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State of the App in Fighting Sexual Harassment

BY Tin Geber | Tuesday, April 22 2014

A woman in Cairo holds a sign that reads: I wish I could walk around without being hurt by inappropriate words (UN Women/flickr)

There is little doubt that sexual harassment represents a cultural and social pandemic. Verbal and physical assaults are disturbingly commonplace, and despite widespread social campaigns, show little signs of abetting. So it’s not surprising that policy makers and advocacy groups are turning to technology, hoping that data and mobile apps can play a role in stemming incidents of sexual harassment and violence, maybe even addressing cultural patterns and social norms.

This turn is marked by optimism in the press and in government efforts, as well as a proliferation of independent initiatives. And while “throwing technology at it” is usually a recipe for disaster (or at the very least a recipe for flashy activity without meaningful impact), some tech solutions for prevention of sexual harassment seem to be hitting the nail on the head. It remains unclear, however, what technology can do beyond stopping and reporting individual assaults. Can apps and data play a role in promoting cultural shifts and long-term behavioral change?

Timing Prevention

One can distinguish between apps for reporting sexual harassment or assault after the fact, and those that also have a preventive, or real time approach. Post-facto reporting platforms on sexual harassment, like HarassMap in Egypt (as previously reported by techPresident) and Safe City in India, have a very important role to play, even if they don’t provide real-time prevention. In the case of HarassMap, online mapping put a spotlight on the issues of street harassment, and provided an important reporting tool during the Arab Spring and onwards. Hollaback is another example of how reporting and aggregating stories provide powerful material for campaigning. By “collecting women and LGBTQ folks’ stories and pictures in a safe and share-able way with our very own mobile phone applications,” the organization has built a network spanning 24 countries.

Post-facto reporting can play a crucial role in advocacy, fueling dynamics of change around sexual harassment with dialogue and anecdotal evidence. But mobile apps can do much more: they have the strong benefit of being physically accessible at any moment, thus offering a unique opportunity for prevention.

Circle of 6 is a good example of an app that creates a conversation and prevention mechanism between the user and their close circle of connections. It implements different levels for interacting: from low-danger situations like an uncomfortable dinner date where a simple distraction is enough, to requests for physical assistance when the user feels their safety is at risk. According to Nancy Schwartzman, CEO of Tech4Good and founder of Circle of 6:

Circle of 6 was designed after extensive conversations and workshopping with our target users. Students rely on their friends for advice an in emergencies, before reaching out to authorities, we wanted to strengthen their existing networks and create a tool that is both useful and empowering.

Another example is Crisis Text Line, which connects teenagers to “free, 24/7 support” through SMS. This makes it easier for youth to ask for help because it reduces social interaction requirements. It also enables volunteers to follow multiple conversations at the same time, optimizing the response rate. Crisis Text Line are also working with MIT to develop a dashboard for counselors, which will use natural language processing to filter and prioritize incoming texts, promising to make the prompt and meaningful support even more efficient.

These kinds of apps should strive to be more than variations of the “big red button”: a one-click alarm that connects users to police, campus security or other public services. While that functionality can have an important deterrent effect, it can also risk escalating the situation. In addition, these deterrents are only useful when the danger is clear and obvious. Sexual assault isn’t black and white: RAINN reports that 73% of sexual assaults in the U.S. are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. This raises the question of whether mobile apps designed to influence community can create deeper and more meaningful engagement than a simple “stranger danger” mechanism.

This is the logic behind Circle of 6: by having users choose six people closest to them, every installed app sparks six conversations around safety and harm reduction. This means that their user base of 120,000 installed apps may well have started more than half a million conversations.

Repercussions and Responsible Design

Thinking about the unintended consequences of these technologies is also important to consider when evaluating the efficacy of these apps. With mobile apps, action is just a tap away. However, this ease and speed of use might cause casual (or intentional) misuse, especially if the app itself isn’t designed around concepts of safety, anonymity and privacy.

Providing anonymous tools for victims to use without fear of repercussions or mandatory law enforcement involvement has clear benefits. However, even if all collected data is anonymized, some information, like geospatial coordinates, can still put other people at risk. Geotagging is especially problematic if we look at smaller communities like college campuses. For example, if someone anonymously reports that they have been sexually assaulted in a dormitory, and that information ends up on a public map, every person residing in that dorm can be considered a possible sexual assailant. Or if several reports file in about a certain location: what is the community’s obligation to act on that information?

Anti-harassment mobile apps should strive to provide safe and comfortable interaction, and anonymity is a big part of that. However, it should be the app developers’ prerogative to ensure that the app interacts and documents in an ethically responsible and safe way, with an eye toward avoiding false positives and misleading data.

Institutional Support

Governments and public institutions collect huge amounts of data on sexual harassment that can empower anti-harassment apps. For this to work, we need robust collaboration mechanisms between government and civil society.

The U.S. government is starting to recognize the power of data, and has begun creating spaces for citizens to develop apps for prevention and change (Circle of 6, mentioned above, was among the winners of the 2011 White House “Apps against Abuse” technology challenge).

In early April 2014, the Office of the US CTO at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy held a Data Jam to find data-driven strategies for protecting students from sexual assault. The Jam collected more than 60 innovative minds from the USA and abroad. They were evenly split between policy, advocacy and campaigning experts on one side, and technologists, coders and data experts on the other. The goal was to dig into a number of disparate datasets that collect information about sexual assault on campuses, (including Title IX compliance, Clery Act reports, and Dept. of Justice data), and brainstorm tools that can empower college students in combating sexual assault.

The Data Jam sparked a number of cool, robust and potentially empowering ideas, ranging from intervention apps for fraternities to complex systems of college reporting indicators (read more about the excellent outputs on the White House blog). But despite inspiring outputs, the Jam only scratched the surface. The one-day format wasn’t enough for participants to actually tackle and wrangle the datasets themselves, mostly because of comparability issues and the lack of machine-readable content.

This shows that more time and resources are needed to cover the gap between official information collection mechanisms, and innovative tools to leverage that information.

Looking Forward

Eight out of 10 American teenage girls report to have experienced sexual harassment as well as almost 50 percent of all women in the EU, according to UNWomen. It is time to reflect deeply and meaningfully on the current tools and techniques that work toward safety from abuse — because something can clearly be done better. It is inspiring to see the U.S. government’s commitment towards enabling innovative approaches. It is also humbling to see so many organizations and people dedicate their lives to finding ways of enacting positive change around perceptions of sexual equality and respect.

Mobile apps hold great power, but run the risk of being reduced to simple alert buttons, technological whistles, or basic reporting forms. App developers and institutions need to make sure they are creating dialogues: safe, inclusive spaces for engagement that empower communities and protect their users. Doing so can leverage the power of technology not just for instant communication, but for the kinds of cultural attitude shifts and strong communities that might enable long-term change.

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