I co-founded the mobile app and online platform Safetipin, with funding support from The Asia Foundation’s Lotus Circle, which collects information about public spaces through a safety audit that can be done by anyone, anywhere in the world. Safetipin is a free app and can be downloaded from the App store or Google play. At the core of Safetipin is the safety audit that measures nine parameters including lighting, openness, visibility or “eyes on the street,” presence of security, the state of a walking path, as well as the presence of people and specifically women, on the streets. It is a crowdsourced app and anyone in the world can download it and use it. Each audit appears as a pin on a map and is used to compute the Safety Score of an area.

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In addition to crowdsourced data, Safetipin also collects night time photographs of cities which are used to assess the parameters of safety audits. Currently Safetipin is collecting data in 28 cities across 10 countries. The night time pictures allow us to collect large-scale information for urban planners, police, and transportation authorities. In Delhi over the past two years, we have collected data through both methods and currently have more than 60,000 safety audits covering more than 6,000 km of the city. In Bogota, we have covered approximately 3,000 km of roads and coded 18,000 audits.

The initial usage of the data is promising. The Public Works Department and the New Delhi Municipal Commission have used our data on poor lighting in areas of the city to improve lighting in dark areas, thereby increasing safety and accessibility for women and others. Further, we have provided Safety Scores for bus stops across the city to point out to the transportation authorities which bus stops need immediate improvement which they have worked on making safer through improved lighting and better infrastructure.

The Delhi Police have also been working with our data on unsafe areas in the city to determine where more patrolling of their police vans is needed. Using our data in this way can be replicated by cities around the world.

In order to support city governments, we are collaborating with UN Habitat to collect data and address women’s safety in cities around the world. We are working with the city governments of Bogota and Nairobi to help them use Safetipin data in order to improve city safety and enhance gender inclusion in public spaces. Safetipin is a cheap and easy-to-use technology that not only helps to build safer cities, but serves as platform for citizen engagement on creating safer and more inclusive public spaces. In addition, Safetipin is an easy way to measure impact as safety audits can be conducted post intervention to measure change in the Safety Score and women’s feeling of safety.

Currently Safetipin is available in five languages – English, Hindi, Spanish, Mandarin, and Bahasa. We plan to increase this as more cities join the network. We are hopeful that the data that is collected will be useful for city planners to make safer cities for women around the world. As cities try to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 that aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, having reliable data on the ground is an essential step.

Kalpana Viswanath, prominent women’s rights activist and ex-head of Jagori, is the co-founder of Safetipin. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: India
Related programs: Empower Women, Lotus Circle, Technology & Development
Related topics: Urbanization, Violence against Women

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