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Data for change

When you make the city safer for women, you make it safer for everyone. By Prithika Nair

Safety for women is listed as an infrastructure requirement for India's Smart Cities mission
Safety for women is listed as an infrastructure requirement for India's Smart Cities mission

In December 2012, India and the world woke up to the reality that Indian women have lived with for generations. A woman isn’t safe in her city.


The gang rape of a twenty-three year old student in a moving bus in Delhi was so horrific it shocked even a society in which gender violence is practically the norm.


The culture of victim blaming was challenged at last, laws were enacted to widen the legal definition of rape, and systems were put in place to enable swifter justice. India had reached a defining moment. But deeply entrenched gender violence and attitudes, generations in the making, don’t dissipate in a few years.


If women don’t feel safe in a city, the city suffers. Upper middle class women shelter within gated residential communities, drive to offices within gated ‘tech cities’ and disappear from the streets.


Even in a city like Mumbai that has a reputation in India for being a permissive city with a strong and vibrant population of working women, a study found the ratio of women to men was never more than 28 per cent on the street at any given time. This has sparked movements like Why Loitre? with women asserting their right to be in public spaces without an agenda. The vision of what a smart city is can be varied, but if it doesn’t include the missing half of the population in public spaces, that vision is incomplete.


What role can smart cities play in reducing violence against women? In reducing gender violence, there are three main areas that need to be tackled.


The first is attitudes and gender norms, which can only be changed through long-term educational projects in schools, the media etc. The second is getting the institutions to work. Provide the rules, systems, and manpower to ensure the police and the judiciary system can act swiftly in apprehending and convicting perpetrators. The third area is city planning and the design and use of public spaces.


The creation of smart cities is not simply an application of technology to existing frameworks. The momentum, the investment, and the need to take a step back and assess the bigger picture, are factors in smart city development that can be leveraged. They provide the perfect opportunity for governments, citizens, and businesses to start building towards a conflict free future that enables inclusiveness and equality.


India has embarked on a ‘100 Smart Cities mission’ that according to Deloitte is estimated to require an investment of 150 billion dollars from public and private funding. The smart city guidelines on the government website list ten requirements for smart city infrastructure which include the safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly.


The standard corporate response to security is often greater surveillance. In her report for ORF, Meher Soni notes there may be problems with this top down approach. Women live under constant surveillance in society: they are watched and their movements are monitored by their families, by lovers, husbands, or stalkers, and all this watching is justified in the name of safety. CCTV becomes a part of the constant gaze that women are subject to. The empowerment of women under this paternalistic gaze is questionable.


In the wake of the Delhi rape, innovators looked to technology for a solution, and a slew of apps were developed. Panic button apps such as Himmat in Delhi were linked to police control rooms and although this and 40 other ‘safety’ apps have been downloaded thousands of times, none have ever been used.


Even if they did work, these apps are more about emergency response, whereas the truly interesting thing would be if technology can be a tool to change a threatening environment into a non-threatening one.


Some organisations, steered by female tech leaders, have taken a more holistic and bottom-up approach.Elsa Marie D’Silva, launched Safecity in on December 26th 2016, to crowdsource data on sexual harassment and violence. “I want the site to function as a sort of Tripadvisor which allows women to make informed decisions about where they go and how to ensure their safety,” she says.


The data being gathered reveals interesting patterns. In Delhi, verbal and non-verbal abuse is most common, in Mumbai it’s groping, stalking and masturbation, while in Goa chain snatching was a serious issue. “It doesn’t stop there, we’re able to take the data for particular areas and go to the authorities and demand action. In Goa, a campaign of community outreach, altered and increased police patrols, whistle protocols and self-defense classes, have resulted in no new reports of chain snatching since 2013,” says D’Silva.


In other instances Safecity worked with local NGOs to help women communicate with men who were harassing them. Boys had set up a sofa outside a public women’s toilet to watch and intimidate users as they walked in. Activists painted the wall outside with staring eyes and phrases, and posters were put up in surrounding teashops. Within a week, the sofa disappeared. A simple exercise in empathy creation.


Kalpana Viswanathan, a long time activist who worked with Delhi based NGO Jagori, has co-founded tech company Safetipin.


Safetipin creates apps that are also aimed at crowdsourcing data on gender violence. However Safetipin combines the data from the app with other formal safety audits, app reported incidents, and Safetipin Nite. Safetipin also partners with local NGOs, Universities, and government bodies to gather data.


One of the apps not available for public, Safeitpin Nite, is an app on a phone camera, which is attached to a car windscreen as the car drives around at night, capturing thousands of images of the actual conditions of the streets of the city at night. These images are then analysed using the same 9 parameters used in the safety audit, lighting, openness of line of sight, visibility (how many windows and entrances overlook a point), number of people on the street, presence of security, the condition of the footpath, the proximity of public transport, balance of gender usage, and the feeling of security.


The Safetipin Nite app is used in partnership with local governments, and has been used in Bogota (available in Spanish), Nairobi, and New Delhi. In Delhi the app identified around 6,000 dark spaces on the street, something that the Delhi government has promised to address by March 31st 2017. In April, Safetipin will re-audit the city to monitor the results.


Viswanathan is a long-term activist of inclusive urban planning, which is why ‘the feeling of safety’ was included as one of the parameters in the app’s safety audit. “It’s the feeling of safety which determines a woman’s right to use the city, and we are looking at the correlation between the other eight parameters and this feeling of safety, which is really freedom. We found two of the parameters most closely linked to this feeling were lighting, and visibility. Visibility, refer to how active a street is,” she says.


It’s a concept proposed by urban planning activist Jane Jacobs, dubbed, eyes on the street. How many windows, balconies, shop fronts, look out onto the street. Do cafes have outdoor seating? Are there street vendors? Mixed use (commercial and residential) active neighbourhoods make for safer neighbourhoods. For example, Cleveland limits fence heights to four feet in urban garden districts, to enhance natural surveillance. The cherished gated communities and glass towers, which developers in India and elsewhere in the world, love so much are actually making communities less safe, and making cities less welcoming.


The third factor, which strongly correlates to a sense of safety, is the presence of women on the street. “What’s more,” adds Viswanathan, “This is a strong indicator for men as well. A number of men participate in our safety audits, and the presence of women on the street adds to their sense of safety.” A sentiment echoed by D’Silva, “When governments and city planners work on a smart city, they should include women in the consultation phase and make women’s protection an important aspect of planning, because when you make the city safer for women, you make it safer for everyone.”


If you liked this, you may wish to view the following:


Priorities and barriers of implementing smart city technology

A study in the US identifies public safety as a top priority in the use of smart city technologies while budget limitations cited as a top barrier

Next generation controller for smart city lighting

Echelon’s new product extends its multi-application platform and supports its aim to foster safer and more comfortable cities






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