A few years ago, I found myself at a cross roads in life. I was bored with my corporate career and was keen to work in the development sector. I had recently launched Safecity to address gender based violence through crowd sourced data. At the time, I had little clue about what I was going to do with the data or how they could actually make a difference -- besides giving women a safe place for to share their experiences.
So I decided to volunteer with an organisation Haiyya, that mobilises and organises communities around the theme of Public Safety. I teamed up with another volunteer Marie Paul and started to reach out to residents of her community in a ten block radius of the upscale suburb of Bandra, Mumbai.
This was a neighbourhood that on the surface looked great, without any problems and where everyone aspired to live. Our initial investigations revealed that there was a rampant problem of chain snatching (robbing) in Bandra.Almost every week someone or other was robbed or experienced attempted robbery.The robberies would take place even during broad daylight as most of the streets were quite lonely and deserted.The robbers targeted men and women after studying their pattern of behaviour.
Most often, the robbed persons did not report the event to the police as they found them intimidating. Many of them didn’t have the time for the lengthy process of filing a complaint and the tedious regulations associate with it. Most felt that nothing would be done even if they did file a complaint.
Some of those who reported the events had the following experience.
- Usually the police tried to make it a lesser offence by encouraging them to file a “non compliance” (NC) as opposed to a “First Information Report” (FIR).
- The police discouraged the person from filing a FIR by saying that the person would have to make repeated trips to court and the police station as part of the procedures.
- Once the FIR was filed, the person felt that it took forever to get any further information on the case and that the police would deliberately not make any attempt to pursue the matter.
- In some cases, where the person persisted with the case and used “influence” from the politicians etc, they even had their stolen goods returned to them.
The lack of knowledge about their legal rights put them at a disadvantage. Because they were not aware of which events required a NC or FIR, did not know the difference between a NC and a FIR and did not know the process of a FIR and the subsequent steps thereafter, they felt helpless.
Further, we found that residents in this area lived in silos, did not interact with each other closely enough to know that there was a widespread public safety problem and were oblivious that many needed their help.
Marie and I realized we could do something to help. We put a team together and collected residents’ personal experiences through one-on-one interviews, focus group discussions and community meetings. We invited the community to a fair in the local park where we presented the information we gathered from over 150 interviews with residents. Many of the people who attended the fair were surprised by the facts and we asked people if they were interested in collectively finding solutions. They said yes. Some made suggestions for solutions and people voted on what they thought the team should do next to create awareness and work to make the area safer. People were asked to contribute in terms of time, skill and effort.
Based on the inputs from the information fair, a legal workshop was arranged where a local resident lawyer explained the basics of the law – what is a NC and a FIR, what is a person’s legal right when it comes to public safety, etc. More information fairs were held making people aware as well as enrolling more members on the team.
During this time, there was a robbery on one of the streets where the robber entered a 3rd floor apartment and was audacious enough to switch on all of the lights in the house whilst he robbed it. The owner, a senior citizen, was quite disturbed and even though she filed an FIR, she felt the police were not taking the investigation seriously. She approached the team working on public safety in her area with the problem. They (12 members in all) accompanied her to the police station which immediately got the attention of the chief of police of the area. He asked the Inspector in-charge of the case to fast track the investigation. Without the community action, the case would never have received the attention it deserved.
The police chief was surprised to hear about the many incidents that were not recorded at the police station. He said he would accept an informal list of incidents and changed the beat timings of his patrolmen whilst increasing vigilance in some areas at particular times of day. The residents and the core team that we had put together felt really empowered that they were able to bring about the change not only amongst their community but also with the police.
Three years since, the crime rate has reduced significantly, the community is closer than ever before and there is a deeper civic engagement. With the power of the community, it is possible to have your voice heard and accountability demanded.
Having been part of this success story I applied it to my work with Safecity and the problem of sexual harassment and other forms of sexual abuse. I have taken it to other cities and countries where crowdsourced data are used to increase individual situational awareness and drive community engagement to find local solutions.
ElsaMarie D’Silva is the Founder & CEO of Safecity that crowdmaps sexual harassment in public spaces, and is a 2015 Aspen New Voices Fellow & an alumni of the US State Department Exchange Programs. You can follow her on twitter @elsamariedsilva