An app to walk the cities safer
Role: product designer, ux/ui designer and visual designer
If there is an app I absolutely can’t live without when in London is Citymapper. The city is enormous, and the city grid is nowhere close to regular – also, in such a hectic city my life was also inevitably hectic, with little time to fit in work, plans with friends, yoga, gym and the very long commutes.
All too often I found that the app would send me through little alleys, sometimes even within semi private estates, or through parks – which are lovely, very necessary in that concrete and glass jungle, but as a woman I wouldn’t really want to go through them at night time.
And in winter night time is at 4pm.
A study from Standford University, analyzed 717,527 people’s smartphone data over 68 million days of activity, in 111 countries, and stated that in every country women walk significatively less than men.
Women walk around 25 % less than men in the United States and Australia, 18% less in the UK, staggering 28% in Malaysia. A YouGov poll said that 50% of American women feel unsafe when walking alone at night. 50%, that is crazy.
Back in 2018, on the surge of the #MeeToo movement, Danielle Muscato, a civil rights activist, asked women in a tweet what they would do ‘if men had a 9pm curfew’. Most of the women answered that they would have walks or go jogging alone without being scared.
Which is sad.
Let’s get on to it
We can’t fix the wrongs in our society or cities overnight but we can build little tools to get by until we can. I wanted to design an app that would give us the safest way from A to B. I didn’t want to re-design an app like Citymapper, since as I said, it is my savior app and I am so grateful it exists – I just wanted to give us a second option when we are facing a dark alley we don't really want to go in. A second route that prioritizes safety instead of time spent in the commute.
When we are facing a dark alley, we don’t want to spend ages to get the app working on the re-routing, so it had to be very fast. Within 3 or 4 clicks you should be there. As I said, the point wasn’t to create an experience similar to Citymapper or Google maps, so several options that we find in these apps would be scrapped: like the “set arrival/departure” time, and the buttons for the tube and train maps, etc. The flow should be something really straightforward.
The user flow diagram and the low fidelity wireframes look even useless – but oh well, that was the intention, the simplest possible. A one action app.
How would the algorithm work?
In architecture studies, Urban planning is one of the core learnings both in the bachelor and masters, since our architectural project will always be part of this bigger system that is the city: it will have a very significant role not only in the geometric tissue but also in the social and economic system. After my studies, I have worked as a researcher in two urban planning and sociology projects, plus I have working experience in urban regeneration projects in North London which gave me further insights on the city and safety that I could use here.
While the feeling of being scared is exactly that, a feeling, and it can come from different things for different people, there are a series of empiric elements which are proven to lower crime rates and give a safety feeling to the general population, which are visibility (which has to do with the geometric shape of the space – linear streets will be safer, for example), lighting levels and quality and foot traffic.
Foot traffic is a public domain, but light and visibility would be difficult to specify in an algorithm that takes data from the google Google API library, so we will need to make some assumptions: we can say that main streets will be better lit and also will have better visibility than small alleys or parks.
So our app will look for the directions between two places, walking on main roads as much as possible and in areas where there is more average foot traffic at that time of day.
Testing: speaking to people
I spoke to 6 female friends of mine of that idea of an app, both within the field of architecture and outside, and I got some useful insights to help me design the product. All of them agreed that the issue of finding the fastest route only was recurring with them too, and it would be useful to have this kind of option (note this was prior to Citymapper’s “Main road” or “Fast” button).
One person suggested that the app could offer the option to rate the safety in specific areas and that would inform the algorithm. As good as it sounds, I don’t think that making the app collaborative would be a good idea because as we said, the feeling of safety is a personal feeling and as humans, it can be based on biases that are not real or based on prejudice.
Nevertheless, she had a point and made me see that the app was based solely on urban planning theory and not in actual data. After some research, I found another feature that could help define the route, which could be the criminality index, available as public information in google but only for certain cities (like London, Chicago and Austin). Data can also be found from different websites depending on the country or city, but that could make the app much more complicated, and the algorithm would need to change for different cities – a feature for the future then, but difficult to add at the beginning.