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Design Constraints & Safety Mapping Apps

What might it take to extend the power of safety mapping applications to low-income communities in cities like Delhi and Kathmandu?

Photo of Sean Hewens

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I’m a huge fan of maps and cartography, so I’ve been very excited about some of the safety mapping applications posted to this Amplify challenge. Other mapping inspiration for me has been the WSUP Smart Life project in Nairobi (where the team mapped the entire community so that it could make clean drinking water deliveries throughout the neighborhood) and the MapKibera project (also in Kenya).

With that in mind, I want to be very enthusiastic about mapping applications and their potential to make neighborhoods safter for women and girls. That said, these two weeks in the field has also made me aware of serious design constraints that we must consider if the power of safety mapping applications are to have a beneficial impact for women and girls living in low-income communities. In no particular order, here are four constraints to consider:

1) Lots of people don’t use maps:
Riding in the backseat of our taxi cab, attempting to navigate the complicated streets of Delhi, we’ve been lost many times. For the most part, our cabdrivers have an amazing sense of direction. That said, when they get close to our destination, the blocks and addresses start making less logical sense. What happens at this point? We pull over the car and start asking people on the street for directions. Everyone is friendly and seems to love giving directions and we eventually get to our destination. But what’s interesting is that we’ll often pull up Google maps on our phone and attempt to help our driver. For the most part, they aren’t interested. Or, they’ll look at the map on our phone, and then stop the car ten feet later and ask again for directions, just to double-check what they saw on the map. Would a safety map (highlighting the dangerous and safe places in a community) have any relevance for the women living in various low-income communities in Delhi?

2) Many, many communities are off the mapping grid.
We spent several days in Delhi meeting with people living in various low-income communities talking about safety and security issues. I remember one community in particular in Delhi which was full of homes originally built for retired soldiers from the Indian army. While the neighborhood was definitely lower-middle class, it also wasn’t an informal settlement at all. There were freestanding houses and electricity and laundry hung from every available drying spot. Yet the community was also full of small alleys and tiny pathways between houses that become unsafe places for women and girls to walk alone after dark. We spoke with a women named Bhawana (a graduate from the Feminist Access to Technology computer program) and we asked her if there was a map of her community. She said no. She’d never seen a map of the community. And Google maps reflects this fact. The dangerous places in this community are not currently on any map. So a safety mapping application for her community wouldn’t be so helpful, at least not until someone created a map of the community first. And what of the informal settlements populated by the true base of the pyramid around Delhi? If streets containing houses built by the Indian military aren’t on the map, the pathways between the popup slums are even further off the mapping grid.

3) What about safety hazards that are moving?
This week our team has been in Kathmandu, Nepal. A huge theme from the women and girls we’ve been speaking with is how public transportation is unsafe for women. A crowded bus is too often an excuse for men to harass or grope women. This harassment seems to be borderline ubiquitous. We met with a group of home-based workers who sew clothing from their homes located in a neighborhood outside Kathmandu. When they need to ride into the city center to sell their merchandise or obtain new supplies, they face a two hour bus commute where there is a constant concern that they will be harassed by men on the bus. The problem is sometimes worse for the factory workers here, who often leave work past 7pm, when it’s dark, and so are the bus stops and often the busses themselves. If we were to create a map of unsafe places in Kathmandu, how might it highlight particular busses or bus routes? In this case, it doesn’t appear to be an unsafe place in the city, but an unsafe mode of transport.

4) Mobile apps are not accessible to most low-income women and girls
My colleauge — Shauna Carey — has highlighted this in her post, but the bulk of lower-income women we’ve met in Delhi and Kathmandu do not have smartphones. As such, safety mapping apps are largely tools available to middle or high income people with smartphones and internet access on those phones. How might we extend the potential power of safety mapping applications to the vast majority of women that we’ve met on this trip who have only simple feature phones or no phones at all?


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Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi. Thanks for getting the conversation going on mapping. There are so many interesting insights on this "research" post. In my experience working in densely populated neighborhoods in NYC, I have found that the families I have served have the area mapped in their minds. They have extended family and friends living nearby, they have eyes on the street and they recognize change quickly. There are multiple networks like this within neighborhoods and they reflect the multiple communities that live and work there. Some of the people I served were illiterate. In these cases signs, community blackboards, would not be useful. They relied on verbal direction from friends on the street, visual cues in the landscape, and if need be their children to read for them. (For this population auditory information using basic cell phones would be helpful.) Tapping into these networks and creating opportunities in which they can share their overlapping information is key.

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