It’s almost exactly 25 years since the seminal Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which called for an end to all forms of violence against women and violence against children. Since then, global interest, funding and initiatives to tackle gender-based violence have grown exponentially - but not evenly.
Even in an increasingly technological world, our initiatives (see, for example, this flagship report) often overlook the potential for tech-based approaches. In our commitment to ending gender violence, it’s worth asking: what are we missing here?
It’s in this context that the Kenyan women-led organisation, Flone Initiative, is launching their new ‘Report It! Stop It!’ (see a 2018 web-based version of this app here) mobile app. This is the first Kenyan-built and Kenyan-used mobile app for survivors and witnesses of gender-based violence in and around public transport.
Kenya is leading globally in the share of internet traffic coming from mobile phones. During the third quarter of the financial year 2019/20, the number of active mobile subscriptions stood at 55.2 million nationwide. For many, it’s a highly accessible way to keep in touch. For Flone Initiative, it’s also a tool for highlighting the issue of gender-based violence.
‘Report It! Stop It!’ app
Our ‘Report It! Stop It!’ app aims to create a space for survivors and witnesses of gender-based violence to voice their experiences and build solidarity with others. It’s completely free to use and works by allowing users to pin incidents of violence on an interactive map. If they feel able, survivors and witnesses can also add a description of the incident, time and date, type of harassment and perpetrator/s when submitting their report.
Using the data gathered through the app, the Flone Initiative aims to create a comprehensive database on gender-based violence hotspots across Kenya, particularly on public transport and other public transport spaces, so that Kenyan women can plan safer journeys for themselves and their loved ones. The data will also give government authorities, public transport operators, and civil society movements a deeper understanding of gender-based violence across Kenya, identifying unmet needs, raising public awareness and helping to shape policy on safety in public spaces.
It’s been a huge privilege to work together, as Flone Initiative colleagues, mobile app engineers, and advisors from across the sector, on the design, build and testing of this app - and an even greater opportunity to see it go live. As with any innovative project, it’s also crucial to reflect and grow from the process.
With that in mind, here are just a few things we learnt along the way:
Not Much is Known About Mobile Apps and Gender-Based Violence
At a basic level, Flone Initiative has always aimed to create a mobile app that was effective in tackling gender-based violence. We started our design process by reviewing the existing research and testing similar apps for their potential strengths and weaknesses.
The result? We found that there was a surprising lack of knowledge around effective gender-based violence interventions using mobile apps. Arguably, more importantly, we also saw that many of the existing apps were not suitable for Kenya or, frankly, much of the Global South. Some apps had extra paid features and used lots of phone storage or data, whilst other apps tracked incidents of violence only on maps of Europe and North America. Marcolino et al. (2018) note that there is limited formative research into the efficacy of gender-based violence interventions that use mobile or other ICT, especially in Low and Middle-Income Countries. Most of the few existing evaluations focus on high-income contexts, and their research methodologies and recommendations are of middling quality.
Although this granted us certain innovative freedom, it also made designing the app more challenging. How do you best aim for impact without a roadmap? While there are no clear answers, we found it useful to build with the limitations of existing research in mind and to engage analytically with the few apps on the market. In practice, this involved downloading almost every app available and making notes of its most and least useful features. This was time-consuming, but the critical reflection inspired some foundational features of the app, including its small file size, minimal data usage and completely free functionality.
One Size Will Never Fit All
The second key reflection runs along similar lines. To ensure that our app was truly effective, we started with the principle of user-centred design. In other words, we tried as far as possible to centre the potential experience of the user when creating the app. We want it to work, not according to our needs and assumptions, but those of those who might use it.
This involved asking fundamental questions about gender violence, public safety and women’s experiences in Kenya. Where, how and why would women be using public transport? In which public spaces were women, children and others most vulnerable to violence? How could we integrate this knowledge into our app design, especially our public transport maps and interactive location pins? What might be the barriers to reporting gender violence? What could we do to make them feel comfortable and safe to disclose their experiences? Our reflections were guided by Flone Initiative’s original research into gendered experiences of public transport.
But it wasn’t enough to apply general information on gender-based violence in Kenya, or even Nairobi, to our app design. We also needed to take an intersectional perspective to women’s experiences, and consider the different socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and myriad other factors that might nuance someone’s experience of gender violence. This challenge was arguably both more complex and necessary, as it’s often the most marginalised and vulnerable who are least served by gender violence interventions.
This experience was especially valuable, as it allowed us to question our assumptions, think more carefully about our users and deliver a more inclusive service. Thinking about the language needs and comfort of different users, for example, inspired us to develop a voice recording feature so that users can choose to record themselves, instead of having to write about their experiences.
Data is Vital - and Risky
Part of what makes the ‘Report It! Stop It!’ App so impactful and innovative is the broader picture that it gives Flone Initiative and our partners about gender-based violence in Kenyan public spaces: what forms it takes, where it happens, and who is involved, whether as victim, perpetrator, intervener or bystander.
Data on gender-based violence is notoriously difficult to verify - it relies on survivors to report their experiences, despite significant stigma worldwide, and for those experiences to be accurately recorded by service providers and technology systems using varying, and sometimes ambiguous, terminology. Much of this information has never been collected, analysed and integrated into policy before. In other words, so many experiences of violence still go unheard and unresolved. This makes it all the more vital that Flone Initiative engages appropriately and effectively with data - both in terms of ethical data collection via the app and, later, when we come to analyse, confirm, and present this data to government and civil society policymakers.
We’ve also had long, detailed conversations about where the app data is stored and protected, and who can access it, given the highly personal nature of the reports. It was also paramount to safeguard our users and signpost appropriate resources for people reporting incidents of gender-based violence on the app, including contact details for Flone Initiative. As gender justice practitioners, we were particularly aware of the risks around reporting gender-based violence via mobile technology. Scholars have shown that intimate partner violence increasingly involves the controlling or screening of partners’ mobile devices, and Flone Initiative’s own research indicates that women and girls experience heightened threats of violence on public transport, such that it may not always be safe to immediately use the ‘Report It! Stop It!’ app to report violence. In response to this, Flone Initiative’s app does not store any reports on the user’s device, making all reports untraceable by individuals. We also added a time and date function, so users can report incidents of violence whenever they feel safest and most comfortable to do so.
Whenever we were unsure, we consulted technical experts on the functional details, particularly our wonderful and dedicated programmer Rami. The app testing process was also crucial here, as it allowed us to revisit and reconsider data questions at a different stage of the project, whilst maintaining our commitment to user safety.
Feminist Apps Need Feminist Collaboration
Perhaps the most foundational lesson, though, was about how we worked together as a team. We have already written about the need to care for the psychosocial support needs of colleagues in gender violence interventions (see our article with the Prevention Collaborative here), and this process was no exception.
Just as we strive to deliver an ethical and feminist service to the users of this app, it’s also crucial that we respect the needs, backgrounds and schedules of our colleagues. Flone Initiative runs numerous gender equality programs and interventions across Kenya, and our app team was, at different times, based across East Africa and the world. The feminist principles of self-care, empathy and flexibility were so important here - even when facing the pressure to deliver. As a mostly black Kenyan, female team with a few white coworkers from the Global North, we were also conscious of the intersectional power dynamics within the group. We explicitly tried to redress any racial and gendered inequalities that emerged, even subconsciously, in our behaviour and words.
Equally, it’s not easy to work on gender-based violence day in, day out. Designing the app required us to consider the specifics of violence in some detail, including how those experiencing it might respond and communicate their experiences in the moment and later on. This is, understandably, a wearing process. It was important to actively listen and respond to the needs of our colleagues and ourselves throughout - to encourage breaks and to focus on different aspects of app development when we felt overwhelmed.
Again, it has been a work in process. Feminist collaboration, by its very nature, is fluid - even as it focuses on gender equality. Ultimately, it’s not about following exact rules but trying to practice the same feminist integrity in everything we do.
The ‘Report It! Stop It!’ app will be available to download free from the Google Play Store from September 2020. A previous web-based version of the app and further information about this programme is available on the Flone Initiative website.
Follow @FloneInitiative, @srhdckns and @NaomiMwaura8 on Twitter.