As the Internet Democracy Project’s research on women’s safety apps has shown, many such apps fail to measure up to the promises they make. But does that mean mobile phone apps have no role to play in making spaces safer for women? Some developers believe taking a different approach in designing one can lead to better results.
I spoke with Prof. Klaus Beier, Leo Reich and Lennart Beier, who have been involved in developing a safety app which does not treat the issue of women’s safety as merely a tech problem to solve.1
How does the app work? The user, who is allowed to use an alias rather than her legal name, can send off a distress signal through the app, which will reach other users of the application who are in the vicinity. These users are selected through what they call a ‘group’ system. Each user has to choose four persons out of her contact list who will be her ‘acquainted bystanders’. But as the probability of one of her acquainted bystanders being in the vicinity at the time of sending a distress alert is quite low, the alert also goes out to any acquainted bystanders of other app users who happen to be in the area. At the time of installation of the app, these bystanders are advised to come to the stop and help in a non-violent way.
At first sight, the app looks like many other apps. So what really is the difference then? The goal itself: this app, which will be available in Hindi, Marathi and English, is focussed on ‘primary prevention’ of sexual assault and harassment - an approach in criminology which, Prof Beier explains, seeks to prevent sexual assault and harassment, as opposed to responding at the time of occurrence.
Read on to know more about how they want to make this happen. This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.
N: How is your application is different from other safety apps in the market?
Prof. Klaus Beier: The app follows an idea of primary prevention. In my experience as a sexologist for 30 years, most sex offenders have one thing in common: they are exploiting situations with low social control. So you would be able to prevent sexual harassment against women if you enhance social control. This is the basic idea.
Lennart Beier: Over the past year, we have been speaking to professionals and our potential user groups. We have been surveying students to see to what extent they are confronted with gender-based violence and how much they would be willing to make a change through active involvement. We have incorporated those inputs into the app, along with the results from our user experience test runs. When we will be online, we are going to be constantly evaluating the functionality on a sociological basis again.
N: Can you expand a bit on what you mean by social control?
K: Social control means that a person - a man, would think he would not face any consequences for his behaviour. There would be no social control about him acting out his behaviour against the woman.
N: Where control over women in general is already high, isn’t there a risk that this will be further aided/strengthened by apps like these? How to ensure that the focus remains on the control of the assaulters, not the women using the app?
L: Our app does not enable users to see the whereabouts of other users. In addition to that, there is no way of disconnecting the distress call from the community and the police, which means that the acquainted bystanders cannot request the location of a user without the entire community also being privy to the distress call. Having the entire community involved increases the accountability of the individuals.
N: Can you take us through your user testing methodology?
L: We started with simple data like the age group of smartphone users and the age group in which most of the incidents are happening, which is between 18 and 35. We have been focusing on students a lot because they are accessible for something like this. And this is also why we tried starting it in Pune - there are lots of students in lots of colleges here.
We have been doing qualitative surveys with support of the former director of the Sociology Department at Pune University. In these qualitative surveys with students, we explain the functionality of apps, and get their feedback. Based on that feedback, we have been doing quantitative surveys in seven universities with 700 students to get further data on the same questions/issues.
N: In some cases the police might not be the best party to go to - so is that a decision that lies with the user? Who decides whether the police comes in or not?
L: The police will always be involved in the distress call. This is a decision that has been taken due to the result of the research we have been doing: 90% of the students surveyed said they prefer police involvement. The police will undergo training and their actions will be monitored. There is a control room which will be run by the people behind the app, which monitors which police person exactly was dedicated to that particular case. These policemen usually work a lot more accurately than those who are not monitored while taking action.
N: When you download apps, they require so many permissions - often more than what’s necessary. Have you been considered user concerns around this?
Leo: It is always a trade-off, but we do not draw any data we do not need at all. For example, to locate users who are close to a distress call, we use low-accuracy location data, in the range of 3-4 km.
N: I’m thinking of a situation where other bystanders come in. Don’t you think there’s a challenge for outsiders to step into someone’s house or someone’s hostel campus ‘interfering’?
L: Of course that is a challenge. The idea is that, through conversations about this application, awareness amongst the community is raised on the particular subject so that the incidents don’t occur in the first place because potential offenders also know: there is a system which might get me caught and there is an entire community that is condemning my behavior or condemning what I’m planning. The community itself is what makes the prevention strong. Standing up is much more difficult to do alone than in a group. We want to encourage standing up by creating a community that does.
N: Is your app already called something?
L: Yeah, the working title is No.
N: Thanks very much for speaking to us, and sharing your work. Good luck with the launch of ‘No’!
The app is expected to be launched in the coming months.