MachineHeadz/Getty

Take back the night.

It’s a sad fact?—?and a scary reality?—?that women in most parts of the world don’t feel safe walking alone, especially at night. A women’s organization in Australia’s capital, Canberra, is trying to change that.

Using mapping technology and smartphones, the Women’s Center for Health Matters (WCHM) created an app called the Safety Mapping Tool, funded by the Canberra government. It lets women identify areas they don’t feel safe in. While some of you might say that fearing for one’s safety isn’t specific to women, WCHM’s research shows that women do fear more?—?and that it’s a good natural indicator of how safe a place really is.

“Opportunities for crime can make women feel most unsafe, and public places where women feel fear have been found to have features which are also found in public places where actual crimes have occurred.”
?—?Women’s Center for Health Matters

You can draw a rectangle or circle over a scary area and then explain why. | WCHM

The Safety Mapping Tool can be accessed through a web browser or via a smartphone app. It’s based on a map of the world, though the service is only intended to be used for Canberra. It allows people to draw a square or circle around areas they don’t feel safe in. It could be a park, a dimly-lit tunnel or a parking lot with no security guards. After drawing the area, it asks you what day and time you were there and why you felt unsafe.

The tool’s creators believe that if people mark out the parts of the city where they don’t feel secure, women’s groups and the city government can use that valuable data to make Canberra safer.

This is such an excellent, no-brainer idea that you wonder why no one has thought of it before. Turns out they have: three years ago in India, where violence against women is an epidemic. Virtually every single woman?—?92%— surveyed in the capital, New Delhi, in 2012 said they had experienced some kind of sexual violence in a public space during their lifetime. Reports of verbal sexual abuse were actually lower, at 88%.

Many rapes or sexual assaults go unreported in India, as they do in America. This makes it harder to solve safety problems, but as the creators of the Safecity app told New Indian Express, it also gave them an idea.

“One of the main things we wanted to do using these mapping systems is to draw the attention away from the ‘victim’ to the safety of the place where the incident happened.”
— Elsa D’silva, co-founder of Safecity

In case anyone needs proof the problem is real. | Safecity.in

Safecity and other apps let women report anonymously. Women who are planning to visit an area can check the map out first to see if it’s safe.

Incidents of violence against women show up as red dots on the map. Just looking at Safecity is sobering. When I checked it, more than 8,000 current incidents were listed.

In addition to alerting women of unsafe locations, the website has two other worthy functions: It proves the abuse is happening, and helps policymakers figure out where it’s happening the most.

Safecity is only useful because so many women use it. It’s a challenge faced by new services, like Australia’s.

I used the browser-based Safety Mapping Tool to take a tour through Canberra, and I couldn’t find any squares, circles or pin drops, even in stereotypically “sketchy” places and “disadvantaged” neighborhoods. Hiking trails in wooded parks and docks on the banks of the river were also clear. Restaurants, government offices, transportation stations and other public places were very clearly marked, which could be useful. It might take some time for awareness of the app to grow, encouraging more people to mark out potentially unsafe spaces.

I couldn’t find any entries, even in ‘disadvantaged’ suburbs like Fyshwick. | WCHM

One potential way to achieve wide adoption of a similar app would be to arrange to have it integrated into the navigational programs lots of people already use, like Google Maps. It’s the fourth-most popular smartphone app in the US after Facebook, Messenger and YouTube. (Apple Maps is #14). Are you listening, Google?