The Build Back Safer campaign launched in March 2021 to focus on the role technology can play in building back better, safer and more inclusive spaces. We had done years of research in developing our i3 Intelligence integration APIs to help support other mobile apps to keep people safe in public spaces but wanted to gain a more current understanding with lockdown measures easing and people returning to these spaces.

Safe & the City’s consulting team designed a rapid consumer survey to understand personal safety experiences while using their favourite mobile apps in the UK. The results were presented at the Build Back Safer event to guide further discussion from our expert panel, identify further areas of needed work and research to continuously improve personal safety in both online and offline spaces.

While we can appreciate there is a difficulty in our increasingly interconnected digital and physical spaces to disentangle them, we intentionally framed the survey questions to focus on personal safety experiences while using their Top 5 mobile applications which helped connect them from an online space to an offline one on a weekly basis.

Demographics

Demographic survey information is critical to gain a deeper understanding of different group’s experiences, particularly in the case of personal safety where there are disproportionate risks and harms to segments of the population.

A total of 358 respondents participated but 305 were included in these analysed results. The Top 5 mobile application types ranged in use but the most frequently reported categories included: Navigation Apps, Ride-sharing, Dating and Social Media.

Both mobility, social gatherings and intimate connections make sense as to why they topped the list of personal safety experiences but let’s dig deeper.

Most of our respondents were based in England, with nearly a third from the Greater London Area. Just over half identified as male (57%) followed by female (41%), transgender (1%) and non-binary (1%). The majority of respondents were caucasian, heterosexual, of the Christian faith, single and between the ages of 25-34 years old. The majority of people did not report having a visible long-term illness or disability.

Who is responsible?

We wanted to understand baseline opinions about the views on who is responsible for helping keep people safe while using mobile applications.

The majority of people (60%) believed technology companies had a responsibility to keep them safe either while on the move or when meeting people. Nearly 2/3 believed having information readily available about their risks and dangers to a location they were in or headed, indicated this was ‘Very Important’ to enable them to keep safe.

The disaggregated demographic information showed that people who identified as women and from the LGBT+ were 3 times more likely to believe technology companies didn’t do enough to take their personal safety into account when using their platform in a public space. This is an important area to conduct further research into as many popular mobile applications have been shown to have algorithmic, design and data biases towards different groups.

We asked where respondents typically sourced information about an emergency or a crime happening near them. Most people selected more than two sources they would check with police social media and/or websites and Twitter most frequently stated. This is an important aspect to consider as it requires an active effort for people to search for this information across many locations. There are also potential risks of using mainstream social media apps, like Twitter, where most content is not verified.

Types of experiences

In understanding baseline opinions captured of who is responsible for their safety and what measures people take to keep themselves safe, we then wanted to understand what types of recent safety experiences people had while on their most used mobile applications.

We wanted to qualify both direct and indirect safety experiences that occurred while using their Top 5 mobile. While we appreciated this may be difficult to disentangle online and offline harms while using their top mobile application we provided examples, such as being a bystander of harassment or a witness of a crime taking place, to help frame the question. Over 1/3 of respondents said they had a recent unsafe incident as an indirect result of being on the mobile application. Surprisingly, direct harms were reported to have happened more often with over half sharing they had experienced a crime while using their top 5 apps. Participants could add details in short form, which ranged across a number of unsafe direct and indirect experiences.

These experiences varied but ranged from physical assaults after meeting people online to offline spaces or the indirect result of using an app moving through different spaces.

“I was seriously assaulted on Grindr.”

“Sexually assaulted after meeting a man from Tinder”

"Commonly experience public sexual harassment when out walking using Citymapper or Google maps.”

“Saw a street brawl while on Twitter.”

Reporting

For people who responded they had experienced either or both a direct or indirect safety incident, they were more likely to report the incident to the police than to the respective mobile application customer service teams.

Nearly a quarter (23%) did not share their experience with either the police or customer service. The under-reporting of many crimes and unsafe experiences is well-evidenced in the literature and shows there is a significant gap of critical safety insights into people’s experiences to find ways to resolve them.

After reporting

What happened after those who did report it?

The majority of people (54%) were not satisfied with the resolution of reporting whether the incident was reported to either the police or the technology companies.

To end this survey we wanted to gain insights into what the alternatives or ideas for features they wished their Top 5 mobile applications could adopt, if applicable. A large majority (69%) people reported seriously considering switching to a similar app if it had more safety functionalities. Nearly 80% reported they would want their top 5 apps to adopt personal safety and crime alerts to their locations to help keep them safe.

Many people had great suggestions as to what other functionalities could help keep them safe while on mobile applications. A few examples include:

"Being actively encouraged to report any type of inappropriate/ criminal behaviour and believing that all complaints are taken seriously."

“Live location sharing and exporting of chat history... providing evidence of the conversation and profile affiliated.”

"Letting me know if something unsafe is happening where I am heading to.”

Conclusion

Safe & the City ran a rapid survey with over 300 respondents included in the final results. There were significant differences across different group’s safety experiences when using their Top 5 mobile applications. There were many direct and indirect unsafe experiences on these applications and a strong indication that more safety functionalities are needed. Further research is urgently needed, especially into the needs and lived experiences of different demographic groups, including women.

Let's work together

Safe & the City is the leading gender-lens experts in safety technologies to create safer, more inclusive products, services and solutions. Our consulting team can support in discovering more how your product and services can be improved to address different group’s safety needs and concerts to help keep everyone safe in both online and offline spaces.