As 22-year-old Yashi Shrivastava walks to college in the Indian city of Jaipur, she inputs data on an app that is helping build a safer environment.

Shrivastava and her friends use Safetipin — an app that maps safe and unsafe areas, which she has also introduced to college exchange students who do not speak local languages. “It gives me a sense of responsibility and a sense of inner safety,” she says.

The app has its origins in the aftermath of the 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi — an incident that sparked nationwide protests over violence against women and highlighted the dangers they face in urban areas.

For Kalpana Viswanath, Safetipin’s co-founder and an expert on gender and urban safety, the key to overcoming those dangers was to get input from young people and crowdsource data on where city authorities were failing to protect the public.

“The idea has always been to [identify] the problems in the city and take that to local governments to actually fix it,” explains Viswanath.

Safetipin co-founder Kalpana Viswanath
Safetipin co-founder Kalpana Viswanath: ‘[If you design] public spaces for women . . . you’re building cities that are more inclusive for everybody’ © Sahiba Chawdhary/FT

The app, which she set up with her husband, tech pioneer Ashish Basu, enables people to input details of elements such as street lighting, CCTV and pavement quality on to a map, along with a perceived safety score. Safetipin then offers safer routes and notifies users of the nearest safe spot in an unsafe area.

It is underpinned by more than 339,000 safety audits, where Safetipin’s data is cross-checked with information from governments and other sources. A separate Safetipin Nite app allows trained staff from local partner organisations to take photos to be turned into data, which can also feed into the audits.

“If you actually start designing safety and cities in public spaces for women . . . you’re building cities that are more inclusive for everybody,” says Viswanath. “That will be children, older people, but also for me.”

Nikita Verma, a 21-year-old user of the app in Jaipur and a member of Cities For You(th), an urban wellbeing project in Rajasthan, agrees. “A city cannot be developed just by asking one person,” she says. “It has to be a collective effort.”

Young women are particularly at risk, says Verma. “Whenever I step out of the house, and I use this app, I’m able to see the blackness of the city . . . The places are not safe. There’s no proper lighting and no proper footpaths.”

Women look at a map in the Safetipin office
Safetipin team members discuss safe routes at their office in the Indian city of Gurugram © Sahiba Chawdhary/FT

Despite the app’s serious goal, it is also meant to be fun. Users receive points for adding information or making referrals, so Shrivastava and her friends treat it as a game. “Like a competition, at the end of the day, we check the score,” she says.

The lessons from the project are particularly relevant to developing countries where infant mortality has been reduced but fertility rates remain high — meaning a large part of the population is comprised of children and young adults.

Safetipin shares its data with city governments and other organisations so they can carry out improvement work. The New Delhi municipal government has used the information to reduce the number of dark spots in the city by more than 60 per cent from 7,438 in 2016 to 2,780 in 2018. The police have also reformulated their patrol routes.

Juma Assiago, global co-ordinator of the Safer Cities Programme at UN-Habitat, explains the importance of walkable cities compared with those built around driving, which “deprive [young people] of the play and walk that they always had . . . that built their sense of citizenship, that sense of community values”. Young people’s walk from home to school is as much a part of their learning as going into the school itself, he argues.

A woman holds a smartphone showing Safetipin app
Mobile data: Safetipin users input information on safe travel routes in their cities © Sahiba Chawdhary/FT

Safetipin is now operating beyond India in 65 cities across 16 countries. One of its partners is Fixed in Johannesburg, an urban safety and community consulting company. Barbara Holtmann, Fixed’s director, says the metrics are common but how important they are depends on the context.

In Cape Town, communities living in informal settlements across the Cape Flats face long journeys with poor sanitation compared with wealthier, middle-class communities along Table Mountain — a legacy of Apartheid. “People say ‘I will send my child closer to the mountain because that’s where the opportunities are’,” Holtmann says.

The key to improving these urban spaces is a partnership between users, community service providers and local authorities, Holtmann adds. “You can’t just go and dump [the app] somewhere.”

Table Mountain in South Africa
Urban landscape: Table Mountain overlooks Cape Town in South Africa © Philip Brown/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Angie Palacios Coello, an urban mobility specialist at CAF Development Bank of Latin America, agrees — contrasting Safetipin’s implementation in Buenos Aires’s favelas with its broader audit of Bogotá, Colombia.

“It doesn’t matter if you work within informal settlements, it still feels separate from the formal city,” she says. “You’re going to have different accessibility issues . . . Moving around in favelas relates more to religion and security. It’s a migrant population, so you have layered issues.”

The challenge, says Palacios, is supplementing Safetipin’s information with more qualitative data, gathered through interviews. “In the participatory mapping we did, we saw differences with the results of the maps that we did with Safetipin,” she says. “And that’s why we do the qualitative part of it, to understand those nuances and gaps of information.”

What becomes clear, Palacios believes, is the need to change how land use is determined. “Is there enough mix of residential buildings and commercial buildings? Are there parks?,” she asks. “It’s not just about putting cement on a road or putting in sidewalks and light.”

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