It's not a catch-all solution for a complex issue.
In 2016 alone, 35 instances of sexual assault have been reported on Toronto’s public transit system. It’s a major issue: as Torontoist‘s Viviane Fairbank wrote last week, women have been facing harassment and assault on the TTC for years, and deserve adequate safeguards against it.
Protecting women from this treatment appeared to be the TTC’s intent earlier this month when it announced that it would be launching a new app aiming to “address safety concerns of women and women with disabilities.” The app comes about in response to City Council’s request for a safety audit on the commission.
But TTC officials don’t seem to have a consensus on its function or scope.
In an interview with CBC, TTC CEO Andy Byford describes the app as an alternative to the emergency alarm on board all TTC vehicles. “If you felt that there was something odd about someone staring at you and you felt uneasy, you could very discreetly, without that person knowing, take a photo of them and…then send it to a transit control centre and it would be acted upon,” he says.
But just a day earlier, the TTC’s Brad Ross told the Toronto Star that the app is designed to address “unwanted attention and harassment” and “issues such as vandalism and service problems.”
The discussion of apps in this context is problematic for three core reasons: it reduces meaningful conversation about technology, ethics over the user data, and the use of enforced intervention over community solutions.
An app that’s just for show
The whiz-bang feature of this app from Byford’s description is the disability of phones’ flash and audio when taking a photo. Most smartphones have this capability without the use of a third-party app. Instead, if the TTC wanted to make a more accessible and discreet way to report harassment issues, it could set up a phone number for text alerts, much like the Vancouver Transit Authority did. And anyone in need of assistance could text photos, if they felt it was necessary.
In addition to texting, the VTA has a safety app called OnDuty, but it is seldom useful. The app was created by a tech firm called MobilePD, which makes similar apps for law enforcement agencies. In this app, the feature to “Report a Problem” takes users to a screen to send a text message, which can be done without the use of a third-party app.
The app has other features, including crime maps and service updates. But based on the number of Android installs (somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000) and iPhone downloads (unknown, though its review ratio suggests fewer users than Android), the app is not popular. It has been around since 2014 and maybe, very generously, two per cent of Vancouver’s population has it installed.
In civic tech circles, there is a mantra about designing tech to be built with—not for—the community it is intended to serve. In the case of the TTC’s upcoming app, METRAC is the community partner identified to help build the app. METRAC is an organization with significant insight into sexual harassment and violence issues. The group, according to its website, “works with individuals, communities and institutions to change ideas, actions and policies with the goal of ending violence against women and youth,” and developed an app in 2012 called Not Your Baby to support women in situations where they were experiencing harassment.
Credit is due to the TTC for following the “build with, not for” approach. But regardless of how well informed the partners in development are on the content side, an app is only useful is it makes tasks easier, or serves very specific purpose—neither of which the TTC’s proposed app are expected to do.
The concept of citizen policing is not new. Apps for reporting harassment and other transit issues have existed for years. But the existence of these apps doesn’t validate that they provide value to the community. Rather, they confirm a history of tech start-ups searching for viable markets to penetrate, and creating solutions—even if they’re not the most effective, or raise ethical concerns.
Who is going to be policed more as a result of the kind of app proposed by the TTC? How will the biases of TTC riders play into their decisions of whom to report and by whom they feel threatened? How will the biases of TTC staff play into their responses to the reports? Who has the access and digital literacy to use this kind of app? Who is most likely to be on the other end of the camera, without a device? What will happen with the data from the reports? Should the TTC use its resources to manage noise from people sending photos of bags on seats? (That masterpiece of passive aggression is gone, by the way).
The Bay Area provides one case study of how these apps can play out in terms of practical application. In August of 2014, the city launched the Bay Area Rapid Transit app BART Watch. Within the following year, the East Bay Express obtained data for a month of rider reports through a public records act request (similar to our freedom-of-information request process). Analysis of the 736 records showed evidence of racial profiling by other riders. Similarly, off the heels of Toronto’s discussions of carding and the unjust collection of data from racial minorities, the TTC’s app could come under fire for racial profiling.
The wrong solution
The final problem with these techno deterministic solutions is that they create investments in enforcement rather than community. There are options for other riders to help intervene in cases of harassment: something as simple as sitting down beside someone who is being harassed and engaging them in conversation can be enough to back a perpetrator off—without increasing the police budget.
The TTC’s new app skips right over investing in cultural education, discussions of violence, and community solutions and instead focuses on police solutions with data trails (number of reports) to reinforce the need for enforcement.
With an end-of-year launch date there is still time to reevaluate the technological approach for the TTC app, collaborate with a broader community, or rethink it altogether. Given that there are similar apps available in other cities that have failed its users in various ways, perhaps TTC staffers should analyze their efficacy before making more of them.
The initial intent and requirement to make the TTC safer is laudable—and it shouldn’t get lost in technical execution and scope creep.