The rapid pace and nature of urbanization throughout the world has thrown up new challenges for governments, and their populations. Urban spaces provide new opportunities for people to build their homes and lives, but also pose many problems for their citizens.
Women face the fear of sexual violence as a constant threat to their ability to move around, to work and their general well-being.
There is increasing concern about women’s safety in cities over the past few years. 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.
Smart cities have become the buzzword today. There is great variation in what is being seen as a smart city. In some cities, it means a focus on technology whereas in others there is a clear vision of the changes it will bring about.
Smart agenda include looking at a range of aspects of cities including water, electricity, sanitation, housing, health, education and safety. One aspect of smart cities is in seeking new solutions to these problems which build on technological innovations and improve governance.
Smart cities should build on the idea that technology must enrich society and the lives of people in ways that are practical.
One of the areas where technological innovations have come up in the past few years has been in addressing women’s safety in cities. Post the Nirbhaya case in December 2012, we have seen many mobile apps in the market. How effective are these in addressing enhanced gender safety in cities is a question that comes to mind.
Many of them are emergency apps which support women in situations of danger or crisis by providing link to the police and others who can help them. Further there are now people building wearable devices that provide the same services. These apps aim to equip women to deal with dangerous situations.
It is essential to create a dialogue between smarter and safer cities. Safety cannot only be about CCTV cameras and greater surveillance. It must focus on how people can feel safer and how they are able to feel more ownership and engagement with urban processes. Citizen participation in governance is often mentioned in smart city documents and this must be realised as a two-way process of engagement.
Keeping this in mind, Safetipin, a mobile application which collects information about public spaces was developed. At the core of Safetipin is the safety audit that measures nine parameters, including lighting, the state of the walk path, as well as the presence of people and specifically women on the streets, the availability of police, public transport and ‘eyes on the street’. Each audit appears as a pin on the map and is used to compute the safety score of an area.
Safetipin App has been designed both as a tool in the hands of individual women who can access information about safety in the city and as a method of collecting data on a large scale for city authorities to use for better planning and governance. An individual user can conduct a safety audit, pin places where she feels unsafe or has faced any form of harassment. She is also able to see all the information that has been uploaded by others and make informed decisions about moving around the city safely. Women (and men) can see the safety score of any place in the city and can also use it when they visit new cities. For the city authority, Safetipin provides large-scale data and a platform for interaction with citizens on their safety concerns. In order to help city governments, Safetipin data is shared with recommendations. Thus the app is able to show dark areas, unsafe areas, deserted areas and how these can be improved. They are able to respond and citizens can give feedback. It thus is a tool to create safer and more inclusive public spaces in cities.
Technology is one important aspect of smart cities, and it is important to create and share technologies that address the needs of the most vulnerable people in cities. Cities are economic, social and political spaces for people to claim their rights and citizenship. It must be seen as a living organism and the discourse of the smart city needs to engage with citizenship along with services and infrastructures. If smart cities are defined merely by technology and infrastructure, it will remain an alien idea. It is by seeing it within the context of living in a city and the citizen that we can humanise the concept. Along with smart cities, we also need safe, caring and shared cities where more people feel a sense of ownership.
Kalpana Viswanath is co-founder, Safetipin. She has led research studies on violence against women in public spaces in the city.