Women's safety? There is an app for that

19 May 2016

“After locking ourselves in a room for more than 6 days, this is what we came out [sic] with. Join us in helping make WOMEN feel SAFE,” read a gloating press release about a smartphone app for women to notify their near ones that they were in distress. It was one among many such PRs frequently landing in my mailbox after the rape and murder of a young student on board a private bus in Delhi in 2012.

The incident had spurred protests across the country and made international headlines. Along with all this came a slew of new “women’s safety” apps. Existing ones, many of which had fizzled out, were conveniently relaunched. My own experience of user-testing such apps in India back then was that they were unreliable at best and dangerously counterproductive at worst. Some of them were endorsed by governments and celebrities and ended up being glorified despite their flaws, their technical and systemic handicaps never acknowledged at all.

There are myriad mobile phone apps meant to be deployed for personal safety, but their basic functioning is more or less the same: the user activates the app (by pressing a button, shaking the device or similar cue), which sends a distress message containing the users’ location to pre-defined contacts. Some apps include additional artefacts such as a short audio or video recording of the situation. Some others augment this mechanism by alerting the police and other agencies best placed to respond to the emergency. For example, the Companion app for students living on campus notifies the university along with police. The SOS buttons in taxi-hailing apps such as Uber enable the user’s contacts to follow the cab’s GPS trail and notify them and the cab company’s “incident response team” of emergencies. Apps such as Kitestring would treat the lack of the user’s response within a time-window as the trigger for a distress message. All their technical wizardry perhaps makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that technology is not a saviour but a tool or an enabler, that technology alone cannot be the panacea of a problem that is deeply complex and, in reality, rooted in society and governance.

The Indian government announced last month that every phone sold in the country from January 2017 should be equipped with a panic button that sends distress flares to the police and a trusted set of contacts. Nearly half the phones sold in India cost USD 100 or less. Prices are kept so low by sacrificing features and the quality of the hardware; there are a lot of phones with substandard GPS modules, poor touchscreens, slow processors, bad cameras, tiny memory, and dismal battery life. They run on different versions of different operating systems, some of them outdated. All of these factors would determine if someone is able to use the app at all and how quickly they and their phone would be able to respond to an emergency. Additionally, mobile phone signals become thin or shaky in areas with a high number of users and buildings located cheek-by-jowl. Even when the mobile hardware is good and the mobile signal usable, GPS accuracy can be spotty and constant location tracking would hog battery. These issues would affect the efficacy of any app. Besides, there is too much uncertainty for an app developer to factor in. (Two years ago, I learnt about an app called Pukar, then operational in collaboration with police departments in four cities in India. Pukar solved the problem of potential inaccuracy of the GPS location by getting the user’s contacts to tell the police where the person in distress might be.) Designing a one-size-fits-all safety app is almost impossible. The app that rings a loud alarm when triggered may save someone’s life or spoil the chances of someone who is trying to get help while hiding. Different people may be vulnerable to different kinds of distress situations and an app can at best be optimised for some target user groups.

An app that does not work in tandem with existing machinery for law enforcement and public safety is a bad idea.

In the end, the “technical” problems may actually be problems of economic disparity. Making it mandatory for people to own phones equipped with certain hardware or requiring them to upgrade to more reliable devices would drive the phones out of the financial reach of many. Indian manufacturers have expressed concerns that the proposed panic button would raise costs for them as well the end buyers. Popularising a downloadable app and informing its target users how to install and work it correctly needs a marketing blitzkrieg, which is something only the state or well-funded developers can afford. The New Delhi police department runs a dedicated control room for reports arriving from its safety app, Himmat (the word for courage in many Indian languages). It’s an expensive affair.

An app that does not work in tandem with existing machinery for law enforcement and public safety is a bad idea. It puts the onus of “keeping women safe” on members of their social circles or on intermediaries and private parties such as cab companies, while absolving law enforcement agencies of their failing to provide security. It opens doors to victim blaming in case someone is unable to use the app at the right time in the right way, or if the app fails.

On the contrary, an app that does loop in the police raises concerns about surveillance and protection of data available to the police, which is especially problematic in places such as India where there is no law for privacy or data protection. Alwar, one of the cities where Pukar was implemented, is super-populated with a large geographical area and a high crime rate. Police departments in such places tend to be overworked and understaffed. Without significant policing reforms, it is questionable whether they will be able to respond in time. A sting operation done by two media outlets on 30 senior officials of the New Delhi police department in 2012 showed the cops blaming victims of sexual violence with gay abandon. “If girls don't stay within their boundaries, if they don't wear appropriate clothes, then naturally there is attraction. This attraction makes men aggressive, prompting them to just do it [sexual assault]," reads one of their nuggets. “It's never easy for the victim [to complain to the police]. Everyone is scared of humiliation. Everyone's wary of media and society. In reality, the ones who complain are only those who have turned rape into a business," goes another. An app that lets known people monitor someone’s location also poses the risk of abuse, coercion and surveillance by intimate partners or members of the family.

Unfortunately, there is no app for reforming a morass in law enforcement or dismantling patriarchy.

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