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Interview: HarassMap Founder Rebecca Chiao

When I first began thinking about this challenge, I remembered hearing about the great work of HarassMap and posted a short overview of their work as a success story. This Cairo-based project uses crowdsourced reports of sexual harassment to inform their public advocacy, volunteer training and community outreach. The conversations about technology, safe spaces, recruiting men to this issue, and community outreach all left me eager to learn more. I reached out to HarassMap's founder Rebecca Chiao, and hope the notes from our conversation are helpful to others.

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Here's a short summary from our conversation: 
  • HarassMap launched with no resources, using free tools like Ushahidi and Frontline SMS.
  • They’ve received about 1,000 volunteers in Egypt and see early signs of success in recruiting people to develop safe areas. Their goal is to change the social norm and deter sexual harassment.
  • When partners are reluctant to sign agreements, they rely on verbal agreements by reading the contract to the partner and then signing for them.
  • The founders are not very tech savvy. Training local developers or team members to troubleshoot tech issues are ways volunteers abroad can help.
  • Their innovative use of tech helped attract press attention, although most of their work happens offline at the community level.
  • Crowd sourced data have helped challenge prevailing views on harassment. For instance, that a large number of harassers are children discredits the excuse that harassment results from sexual frustration and unemployment.
  • Getting people to report harassment is a challenge common to the crowdsourcing projects in different countries
  • They’re optimistic because of the huge growth in volunteering. “People now feel a sense of their own power.”

And the full interview...

How did HarassMap get started?
We started HarassMap because this is something that effects our daily lives. We saw that those working in this field were focused just on top down legal advocacy. Someone needed to focus on social engagement and the social aspect of this problem. Especially in Egypt, changing the law isn’t enough. It needs to be something that people accept. We don’t have much rule of law any ways.

We were just four volunteers, and all had full time jobs. Two co-founders left the country before we launched. So we were really short on resources.

What is HarassMap’s approach?
We target bystanders. Our goal is to create a society that rejects this sexual harassment.

We built a platform using free tools, like Ushahidi. Someone sends us SMS and we send back information about local resources and services for victims of harassment. We use the SMS reports to learn about what’s happening. We publish the data and craft public campaigns to change how people view and respond to harassment.

How has this approach worked?
People make the excuse that harassment is the result of sexual frustration and lack of employment. Our data shows that for a large number of case the harasser was a child -- a prepubescent boy. This discredits the frustration excuse.

On the community level, we’ve received about 1,000 volunteers. We train community captains who at least once a month take a team of volunteers to their own community street and convince bystanders to stand up to harassers. We focus on people with a consistent street presence like doormen and street vendors to set up safe areas. There are four elements to creating a safe area: agreement, training, distribution of materials, monitoring and evaluation.

You actually have people sign agreements?
Small businesses and individuals are often reluctant to sign something so we rely on verbal agreements. HarassMap reads the document, then the partner agrees and HarassMap signs for them.

We have a very detailed policy for what they’ll do if they see harassment occur. We have detailed guidelines for if the harassment is between members of the public or if it includes one of their employees. So this also actually becomes a workplace sexual harassment policy.

What impact do you hope to have with this approach?
If we have enough safe areas, harassers won’t feel able to target women on the street. We want to create a new social norm in the area and deter harassers. Its something that’s huge, complex, risky and difficult.

It’s early still, but we see some signs of success. There’s one safe area with a very enthusiastic participant who has been spreading the world. People on his street that we haven’t talked to are now talking about “zero tolerance” and “safe area.” That’s our language, and it spread.

What have been some of your challenges?
The social and political instability makes planning and logistics very difficult.  For instance, we had a three hour planning meeting today and just afterwards, we learned that the government just resigned. Nobody expected that, and in general no one knows what will happen next. Maybe everything will be quiet, maybe there will be protests, or maybe there will be street battles. There are explosions and street battles constantly. We might plan a training, pay for the venue and food, but then everyone will stay inside because of new violence.

Schools have been delayed in opening until March 8th, and there are rumors they will be closed for the entire second term. We have plans for trainings at schools but don’t know when we’ll be able to start.

Also, society is becoming more polarized. When we started in 2010, we were surprised how willing people in the street were to engage on this issues. Back then 8 in 10 people that we talked to agreed with us by the end of the conversation. Now, that’s unheard of. They want to fight about it. They already have their opinion and don’t really want to discuss the issue.

We do the best we can and constantly evaluate and adjust our methods, arguments and activities. It’s better than doing nothing.  

What are you most optimistic about?
There’s now a huge interest in volunteering. Before 2011, people felt powerless to change social problems - they felt change must come top-down from the police or government. Since 2011, we never hear this. People want to get involved, and they’re starting their own groups. This is really exciting. There is a lot of diversity of efforts, and the willingness to engage on a social issue is really encouraging. People now feel a sense of their own power.

How can people outside of Egypt help?
We have this integrated online / offline approach, but we’re not very technologically savvy. So we always need help with troubleshooting Ushahidi and Frontline SMS and having a local developer is always better. The issue we’ve run into is that there are lots of people who have these skills elsewhere but very few in Egypt. We’d love a way for people on the outside to train a corps of developers here in Egypt to develop permanent and sustainable local capacity on these skills.

There’s certain expertise thats not very well developed here. The same thing happened for monitoring and evaluation. We received a grant to formalize our monitoring, but it’s taken a year to recruit someone. The Engine Room is a group that's coaching us on developing a framework, indicators and ways to use them without overwhelming our work. They’re awesome.

Donations help too, of course.

HarassMap has spread globally. How have you been involved?
We’re trying to be as helpful as we can. This is a great community to be in. Its very collaborative, very open source. In the first year, we were contacted by people within 24 countries. The number of countries hasn’t increased but more groups are active within those countries. So now we have 5 different groups in India. We can’t follow them but try to be available when they ask for support.

Are there any common themes across those countries that you’ve observed?
Everything needs to be adapted locally. What works in Egypt doesn’t work in Canada. The context of the issue differs, but for us India is very close in terms of how harassment is seen and the social environment. For the others, its very different.

We all struggle though with the technology and struggle with getting people to report. In India, if you tried to stop a harasser, people would yell at you. So now we’re trying to increase reporting. Its a problem that all crowd sourcing groups face. We don’t have any incentive or any legal framework. The police don’t care and don’t follow up on our reports.

What have you seen in terms of technology adoption and how tech can help?
Egypt had a 97% phone ownership, now its like 110%. Egypt is good in terms of technology access. SMS offers the access to many more than the Internet, but we found few people use SMS to send us reports. Most people use the webform. Its something that we need to think more about. Smartphone use is growing so we’re building an app to make Harassmap more interactive.

Have media organizations been helpful?
We have a lot of media coverage. Its a pretty well talked about issue now. It wasn’t before we started, but now it is.

Our use of technology is probably what attracted so much media coverage of our work, even though our main activities are focused on community level work. The impact of this wide media coverage was that more people in Egypt than we could have ever reached ourselves now know about our program and can get involved.


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Jason, I'm getting the sense you might be interested in something called "Civic Media" at the MIT Media Lab. They work at the intersection of open government, innovation, and community-strengthening. Here is a tool that I thought you might find interesting:

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