/ 25 October 2019

Women on the streets of smart cities

Spatial planning in South Africa needs to take women's safety into account.
Spatial planning in South Africa needs to take women's safety into account. (Photo: Reuters/Sergio Moraes)



Gender-based violence in South Africa is significant enough to affect nearly every aspect of daily life, even instances in which women merely occupy or pass through public spaces. Its many forms, from street harassment to rape, murder and increasing cases of abductions, remain tricky to pin down to exact numbers, but incidents such as a young woman’s post office murder, coupled with women’s consistent anticipation of catcalling as part of a daily commute and a lack of safety in e-hailing services should be alarming enough to galvanise us all into immediate action.

In addition to activists’ efforts towards justice for survivors, something has got to give in spatial planning that neglects women’s needs. Beyond futuristic, tech-driven plans for safety, basic social needs are still not met in many communities. Inadequate urban environments have a more acute effect on women’s safety: unstable housing and unsafe outdoor toilets that make women and girls targets. Other situations that affect women in more developed parts of South Africa include being alone in public spaces, leaving the home after dark, and violence inside the actual home. These impediments hamper women’s ability to access a wider range of employment, obtain adult education and engage in civic, community and social activities.

Achievable considerations such as erecting good lighting, maintaining clear lines of vision to public spaces by cutting back shrubs, prioritising pedestrians and creating public spaces safe enough for breastfeeding won’t take much time or effort to achieve, and will go a long way to making women feel safer. Considering that South African women are disproportionately breadwinners, their right to safety seems to count for little, with their mobility obstructed by the constant threat of violence. The planning of safe smart cities around South Africa needs to centre on women’s safety.

Ling Tan, a designer, maker and software developer specialising in social wearables and community participation, says: “Technology can be used to amplify the issue of safety by harnessing people’s collective effort. When the implementation of technology is carried out appropriately by involving the people who are affected by the issue in the design process, it has the ability to bring people together, kick-starting the conversations and even enabling actions to be taken on the issue as a community.”

She adds: “We do have to be careful about what type of technology is being used, as it sometimes acts as a double-edged sword: giving up our privacy to mass surveillance, for one. We also cannot assume that technology can solve all our problems, as this takes away our sense of responsibility and agency as citizens to tackle the problem ourselves. Ultimately it is people that need to deal with the root of the problem.”

In using gadgets to supplement social efforts that make our societies safer, Tan maintains: “Technology is often introduced top-down, without consultation with the citizens, and we end up with infrastructures and tech products that are underutilised because people do not know that they are accessible to them. By involving them from the start, they have a sense of ownership to the technology, they become local ambassadors. This also helps create a long-lasting legacy where the people take care of the technology themselves, rather than relying on external parties to maintain it.”

This is where innovations like the My Safetipin App come in: the app allows users to rate how safe they feel in a location and provide an explanation for their rating, and that information is passed onto the next person who visits that neighbourhood while using the app. Developed in India, the project was awarded to South African organisation Soul City by Womanity, so that a replica can be created and used locally.

Soul City’s Dr Shereen Usdin says: “With the research that we’ve done with Soul City, we have found that a lot of women are scared to use public transport, even if it’s the only transport that they have. Often they choose not to go to places rather than risk their lives. So, what we are doing with the Safetipin app is crowdsourcing a safety audit, to get a sense of the areas where women feel most at risk and the reasons why they feel unsafe. We will then take the data developed through the project to advise municipalities on the allocation of safety budgets in their urban planning, taking into account the lived experiences of the women in those cities.”

Similarly, Triple Black Agency’s Safe Pace running app uses reported contact crime data from the South African Police Service to determine an area’s safety and communicate it to users. Safe Pace founder Babusi Nyoni aims to make the sharing of safety updates easy, and make information as dynamic as possible: their new update promises a more balanced report, harnessing information gathered from people who frequent the different areas in which users to mark routes as safe and unsafe, using feedback for route recommendations.

The Safe Pace app will also update the map with pseudo-real time locations of other verified users, allowing friends to share and track each other’s journeys, and will provide subscribers with alerts for dangerous rideshare drivers. In turn, the users plan to share the insights gained through Safepace with municipalities. Through public and private co-operation, it’s possible to create a safer future for women, girls and everyone who lives under threat of gender-based violence.