Anurag Dwivedi writes: It was interesting to read an article from Peace Tech Lab about a mobile app called “Crowd Guard” where a user can raise alarm via their mobile phones and receive help from a trusted “Crowd Guard” helper community. The app is mainly targeted at women facing gender based violence and relies on mobilizing nearby community members. The solution therefore has two parts – firstly the “technical app and infrastructure” and secondly the “community united by common concerns”. The motivation for such an app possibly arises from the fact that community based models have not been able to ensure safety of women, particularly in large urban conglomerates like Delhi where the bystander syndrome is common. A crowd sourced model to address this problem is a novel idea.
Crowdsourcing – a term combining “crowd” and “outsourcing” is not a new phenomenon. The famous 1976 Shyam Benegal movie “Manthan” was for example funded by cattle owning farmers from Gujarat contributing Rupees Two each in the pre-Internet era. Communities keeping watch within their neighborhoods is similarly nothing new. What has changed is that the Internet has enabled reaching out to a far larger population and with much greater ease and continuity. This has expanded the scope and reach of crowdsourcing and the model is now being used not only for raising funds but also in diverse realms such as scientific research, inviting ideas for public policy, journalism, software development, tourism and even intelligence gathering. Wikipedia and whistleblower site Wikileaks are perhaps the two most successful examples of this leverage. Success of any crowd sourcing model (whether Internet enabled or not) depends on several factors:-
- A cause (or objective) which motivates
- Finding enough worthy volunteers within the community
- Whether the contribution is a onetime act (like donating) or sustained
- Ability and motivation of the organizers
Smartphones bring the dimension of mobility to the above mentioned Internet enabled crowdsourcing model. Flash mobs are one example of communities congregating at a given place and time using social media and smartphones. One big challenge for mobile crowdsourcing apps like “Crowd Guard” is that an emergency cannot be predicted and advance coordination is not possible. Crowd sourced initiatives typically offer no guaranteed response. A large geographically spread out community is a vital prerequisite. To its credit the app developers are conducting workshops and physical engagements to build such communities.
The second challenge is techno-commercial in nature. The Himmat App of Delhi police which has identical objectives and a much more reliable responder (the state police itself) saw very few women installing it over the past two years. It was reported that the app was hanging or not loading properly. The app has now been re-launched with a vernacular (Hindi) interface and much simpler registration process. Quality of the app, ease of use and simple underlying processes are therefore very important. Ensuring that the app is available 24X7X365 with minimum downtime and across geographies is yet another major techno-commercial challenge. Recurring costs are involved and technical expertise required. Either an entrepreneurial model or else a steady stream of voluntary donors is required for long term sustenance as a free app. At the other end of the spectrum, there already exist commercial security firms offering guaranteed emergency response from trained specialists at a cost.
It would be incorrect to nitpick and dwell into legal issues, quality of responders and many such issues that one can think of. A gratis app relying on the power of crowdsourcing is not supposed to cater to everything. The closest comparison one can make for the Crowd Guard app is with Internet enabled crowdsourcing of blood donors. It is a similar emergency situation, there exist government blood banks as well as paid options – yet they may not work out for various reasons. Reaching out to a community of voluntary blood donors over the Internet fills up a void and may save a life. Such additional options should therefore be welcomed.
Success of crowdsourcing initiatives improves dramatically once they reach critical mass and become self-propagating. It would be heartening to see the Crowd Guard initiative gaining momentum and succeed since it is for a noble cause. As always, technology cuts both ways and a similar app can also be used to gather protestors to throw stones at security forces.