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Common street navigation apps such as Google Maps offer routes to get around. However, they do not guarantee safe routes to walk alone and at night. This prompted Jillian Kowalchuk to act - by founding a street-smart app to safely navigate cities.
What do you think of when you hear the term ‘smart cities’? Whatever you came up with, technically you would be right. There is no one agreed definition of what makes a city ‘smart’. Why have we not yet adopted a universal definition? Perhaps it is a result of the meaning ‘smart’ still transitioning from a human-centric word into now a more broadly technological and even artificial intelligent form.
We can always look for direction within the larger governing bodies. The European Commission defines ‘Smart Cities’ as ‘cities using technological solutions to improve the management and efficiency of the urban environment.’ This definition frames the types of technologies we see dominating the market, such as sensory technologies to help people find available parking spots, CCTV surveillance networks monitoring suspicious people and catching criminals in the act, and creating digital twins and virtual worlds of cities, like a transportation network to model different scenarios and make better decisions. There are benefits to be gained for people living in these types of cities, but we need to exercise caution with a top-down definition of ‘smart’. This also carries an implicit bias and inherent exclusion of many groups if we don’t develop them through participatory design. In Germany, they have taken action to address this through the Federal Association Smart City eV (BVSC), consisting of citizens, academic experts, companies and municipalities to bring a diversity of thought to ‘Smart Cities’ to improve the most important daily concerns in citizen and visitors lives.
Without a diverse and representative voice from the citizens, we should be aware of the risks to further discriminate against the most marginalised and exclude many through the ‘smart technologies’ we are building. In the best selling book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Perez looks at the inherent biases, mostly in participation and equal collection of data, which has left half the world as an invisible minority. This impacts all aspects of women’s lives from the fundamental reduction of safety in cars and accidents due to male crash-test dummies, to the desired voice-recognition technologies unable to often detect female voices. Women may be one of the largest groups to segment the population, however these biases accumulate further when intersected with race, sexuality, age and disability.
It may seem like an impossible challenge to engage everyone to support the developments of a ‘Smart city’ without putting everything to a halt, but we simply need different perspectives to do this. I believe I am one example of this.
After completing my MSc in Public Health & Epidemiology (not to be mistaken with a skin doctor, but the disease outbreak data nerds) at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, I decided to permanently move my life there to start my career. Although I’ve lived now in 9 different countries and cities, London was still by far the largest. A self-proclaimed poor navigator, I used navigation apps, such as Google Maps and Citymapper, to get around the city on a regular basis. However, I started to recognise a pattern- the routes I was given were solely the fastest way while walking. While this was helpful to get from point A to B quickly at times, many others it was not. Walking through a poorly-lit park at night alone, or a short cut through a vacant parking lot did not feel safe to me. Like many others, I had to adapted myself to the technologies instead of it learning from the routes I preferred to take and understanding the risks to my safety- in a sense my experiences were invisible.
After one particular experience, using the app I was guided through an empty alleyway at night, I soon became cornered by two men who threatened to sexually assault me-simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Luckily, I was able to escape, but once I reached my friend to tell her what happened, I noted another pattern. I only told her about my experience and then like many other experiences of sexual harassment, tried to shake it off. However, this time I couldn’t not think in the data patterned I was specialised in, what would happen to others following that same route, even that night towards those two men who would repeat their behaviours? What if it was a younger girl or more vulnerable person who may not have been as lucky as me?
This is when the idea of Safe & the City came to me. What if there was a navigation app that could not only learn the ways I felt safer walking, but also share my experience of incidents, like sexual harassment, that would have otherwise remain invisible into the wider city, business and societal intelligence needed to build safer and smarter spaces to walk, study, work, shop and live? In my TEDx talk ‘Equality By Design’, I share how entrepreneurship with a purpose has the opportunity to be the great equaliser of our time in order for us all to thrive. We need technologies and social change to accelerate at the same rate. Our ‘Smart City’ solutions needs to be as diverse and representative of the people, problems and perspectives we seek to change.
Safe & the City is the street-smart app to safely navigate cities while using crowdsourced insights to provide safety-as-a-service to businesses, other mobile apps and cities on different group’s experiences of public and private spaces. Safe & the City is currently in London with a growing user-base, partnerships and crowdsourced insights utilised by the Metropolitan Police, Mayor of London and UN Women UK. As part of the Mayor or London’s International Business Programme, we have started to broker relationships as part of the Smart City delegation to showcase our success in London and explore expanding into New York City, Chicago and Detroit. We are now part of a F-lane Vodafone accelerator in Berlin and have launched there already! Download the app here.
In order for us to not re-create the problem that ‘Smart Cities’ could perpetuate through technology and the associated tangible and intangible costs to governments, business and society, we need to broaden our definition of ‘smart city’ and include all voices to become the cities we all want to be in.
Jillian Kowalchuk, BA, MSc
is an award-winning entrepreneur, TEDx speaker, and is the Founder & CEO of Safe & The City, the street-smarts app to safely navigate while making your experience count. She was given the Exceptional Talent in Technology by the U.K. Home Office, sits on the Commonwealth Businesswomen Executive Team and the Department for International Trade’s Global Entrepreneurial Programme Female Founders Advisory Board. Jillian consultant sharing her knowledge and experience of traveling to over 50 countries and a breadth of knowledge on gender equality, tech4good, women in STEM to inspire and motivate others to take innovative action to solve meaningful problems. Find out more how to collaborate with Jillian at www.jilliankowalchuk.com.
Author: Jillian Kowalchuk
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