Interview: Kalpana Viswanath on Safetipin and community and women’s safety

IUKDPF’s Supriya Roychoudhury speaks with Kalpana Viswanath, Co-Founder of Safetipin, a mobile app developed to support community and women’s safety. Safetipin was started in 2013 and has worked with city and municipal governments in more than 15 cities in India and globally. She has worked with the Delhi government since 2009 to help build programmes to address women’s safety. She shares with us her journey so far, highlights potential opportunities for South-South Cooperation for inclusive and resilient urbanisation, and discusses the challenges thrown up by Covid-19 for women. This interview has been edited for clarity.

SR: Let me start by asking you about the origin story of Safetipin. Why did you feel the need to develop this app?

Kalpana Viswanath

KV: Many women’s safety apps came out in 2013 – the year we launched Safetipin. Most of these apps were emergency apps that had basically been developed by technology firms, by people who felt very moved by the issue of women’s safety. ‘What can we do to make women feel safe? Let’s build this emergency app’ seemed to be the general line of thinking. Back then, there were so many articles on the ‘top ten safety apps’. But if you look at the articles that come out now, Safetipin is practically the only one that gets mention; we’re only ones who stayed the course. And I think it’s because we had a very good technology design person in-house, as well as a gender and urban safety expert. This combination allowed us to a build a robust technology with the idea of getting to the heart of what women really wanted. For us, it was about trying to bring about social change; it wasn’t just about pressing a button to access the police faster. We also recognised that it wasn’t just about putting a tool into the woman’s hands because the truth is, many women do not own smartphones. So we really focused our work on taking women’s voices to government.

SR: Safetipin was developed in Delhi, but today it is being used widely in other parts of the world, across cities in Latin America and South East Asia, for example. What explains Safetipin’s global reach and resonance? What kind of collaborations, networks and partnerships enabled this knowledge and technology to diffuse to other parts of the Global South?

KV: Yes, so we did start in Delhi. I had already been working on safe cities before that and was a part of various networks already: UN Habitat and UN Women, for example. I had consulted on several safe cities projects globally, so when we launched the product, we were already on a good footing. Various partners and donors helped us along the way. Initially, when my co-founder – my husband – and I developed this product, we really had no intention of starting a company, the idea was really just to put the product out there. But then DFID came in and actually supported us. In fact, DFID was our first donor. It was through their support that we built the app, set up an office, and had a big launch event in partnership with the Hindustan Times at the British Council. We received a lot of support upfront just in terms of socialising it within India.

So how did we go to other places? We built the app in 2013. In November of 2013, literally two weeks after our launch event, I had gone to Bogota for a conference that had been organised by the City of Bogota, on women’s safety and violence against women. After listening to our presentation at the conference, they reached out to us. They eventually had the app translated into Spanish. That turned out to be a really good partnership, not least because the Government of Bogota have very high GIS capabilities themselves – they know what to do with the data. And then in 2018, they won a grant from the GIZ, for which we were invited to map the city of Bogota. We were able to partner with Bogota with three different mayors; they really recognised the value of the tool and the data. Our partnership with the City of Bogota has actually been one of our most interesting and long lasting ones in some ways. We’ve also worked collaboratively with UN agencies. In 2015, we won the Cities Alliance grant to study and map three cities – we chose Bogota, Delhi and Nairobi. In Bogota and Delhi, we had partnerships in place already; in Nairobi we partnered with UN Habitat. The data which emerged from the mapping exercise in Nairobi was shared at a huge event at which the Mayor was present. The City of Nairobi also used the data to make some public space interventions in the centre of the city. We have also partnered with UN Women in several cities in India, and elsewhere too, like Manila, and PNG.

SR: I understand that the parameters you’ve developed to assess the safety of spaces within the city has been heavily inspired by the Safety Audit you designed and led at Jagori. How are these parameters modified or tweaked to reflect the particular conditions of the different geographies in which the app is used?

KV: While the My Safetipin app remains the same wherever you go in the world, we have other customisable data collection tools. Safetipin Nite basically allows you to capture images of the city (this is done by done by mounting the phone with the app on it, to a moving vehicle) and analyse them both manually as well as through machine learning. And then there is another tool called Safetipin Site, which is a customisable tool to collect data on selected public places, through detailed questionnaires, pictures, and spatial data. These two tools are customised for each client. If a city wants to study a metro station site, for example, we build a tool to do that. These tools are very specific data collection tools, not based on crowdsourced data like the main Safetipin app. Another example of customising the data collection process to meet the requirements of the client would be the case of the City of Bogota – which was interested in partnering with us to audit Bogota’s bike lanes. So instead of sending out cars to collect the data, we engaged with the biking community to attach the phones (and the Safetipin Nite app on it) to their bikes in order to map out the city’s lanes.

SR: How have you engaged with Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), given their increasing attention to inclusive urbanisation and infrastructures?

KV: We’ve been doing a lot of work with the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), through our partnerships with city governments. The way it works is that we meet with city agreements, they agree to use the app’s data for their urban planning processes, and the banks then come on board. So our work with these banks is never done independently of cities and their agendas.

SR: As city governments become more active as agents of change in global development, what are the possibilities for city to city learning and exchange of best practice? What kinds of best practices in gender-sensitive urbanisation might Indian cities offer to other global cities located in both the North and South? And similarly, what kinds of best practices from other global cities could inspire co-learning by India?

KV: One of the examples of best practice I would point towards is the Delhi government’s work around last mile connectivity, its improvement of metro stations, and its free bus ride scheme for women. Mumbai has some best practices in place as well – the gender equality component of their development plan is very far reaching. Delhi is currently developing its masterplan, and many of us have been quite involved in gendering that plan. I think initiatives like these have been interesting. Many cities have been particularly invested in police-based initiatives, for example, stationing policewomen in public spaces, and so on, but their impact is not always clear. A lot of these initiatives are about moral policing; it’s less about protecting women. You also have examples of women police desks – but these are all policing initiatives, not inclusive urbanisation initiatives. There are a lot of good practices in other places as well. Vienna’s integration of a gender lens into its urban design is one such example. Seoul has done a lot of interesting work too, around public transport and access to emergency services. For example, the Seoul government has partnered with the 7/11s, training their staff at the counters to shelter these women and call for help. They’ve also done some work to make parks more gender-friendly.

SR: With Covid-19, we’ve seen how disasters and emergencies can significantly heighten the vulnerabilities of women in both private and public spaces. Was there an upsurge in the use of the app during the pandemic? What did the pandemic reveal in terms of the types of interventions needed to make cities more responsive to the needs of women during periods of crisis or disaster?

KV: During the pandemic, usage of the app actually subsided as women had stopped going out. But as cities start to open up, we are trying to do some mapping to see whether there have been any changes in how people access public spaces. One thing we did do during the lockdown was to introduce a feature on our app called ‘find help’. Basically, it gives the user information on the nearest police station, women’s shelter, and women’s organisation/NGO, wherever they are. We had never actually dealt with domestic violence issues before, but we felt that it was important to provide this information during this time, so we added this feature – with support from one of our donors. We did this in August of last year, and we find that women continue to use it. One of the interesting ways in which this app’s data is being used by women in the city, more generally (not just in the Covid 19 context), is in their decision-making around renting houses. We have found that young, and especially single, women often look at our safety scores before deciding whether to live or rent a place in a particular neighbourhood.

SR: While advocating for more inclusive and gender-responsive cities in your interactions with city governments, where have you encountered maximum traction? Where have you experienced pushback?

KV: I find a certain receptivity to this agenda among city stakeholders across the board, whether that is the political class, the bureaucracy, or civil society. Even organisations that do not otherwise work on women’s safety, have started to do so over the last 3-4 years. They’ve taken on the agenda of women’s safety and mobility. No organisation today is talking about mobility without also addressing issues around gender. I think the decarbonisation debate is one that is will increasingly become a gendered one. I think there is definitely an understanding within cities about the interlinkages between walkability, mobility, public transport, security, safety, disability access. It’s not a struggle anymore to get city governments to want to do these things. There is a growing sense within city governments that women’s safety and all that it leads to is a valid concern. But many decisionmakers continue to be fixated with a securised approach to women’s safety – installing CCTV cameras and maximising lighting. There isn’t much willingness to move beyond that. What we at Safetipin are trying to do is to engage stakeholders in wider debates – and to push the conversation beyond security, to one that is about mobility, walkability, and improved access to public transport.

SR: Kalpana, thank you so much