Using AI for safer cities: How Safecity is helping fight sexual and gender-based crime

By ElsaMarie D’Silva*

Image: RedDot Foundation

A little over eight years ago, I co-founded Safecity along with some friends, as an immediate response to the gang rape of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi. Safecity is a global platform for the anonymous reporting of sexual and gender-based crime. It consists of a web app and mobile apps for Android and iOS devices. Our aim is to collect and analyse crowdsourced data, identifying patterns and key insights. The platform provides a safe space for reporting the crimes and helps to bridge the data gap that exists in official statistics due to under-reporting.

Data is a powerful tool for holding institutions accountable. Upon being presented with Safecity’s data, the police in both Mumbai and Delhi have increased the frequency of patrols and changed beat patrol timings in various neighbourhoods. At Lal Kuan, an urban village in Delhi, our data identified a hotspot where there was a lack of access to public toilets and women were harassed while relieving themselves in the bushes. The public toilets in that locality were locked because local authorities were not willing to maintain and clean them. Safecity’s data and the media pressured authorities to re-open and maintain the public toilets.

In Safecity, each reported incident of crime or harassment is collated as data and geo-tagged on a map to help visually represent the problem. The open source data are available for people to use to improve their situational awareness and as teaching aids, to drive discussion and dialogue in their communities to find solutions, or even to demand accountability from institutional service providers like the police. As the largest crowdmap for sexual and gender-based violence in the world, covering the India, Kenya, Nepal and other countries, we have the ability to analyse data sets and look for patterns and trends by neighbourhoods or location. This enables us to identify key contributing factors to violence, so that we can better understand what makes a space a comfortable zone for a perpetrator.

In the last few years, we partnered with Omdena on several data challenges. Omdena is another global platform, which works to build Artificial Intelligence (AI) models for social good via harnessing the power of a global collaborative community of data scientists, technologists and engineers. We had 32 volunteers working remotely from 14 countries spanning five continents. It was an interesting exercise in predictive modelling where the Safecity dataset for Mumbai and Delhi were used along with other open data to identify probability factors of “safe” and “unsafe” spaces.

The strategy was to clean, analyse and use the data with machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). ML and AI were used in three areas—clustering, classification and deep learning—to identify the shortest and safest path. Deep learning was used to come up with a predictor of future events based on heat maps of past activity. Safest and shortest paths were identified by using a combination of google maps data to locate safe spaces nearby, such as hospitals, with heat map of activity. Various techniques of modelling were used to layer data including infrastructure, such as schools, colleges, hospitals, cinema theatres, public parks and surrounding areas to get a sense of what risk factors might be involved. The diversity of the participants added to the various perspectives of “safe spaces” and potential to identify “safe routes”.

Although data were limited, the participants agreed they could still use AI to make useful predictions. Some improvement areas identified were experimentation with up-sampling of data, deep learning on crime by testing different spatial dimensions (grid size) or timestamps (weeks, months), and the implemention of a padding technique that adds a border to an image, extending the area of the image to be scanned and processed in order to give a more accurate analysis.

Analysing data through the stories was a powerful way to understand the issue of sexual violence, which is also a global pandemic. According to UN Women, one in three women around the world experiences some form of sexual assault at least once in their lifetime. As with any social issue, the lack of data, and thereby the lack of understanding, prevents effective deployment of resources even if there is a mandate to solve it. With exercises such as hackathons and predictive models, we can try to fill the gaps in understanding data and also show what solutions can be possible. The goal of these efforts is prevention rather than punitive measures.

Platforms such as Safecity promote participation and engagement from citizens to create safe environments. As professor Carolyn Whitzman from the University of Melbourne sees it, apps like Safecity allow for the democratization of public spaces by everyone. Using mapping technologies help citizens know where to park their bike safely, or create knowledge that could change or save someone else’s life.  As we collect more data and engage more citizens in breaking the silence, we aim to have more such collaborations with data enthusiasts to help us understand the contributing factors to the violence with the aim to drive solutions.

As John Lewis rightly said, we want to use data to make “Good Trouble” and shake up the status quo. Ultimately a safe city for women and girls is a safer city for all.


* ElsaMarie D’Silva is the Founder of Red Dot Foundation (India) and President of Red Dot Foundation Global (USA). Its platform Safecity, crowdsources personal experiences of sexual violence and abuse in public spaces. ElsaMarie is a 2020 Gratitude Network Fellow, 2019 IWF Fellow and a Reagan Fascell Fellow, a 2018 Yale World Fellow and an alumni of the Stanford Draper Hills Summer School, the US State Department’s Fortune Mentoring Program, Oxford Chevening Gurukul and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Leadership Program. She is also a fellow with Rotary Peace, Aspen New Voices, Vital Voices and a BMW Foundation Responsible Leader. She co-founded the Gender Alliance which is a cross-network initiative bringing together feminists from the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt's Responsible Leaders Network, the Global Diplomacy Lab, the Bosch Alumni Network and Global Leadership Academy Community (by GIZ). She is listed as one of BBC Hindi’s 100 Women and has won several awards including Government of India Niti Aayog’s #WomenTransformingIndia award and The Digital Woman Award in Social Impact by SheThePeople. In 2017, she was awarded the Global Leadership Award by Vital Voices in the presence of Secretary Hillary Clinton. She is also the recipient of Gold Stevie Award for Female Executive of the Year - Government or Non Profit -10 or Less Employees in 2016. 

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