February 22, 2018

Kalpana Viswanath’s SafetiPin is using big data to make cities safer for women

Written by the Stability Innovation Atlas team

The Stability Innovation Atlas team, led by FHI 360 and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, will release their finished product in Spring 2018. The complete Atlas will feature economic stability-enhancing innovations that empower the world’s poor and vulnerable people in managing and investing with confidence in their future. We will be profiling several innovators and innovations that were identified during the research and crowd-sourcing process over the coming weeks and months.

Kalpana Viswanath

Kalpana Viswanath | Photo: Ashish Basu

The creation of a unique mobile app to make cities safer for women in India was the result of an “unlikely meeting of the minds,” says SafetiPin co-founder and prominent gender rights researcher, Kalpana Viswanath. As head of the advocacy NGO Jagori, meaning ‘awaken, women’ in Hindi, Kalpana has spent more than a decade working on gender and urban safety in India and several years with the United Nations (U.N.) and local governments helping to design safe city programs in other parts of the world.

In 2013, Kalpana teamed up with her tech-savvy husband, Ashish Basu, a digital education entrepreneur, to launch SafetiPin, a social enterprise providing several technology solutions to make cities safer for women. Having used safety audit methods in her local advocacy work to make public spaces safer for women, Kalpana felt those tools should be more widely accessible to the public. The cornerstone of SafetiPin is a smartphone safety audit app that “everybody can access, and anybody can contribute information to.” Initial funding support from UK Aid (DFID) and free advertising in a local newspaper helped them get SafetiPin off the ground before its full-scale launch in Delhi later that year.

SafetiPin’s safety audit assesses public spaces based on nine parameters which include street lighting, security, gender diversity, and how safe a person feels in a space.“ We wanted to take a qualitative tool and make it more quantitative so that we could begin to measure safety,” Kalpana says. “And we felt that by measuring safety, we would be able to push stakeholders to try to improve their safety score.”

Within a year, SafetiPin had expanded to eight additional cities in India, through partnerships with NGOs and data collecting support from its users and a network of volunteers. Municipal governments in Bogota and Jakarta liked the app well enough that SafetiPin introduced versions in Spanish and Bahasa. The company then augmented its crowdsourced data with a second app called SafetiPin Nite, which uses smartphones mounted on car windshields to photograph spaces and upload them for backend analysis together with Google Maps and other big data. This allowed SafetiPin to steadily increase the number of audits from about 12,000 to 45,000. Its recent partnership with Uber has enabled SafetiPin to grow even further. In 2016, they introduced My SafetiPin, an upgraded version of the app, and it has now been downloaded more than 80,000 times in more than 20 cities in India and globally. “Now we are able to go to city governments with much more robust data and they’re willing to listen to us.”

SafetiPin has no ambition “to become a huge multinational organization” and it doesn’t plan to charge its users. At the same time, “the app space is very crowded, and people aren’t usually very interested in apps which have a social dimension.” But Kalpana hopes that collaborating with more cities and forging more partnerships will enable it to expand its data collection activities and at least begin to generate enough revenue to reduce its reliance on grant funding. The municipal governments in Delhi and Bogota have already contracted SafetiPin to conduct additional rounds of mapping while international organizations such as the U.N. have expressed interest in incorporating the app into their broader public infrastructure improvement programs. The company is also working with universities to develop algorithms and machine learning techniques that can measure safety scores without the data having to be collected and analyzed manually.

Kalpana is confident that SafetiPin can continue to grow and engage more stakeholders and more citizens on the streets to contribute data collectively to make cities safer and more inclusive for women and men alike.