This app aims to help keep women safe in public
In Brazil, a rape occurs every 11 minutes and a gang rape every two and a half hours. The nation registered a record 63,880 homicides in 2017, a 3 percent rise from the year before, and during the same period rapes rose 8 percent and femicides 6 percent.
Priscila Gama, a 34-year-old architect and entrepreneur from the southeastern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, wanted to do something to help women in the face of such pervasive violence. In 2016, Gama — with partner and programmer Henrique Mendes, programmer Jaqueline Costa, and production engineering student Anna Clara Otero — launched the Malalai app, which enables women to let pre-authorized friends follow their routes when moving around the city by any means, whether by foot, car, or public transportation. Gama spoke to The FBomb about the app, which has been garnering attention in Brazilian outlets.
How did you come up with the idea for the Malalai app, and can you explain exactly what it does?
The idea came after reading some stories of harassment linked to urban mobility posted in the hashtag #myfirstharassment (#meuprimeiroassedio) at the end of 2015. The progressive NGO Think Olga [used the hashtag to] support women to [speak about] the harassment they’ve endured during their lifetimes. Another story that grabbed my attention was when once at 4 a.m., I heard a woman running and screaming. I couldn’t get out of bed in time, but a bakery on the corner opened its doors to her. Later I could hear her crying and saying there was a man stalking her.
These stories were still in my mind later when I went to a 54-hour startup weekend event. I didn’t know anyone there — I’m not in tech — but I had this idea of providing companionship through mobile technology. My team got second place with this idea, and then registered for a program to help us make this idea reality.
The app works on three fronts based on research done by our staff. [The first front is] the Preventive Action. We conducted a questionnaire among women to find out what sort of information they would like to have on streets — for example, if it has lights, movement, open commerce, security guards or doormen, police stations, or places known for being harassment spots. We created a collaborative map that people can access through the app to provide information on street safety. Currently we can only give information by day and hour. We are upgrading the filter so if the user wants to know if a certain street is generally safe or not on a Saturday night, they can.
We call the second front “Cognitive Comfort,” which is feeling safe when the conditions are, in fact, safe. People can share their routes with others and invite them to follow virtually. The user can pin the checkpoints they want to send to their allowed followers, which can call attention to the places that women are by themselves, and in the most vulnerable situations — like when they get off the bus at an intermediate stop in their trajectory, or when they’re a few meters from home.
The third front is “Emergency Situation,” which is a panic button in the app that sends SMS messages and a link with the user’s location to three pre-registered contacts. We are also working on a crowdfunding campaign to make this button into a wearable technology in order for it to become a ring to use in a more discreet and swift way.
Did you take into consideration factors like how race, class, gender identity, sexuality, and other factors affect victims of harassment and shape their experiences with it when creating this app?
At the beginning of our research we sent questionnaires to find out who our target audience was. We asked questions ranging from socioeconomic status, technology access, habit of using mobile phones, age, and other data. We landed on creating this app for a 17- to 35-year-old age group with an emphasis on 27- to 35-year-old women because that is often a time of more independence, and also vulnerability, for women.
We probably left out a group highly prone to attacks: poor women. They tend to use data on their phones, so can’t use the app. We are still working on a solution, because we want to help them as they tend to live in far places with low access to public transport and public lighting. Our current idea is to have those able to pay for the app subsidize it for those who can’t. We have even spoken to the National Secretary of Human Rights about making this donation system possible, but bureaucratic matters got in the way, so we are considering doing it with an NGO or independently.
In terms of gender identity, I would say that we know trans and gay people, especially trans people, are even more vulnerable than cisgender women. I initially wanted to create a simple app for women, but we have since considered no longer saying it is for women. But we also understand that saying it’s for women is more of a marketing strategy. We also think the urbanism concept called “universal design” applies here. This concept maintains that if, for example, the city had been planned by wheelchair users, it would be more accessible to people walking with baby and shopping carts, the elderly and so on. We believe that if the city is safer for women, it is safer for everyone.
Since your app follows the routes its users take, is it possible that stalkers might be able to hack the app and use this information nefariously? If so, how do you think about protecting your users?
Route sharing is only available for those invited, therefore the person using the app who wants someone to follow their footsteps will need to invite the other party to do so. There is no other way of this being done. Stalkers would need to be a specialist in hacking the system and we would know about it, therefore we worry more about data safety — which every technology must do. We are in a beta version and this is being enhanced.
In terms of mapping data, our bigger concern is for people to not give untruthful information. We are going to add a way for other users to confirm if someone is giving accurate information.
How did your background in architecture help you develop the app?
My role with the app comes more from my background in urbanism. In urbanism, we have not only the universal design concept and but also the ”eyes on the street” Concept (by Jane Jacobs) — a street that has good public lights and movement or the presence of people, even if it is little, is safer than those that don’t. There is a study that finds bad lighting is directly proportional to violence.
What has your experience been being a black, woman entrepreneur in an industry in which both of those identities are underrepresented?
For me it is very nuanced. I lived with racism when I was a child — back then it wasn’t a crime under Brazilian law — so I’ve suffered a lot in school, just as many black kids still suffer even though [racism] is a crime now. Racism never paralyzed me. I won’t say that I handle it with ease, but it never prevented me from going out and building something even while knowing I would face a lot of obstacles.
In tech, it is very subtle. But if racism and sexism didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be the only black woman leading a startup in Belo Horizonte. Why there are so few? Because there is such backwards structure that basically favors white, straight men. Statistics show that only 10 percent of startups led by women receive investments, and less than 1 percent of those led by black females do.
I always knew I would have to struggle, and I prepared myself, just as I’ve been preparing all my life to deal with racism at any moment. It is emotionally stressful but necessary.
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