There are certain neighborhoods that you just can’t walk around in at night. It’s hard to explain, but the only thing you know is that being there leaves you with a creeping, niggling feeling. How do you report this feeling without sounding crazy? What makes people feel safe when they’re in a neighborhood? Wide streets? Bright lights? A certain number of cars?
The two founders of Safetipin, Ashish Basu, and Kalpana Vishwanath, have narrowed safety down to nine factors: lighting, openness, visibility, people density, security, walk path, transportation in the area, and feeling.
Safetipin crowdsources information on these nine factors in order to paint an accurate and transparent picture of cities.
The first eight work as independent variables, or factors that are measured on their own in the physical world. The last, “feeling”, counts as a dependent variable and is observed in conjunction with the first eight. “To explain a tangible like “feeling”, you need backup data,” explains Ashish. “We use the preceding data to understand changes in it.”
Once a certain number of these audits are conducted in an area, they are aggregated to create a “safety score”. Safety scores range from one to ten and are represented in that order by green, amber, or red pins. Audits can be shared on social networks and users can create “walls” about certain areas that will then allow them to post info online like broken traffic lights and bad roads.
These are all accessible on Safetipin’s app, which also provides access to information about amenities like 24-hour pharmacies and ATMs. Among other things, the app also acts as a GPS tracker. “It’s over-configured,” Ashish jokes. The app is available in English, Hindi, Bahasa, Spanish, and Mandarin and has had over 40,000 contributions. It eventually hopes to cover 100 cities across South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America and currently works in one city in each of these areas: Jakarta, Bogota, Nairobi, and Delhi.
The difficult thing about crowdsourcing information is maintaining quantity and quality.
In India, Safetipin has been launched in what is known as the country’s “rape capital”, Delhi. While that’s a horrible and degrading way to describe a city – as if rapes can be quantified and addressed in the same way that a certain number of startups can define a “startup capital” or a proliferation of food stalls can define a “street food capital” – the number of reported rapes in Delhi are more than anywhere else in the country. Reported cases doubled from 706 to 1,638 between 2012 and 2013. Last year saw 2,166 reported rape cases.
However, it is important to remember that this does not necessarily mean that the number of rapes are increasing. In fact, it might actually be a positive thing – perhaps, more people are reporting rape cases than ever before.
“More data is better data,” Ashish explains. “That was something important that we had to learn. You can’t have a sample size of two people telling you that an area is unsafe. You’re looking for more information.”
Because it can be unattractive for a business to exist in an unsafe area, some people go so far as to lie on these services. In order to address this problem, Ashish explains that the amount of data that the app has is important. “If you look at it in pure mathematical terms, those who fabricate numbers will be outliers.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to get these numbers. Particularly in apps that rely on social interaction like Safetipin, it can be difficult to motivate users to contribute. “The interesting trend was that many people would download the app but would then stop at one or two audits,” reminisces Ashish. “We tried everything from target groups to send out a rubric based set of questions. Eventually we found a bunch of volunteers who helped us crowdsource information.” With more contribution and change, however, the app has picked up. “That’s how behavior works on social networks,” says Ashish. “Once the ball gets rolling, it takes a lot to stop it.”
The collection of data has also improved after Safetipin had the opportunity to tie up with more mobilizing methods. In September, it partnered with Uber. This partnership arrived after the taxi-hailing app got into hot water when a woman accused a driver of raping her. He was sentenced to life in prison in November. Uber’s partnership with Safetipin meant that the organization would function across Bangalore, Mumbai, Gurgaon and Noida. Drivers would install an outward-facing camera on their dashboards and take photos of different parts of cities as they drove around. The data would be sent back to Safetipin who would then use their parameters to identify safety scores.
The police have also been helpful in mobilizing Safetipin’s data collection. “There are some parts of town that are so dangerous that taxi cabs won’t even enter them,” says Ashish. “There, the police has helped us by installing CCTV cameras and giving us the data.”
Although Safetipin can collect tons of data, it won’t matter unless people care about safety scores. “It’s a movement that needs to happen,” he explains. “That’s by far been the most challenging and exciting aspect of Safetipin.”
The app is a win-win on both sides: once it’s been popularized, a green light on the Safetipin app can mean more business for a hotel or restaurant. It can up the nightlife in an area and even change real estate trends. “We’re essentially a big data company,” says Ashish. “It’s up to everyone else to decide what they want to do with it.”
Another example of a similar initiative is SafeCity, an organization that provides a platform to file sexual harassment reports on specific locations uses them to distinguish unsafe hotspots on a map. These hotspots then help identify trends of sexual harassment in public areas.
While there exist other services that use data collection and technology in order to improve safety in India, there definitely aren’t enough. “We still are essentially a big data startup,” explains Ashish, who’s been married to Kalpana for several years. “My wife and I are from two different worlds. Kalpana is from the social sector and she’s been doing safety audits for years. I’m a techie who believes that change can only happen if you measure things. Together, we want to find a middle ground that fits with the way the world works today.”