Q&A with Ms. Rebecca Chiao, Co-founder, HarassMap, on how the pioneering app uses crowdsourced data to ensure women’s safety & create safer communities

Q. Your service, HarassMap, is making headway. What is the one underlying need it is trying to address for today’s women?

A. HarassMap aims to build a society that guarantees the safety of all people from sexual and gender-based violence.

Q. Tell us how the technology works? How does it get populated with the information?

A. The technology – a reporting and mapping system – is one part of an integrated approach to mobilize our society towards discouraging sexual harassment and assault. If someone experiences or witnesses a harassment incident, they can make an anonymous report about what happened and where on https://harassmap.org/en/report. The report of a harassment incident then appears as a red dot on https://harassmap.org.

People can also report positive interventions here: https://harassmap.org/en/report/intervention. This is a very recent addition to be more in line with our approach of encouraging bystanders to intervene in order to help harassment victims. Additional data analysis can be found here: https://harassmap.org/en/charts.

Q. What does the data tell us about crimes against women / women safety ?

A. The text of the reports can be very personal and shocking (https://harassmap.org/en/reports), and it has really helped to communicate the reality of the problem and break common stereotypes that cause people not to take the problem seriously. The reports also taught us, the public and other activists and institutions several important facts about sexual harassment, including: sexual harassment does not only happen to women but it also happens to men, boys and girls, that harassers are not always men but are sometimes women and children, etc. Additional findings from the research conducted by HarassMap and others is available here: https://harassmap.org/en/studies-and-reports.

Every report is evidence that we use to:

  • End stereotypes that blame the harassed and make excuses for the harasser.
  • Make people understand sexual harassment is a crime with serious consequences.
  • Campaign to change perceptions about sexual harassment and convince people to take action against it.
  • Equip our volunteers and partners with information to create zero-tolerance attitudes and behavior in schools, universities, workplaces and streets.

Taken together, these things can work to convince people that sexual harassment is a serious problem and that we all need to take action against it.

Q. Is it a problem only in developing countries like Egypt, India, etc. or are even developed nations like the UK, USA affected by this issue?

A. There is not much data existing on sexual harassment and assault in most countries. However, we have been approached by activists in over 40 other countries (including several states in the US, several provinces in Canada, the UK, Switzerland, Spain, South Africa, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Australia, Japan and Sweden), who believe sexual harassment is a problem in their countries and so wish to start a project similar to HarassMap there.

Q. Is HarassMap addressing pre-event aspects like warning women to avoid a certain area at a certain time or is it also addressing post-event aspects like women’s safety if any untoward incident occurs?

A. HarassMap never advises women to avoid areas or times because our data does not provide this kind of information. Our reporting system is meant to complement a holistic on-the-ground approach to mobilize society to deter harassers by making it socially unacceptable and emphasizing that harassment is a crime.

HarassMap is based on the idea that if more people start taking action when sexual harassment happens in their presence, we can end this epidemic together. We support individuals and institutions to stand up to sexual harassment before or when they see it happen. By taking a collective stand against sexual harassment, re-establishing social consequences for harassers – and making role models of people who stand up to them – we believe that harassers can be deterred from harassing again.

The main activities have been:

  • Safe Schools & Universities – HarassMap encourages universities and schools to make their campus a harassment-free zone through adopting an anti-sexual harassment policy that clearly outlines procedures for reporting harassment and enforcement. We provide them with a policy template and support them in adapting it to their needs, training of staff and administration, providing awareness materials, advising on implementation and enforcement: https://harassmap.org/en/safe-schools-universities
  • Safe Corporates – This program has the same model as Safe Schools and Universities but is adapted for workplace anti-harassment policies: https://harassmap.org/storage/app/media/uploaded-files/SC_Brochure_EN.pdf
  • Community Partnerships – This program has replaced our previous volunteer-led work in neighborhoods (Safe Areas and Community Mobilization). CP trains community-based NGOs on making their communities harassment free zones: https://harassmap.org/en/community-partnerships
  • Public Campaigns – Using the data we learned from reports and our experiences on the ground, we have created evidence-based campaigns on social and traditional media that respond to and shape the public discourse regarding issues directly affecting sexual harassment. Examples: https://harassmap.org/en/campaigns
  • Research – This program is not currently active, but past reports can be viewed here: https://harassmap.org/en/studies-and-reports

Q. Does it help bring perpetrators to justice in such cases?

A. HarassMap is not a legal organization, so unfortunately it cannot bring perpetrators to justice. We provide advice and support to victims who wish to pursue a legal case here: https://harassmap.org/en/report-police. We also provide the text of relevant laws, instructions on how to stop phone harassment, contact info for how victims can obtain legal and psychological support, ideas and encouragement for how to intervene as a witness.

Q. Since it is a crowd-mapping platform, how does the app ensure the updates are verified and true? How does it ensure nobody enters misleading information?

A. HarassMap does not verify reports. This is because verification is almost impossible to do using an anonymous reporting system – and anonymity is essential to our work. Also, there is no legal consequence that comes from reports. We include a disclaimer on our reporting system that explains this and we also review the text of each report made to ensure that it complies with our criteria: All reports are regularly reviewed to make sure that the report is about sexual harassment and not harassment in general. It should also be about a specific incident and not a general statement about sexual harassment. The report also has to say where and when it happened, and what kind of sexual harassment it was.

We also try to be very clear that crowdsourced data cannot be used to make claims about specific areas. Our reports are generated entirely by the public, not sampled as part of a scientific study. This means that people only send reports IF they know about our service and IF they feel like it. Such data can be used for many useful purposes, but identifying areas of high harassment is not a valid use.

Q. While the app reports incidents around Cairo, does it also offer women with information about the basic safety of a neighbourhood?

A. The reporting system, which is web-based and not strictly an app, accepts reports from all of Egypt, not only Cairo. It does not however make recommendations or safety claims about any area because our data is crowdsourced and cannot be used for this purpose.

Q. With South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, etc. also seeing women safety issues, do you plan to engage with these countries so that the HarassMap concept can be extended there as well?

A. One of the most successful groups that we advised on how to set up a project similar to HarassMap is based in India: https://safecity.in

Several other activists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (https://bijoya.crowdmap.com/), Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have also been in touch, and we gave them our advice and shared our lessons learned with them.

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