I sleep for a couple of hours every night – sometimes two, sometimes four. I’m usually on my phone and social media round the clock, sometimes to the point where friends and family think I don’t sleep. But that night, when I had a message, asking for help, I was asleep. The guilt for not being up ate me up, and kicked me into action.
Recently, a distraught friend who had just moved to the United Kingdom after her wedding early last year had left me sixteen messages on WhatsApp, asking for help. She was caught without a way out of the abusive relationship for many months. Her husband monitored her phone and laptop, and locked the house whenever he left it, leaving her behind. He beat her, often times being aggravated when she screamed for mercy, as I would find out much later. On many days, she slept without food because he didn’t let her eat. I would learn later, that she had been putting up with this for close to thirteen months. She couldn’t use her phone to Google the nearest shelter or emergency support services that she could approach – because using her phone meant that he could trace her. After sending me the messages, she pulled out her SIM Card and cut it up, left her phone behind, and managed to slip out of the house since he had forgotten to lock it. She made her way to the closest railway station, not knowing where to go. As a foreigner who still had to become a citizen, she wasn’t aware of what rights she had on foreign soil. She spent a day switching trains until she could muster enough courage to call home and tell her parents in India, and to ask for their help. With her mother’s help, they were able to get in touch with a shelter, where she was taken care of. Her father brought her back to India, where she now lives, while proceedings for her divorce are underway.
Her story shook me up. She had put her trust in me, and I was asleep at a time I normally wasn’t. What if there were many women like her, seeking help across oceans, simply because they didn’t know where to go to seek help around them? What if, many of them continue to be vulnerable to abuse and violence, and simply can’t seek help because they have no access to resources or conversations or even a chance to browse online?
I wanted to do something about it. I spent a couple of weeks talking to women to understand the factors that could possibly hinder one’s access to crisis response. Most of the obvious ones were no brainers: lack of money, lack of awareness, lack of knowledge of a foreign language if they were on foreign turf. Then came the ones that were harsh to digest. One survivor told me that she was afraid to use the browser to Google help because it left traces on the browser history – and she was always worried about forgetting to erase the entries in her nervousness. Another survivor told me that her former partner had installed spyware in her system – and she had no idea of it because it was so inconspicuous. An aid working volunteer told me that the fear came from the inability to verify the authenticity of a care provider – given the fact that many organizations are forced to cut down on number of intakes or even shut shop for want of funds, or sometimes, cut down on specific services and programs.
I had kicked the hornet’s nest. I was dealing with something that was so huge, that it was no exaggeration to say that the nuances had nuances.
I spent restless hours wondering how I could plug the gap. There were many dimensions to this, and I wanted to start somewhere. The idea then struck me: what if there was a way that I could verify organizations in as many cities around the world as possible, and present the data so that women anywhere could access a service they most needed? What if, then, this mapped data could then feed into a mobile app that could be accessed by women anywhere? So, then, a mother in India could get in touch with a shelter or the police in the UK to ensure that her daughter was rescued, or a girl in Singapore could help her sister in Ireland access urgent medical care by accessing the resource appropriately for her.
I decided that I would use digital technology to help knock the huge gap between services and victims in need of services, by using digital technology to facilitate access. I had no idea how big a bite I had taken – and only started realizing when I began to chew.
My team at The Red Elephant Foundation was neck deep with many deliverables, and it seemed unfair of me to expect them to handle this. After a preliminary call and recruiting two of them (Laura Donati and Manmeet Kaur) to the task, I got onto the UN Online Volunteering site, and found a team of volunteers (comprising Abubakar Abdullahi, Alka Mann, Georges Gedeonachi, Heather Thomas, Lance Orwa, Luqman Rabe and Prathyusha Sadhu – BIG SHOUT OUT, team!). We split up a massive list of 197 countries among us. Some took a one or two, some took ten, some took a few and slowly added to the list. By the end of two months, we had a list of about 5000 organizations world over, providing aid to women who had survived violence. After I collected data and the team shared what they collected with me, I spent each night verifying that the organizations were functional: inquiry calls to their lines, online website verification, their social media presence, and conversations with people in the areas these organizations were in.
Slowly, when the map was taking shape, members of my team and I had a few conversations. There were whole countries – such as North Korea and Syria, that appear not to have comprehensive services. There were several segments of nations such as far Eastern Russia, parts of Central Asia and Africa, that had little to no data that was accessible – and information on ground didn’t really give us as much as we would have liked to know. By then, it had also become apparent that we couldn’t have all the answers, and find all organizations in all cities of the world – although the aim is to get there. That was when we decided that we would make it a crowdsourced map, where people could submit reports of organizations that we could verify and then add to the map.
Soon, I decided to build the data into a crowdmap, and as I found, or as my team found entries, I kept adding them to the map. Inspired by Harassmap and Safecity, I realized that there was a sense of clarity, ease and fluidity when data is visualized – as opposed to a downloadable directory or a pair of dropdown menus. This data when visualized, helped one see where there weren’t enough resources available – so even potential aid providers could establish initiatives accordingly – to cover areas that were hitherto unattended to. This made it important to retain the visual presentation of the data we found. We split up the data into Legal help, Medical help, Resources (Food, Shelter, Clothing and Supplies), Education and Empowerment Programs, Police and Ambulance services and mapped them with colour codes.
Meanwhile, when we crossed mapping about 97 countries, I made the map URL live on our website. We assumed no one would have noticed it, and went about data mining. Little did we know that the impact was taking shape. A young lady in Sri Lanka was suspicious of her sister’s behaviour. Her sister, married and settled for close to three years in Europe (specific geolocation avoided on request of the subject), would call home once in a fortnight. Between long periods of silence, she called home and spoke very breezily, as though everything were normal. Something about her sister’s mannerisms gave her away, and it became apparent to the young lady back home in Sri Lanka, that things were not normal. She got clever about making her sister open up to her, and with a lot of code language and monosyllabic responses, she realized that her sister was facing violence. The young lady reads our stories and follows our website – and in her curiosity, had stumbled on the link to the map. As luck would have had it, we had mapped a bunch of crisis response centres in the city she was in. She called the one closest to her sister’s place, and with the help of the police, her sister was rescued.
At some point in the process, I was beginning to wonder if this task I had taken on made sense at all: but the Universe had found its way to keep me going, and to let me know of this powerful story at the right time. We’ve come to understand from feedback that accessing this map seems easier, given that it is just one entry on history that needs deletion if one feels they are being watched – and also, that women now feel empowered about being able to help women anywhere in the world. Now, the map sits online, ready to help, and is ready to turn into a mobile app that will soon be made available.
As I write this, I have an email alert from an organization in Mumbai that provides shelter for women. They tell me that with the help of the Crowdmap, they were able to direct a young woman in the US to access the closest emergency medical help centre to help her attend to her injuries after she was followed, harassed and hurt on the street. This makes me hope that providers can collaborate and not compete - encouraging and fostering better and easier access, in the process.
While I would like ideally that no woman in the world would ever have to face a situation that would need her to use the map, I also sadly do acknowledge that we are still to get there. I hope the map helps as many women as possible in the world to get out of difficult situations with the least amount of inconvenience.
The map may be found here: http://gbvhelpmap.crowdmap.com