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SafeHer Transit: What Women Want in their AI Powered Safety App

Published onMay 06, 2024
SafeHer Transit: What Women Want in their AI Powered Safety App

SafeHer Transit: What Women Want in their Ai-Powered Safety App

(Socio-cultural, Psychological, Personal, and Spatial Factors to Urban Transit Safety:

Informing AI-Driven Filipino Women Safety Apps)

Hazel T. Biana, Melvin Jabar, Homer Yabut, Rosallia Domingo, and Shaina Joy Dimaapi

AI-(Em)powered Mobility, Social Development Research Center

De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines

Abstract: Transport systems in Metro Manila have been hailed as dangerous and unsafe for women. To address this, some machine learning applications powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been created and developed to ensure women’s safety. These safety apps, however, do not tackle the underlying issue of perpetrators’ violence against women. Rather than empowering women to take full control of their mobility, these apps normalize violence and reinforce victim-blaming mentalities. To empower Filipino women, and to make sure that these apps are what women need and want, frameworks for future models of AI-driven safety apps should be rethought. In this study, Filipino women are consulted on urban transport planning through participatory methods. The unique demographics, circumstances, and locations of Filipino women in Southeast Asia, their corresponding transit systems and local communities, and their socio-cultural, personal, practical and spatial factors were examined through surveys, focus group discussions, and ethnographies of urban public transportation. The data gathered were then analyzed and used to inform an AI-driven safety app concept for Filipino women -SafeHer. SafeHer seeks to empower women by merging defensive functions with the idea of women’s collective action. It also integrates operations that call for the cooperation of both local transit authorities and government units, and makes perpetrators accountable for their transit crimes.

Introduction

Manila has one of the most dangerous transport systems in the world for women (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2014). Women in urban areas have been sexually assaulted and harassed while in public transit, be it on a bus, train, at the bus stop or station platform, or on their way to/from transit stops. Most often than not, however, Filipino women do not have a choice to take public transport as they are ‘transit captives’ and overly reliant on such modes of transportation (Ceccato, 2017). To lessen the risk of being victimized, some women change their routes and schedules, or negate their feelings of insecurity and fearfulness in transit. Some even negotiate the risks as they see travel risks as inevitable anyway. While this should not be the case, some even accept harassment in transit as “normal”.

The New Urban Agenda and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (5, 11, 16) have included the promotion of safety and inclusiveness in transport systems to track sustainable progress. As part of this effort, AI-powered machine learning applications have been created. Women now make use of personal safety apps to report trouble to authorities, get in touch with their emergency contacts, share real time location information, ring danger signals, or be alerted about unsafe areas and modes of transportation. In the Philippines, some of the apps include Dlock (which won the first prize at the Safe Cities Hackathon Professional Category). Dlock features an easy-to-use lock screen with one-click buttons that allows users to send a message or call an emergency contact, and ring a siren even when the phone screen is locked. The app can be used to report via message posting, and connecting with other app users who are nearby. Dlock also activates distress calls for help, and features a directory (which lists emergency hotlines, phone numbers of police stations, hospitals, and fire stations). Another app is the ScAFE app (which won the student category prize) which shows its users the safe points in an area based on the user’s location. ScAFE users may also send messages to the nearest patrol area, and get in touch with their emergency contacts.

The aforementioned apps are designed based on the idea that a smart digital solution can deter would-be sex offenders and help women feel safer in public spaces. These apps, however, do not tackle the crucial matter of violence against women. Rather than empowering women to take control of their mobility, they normalize violence and reinforce victim blaming mentalities. Aside from assumptions of violence and rampant unsafetyness, the majority of apps are focused on intervening at the time of a criminal event, and post-event. (Maxwell et al., 2020). This means that women would already have been exposed to danger before the apps could actually protect them. It is not surprising then that existing women safety apps do not have the power to decrease incidents of sexual harassment. They do not reduce the vulnerability of women to victimization (Maxwell et al., 2020). Furthermore, rather than being empowered to make their own commuting or transportation choices, existing apps make women adjust to their possible would-be offenders. One study even claimed that these apps provide illusions and false senses of security that would put more women in potential danger (Maxwell et al., 2020).

The question that arises, therefore, is whether existing women safety apps truly empower women to reclaim their mobility. If AI interventions were to work, they must focus on the empowerment of Filipino women to gain control over their safety. These frameworks, however, must be empirically verified to fully incorporate gender-inclusive and fair perspectives in AI development and transport systems. To address the lack of empirical basis of AI-driven safety apps, this study asserts that AI-driven safety apps for women should be informed by a comprehensive analysis of various factors related to urban transit safety. As they identified four interlinking categories of constraint (socio-cultural, personal, practical, and spatial) in travel experiences of women through a grounded approach, we use the study of Erica Wilson and Donna Little (2005) as a framework. In this study, we add the psychological factor as well, and determine how all these particular factors impact Filipino women’s transit safety. Based on the framework, and integrating the unique observations, perspectives, suggestions and experiences of women, authorities, transport operators, and app developers, we drafted the concept SafeHer. SafeHer seeks to empower women by merging defensive functions with the idea of women’s collective action. It also integrates operations that call for the cooperation of both local transit authorities and government units, and makes perpetrators accountable for their transit crimes.

Approach and Methodology

There is a lack of women’s involvement in urban planning (Urban Safety for Women and Girls, 2022) Therefore, public spaces, particularly public transportation, were not created by women nor do they address women’s needs. In order to ensure that women’s needs are accommodated, there is a need for participatory approaches not only in general urban transit planning, but also in the development of efforts that would ensure women’s safety as they traverse their daily paths. This study is a move towards the participation of women in the planning and development of systems that would promote their safety. It is divided into two parts namely, the inquiry into the perspectives of women, transit operators, local government authorities, a review of the current AI-driven safety apps and insights from app designers and developers and the presentation of a concept for an AI-driven safety app for Filipino women. The first part is an investigation into women’s particular socio-cultural, personal, psychological, and spatial factors related to the urban transit safety of women. Data on women's perspectives are gathered on an individual level, and insights from transit safety personnel, systems and infrastructure are mined on an institutional level for a holistic picture of the transit situation of Filipino women. The second part is a review of the best app practices for women’s safety and the revelation of an empowering AI-driven safety app concept that is informed by a comprehensive analysis of urban transit safety factors that affect Filipino women. The following are the questions that the study seeks to answer:

  1. What socio-cultural, personal, psychological, and spatial factors shape urban transit safety?

  2. How can social-cultural, personal, psychological, and spatial factors inform AI-driven women safety apps toward the empowered mobility of Filipino women?

  3. What are the best practices, all over the world, in terms of safety app development?

  4. What women safety app concept can be drafted from data gathered above?

This study is informed by principles and theories of feminist philosophy, gender studies, sociology, anthropology, and psychology. It implores the idea that transit safety (or the lack thereof) can be influenced by social, cultural, personal, psychological and spatial factors, and these factors can inform the development of AI-driven apps. With Andrea Dworkin’s feminist idea of taking back the night, the study explores sociological, anthropological, and psychological research methods to uncover observations, perceptions, experiences of not only women, but government/ security officials, transit operators, and app developers as well. The novel insight here is the concept of empowered mobility (as opposed to victim-blaming mentality) which will be the basis of the specific research questions. The sociological, anthropological, and psychological research methods, and specific findings, along with a user-based design process, will enrich the empirical basis of the AI-driven safety app conceptualization.

The study includes an online survey, focus group discussions (FGDs), and an ethnography or observation of urban public transportation. Bi-weekly meetings and consultations were done by the research team with the <A+> Alliance (supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC)). The entire study underwent a full board research ethics review under the University of Mindanao Ethics Review Committee (UMERC) through the Research Ethics Office of De La Salle University-Manila. Documents submitted for review were the FGD guide, informed consent forms, survey instrument, ethical guidelines, observation protocol, letter of request for approval of local government authorities, and the research proposal. Some noteworthy modifications requested by the board were the explicit statement of researchers’ adherence to the Data Privacy Law (Republic Act No. 10173), and securing clearances from psychologists on high risk respondents. After such amendments, the study’s protocol and related documents were granted approval on October 22, 2022 (Protocol No. UMERC-2022-317).

The online survey was translated into the Filipino language and administered via Google Form to 427 women respondents in Metro Manila. These respondents were invited to voluntarily participate through a Facebook ad (See Annex A for ad). The survey covers the socio-cultural, personal, psychological and spatial factors related to their transit safety, and their perceptions, experiences, and practices related to commuting. The survey results were analyzed using appropriate statistical tests. (See Annex A for survey information on statistical tests and collected variables, and questionnaire). Officers and protection specialists of women and gender groups were consulted on the formulated survey questionnaire. These women and gender groups were the Likhaan Center for Women, Lunas Collective (women’s groups that support survivors of gender-based violence), Rainbow Catholics Philippines, and the Women and Gender Studies Association of the Philippines. Some recommendations were to revise the language, remove questions on sexual orientation and gender identity (since it is irrelevant to the topic at hand), and include other modes of transportation such as motorcycle ride-sharing and the use of bicycles. Furthermore, the following inclusions were proposed in the instruments: the “Bawal Bastos” Law (anti-catcalling law), a question about the presence of police officers and local government authorities in the area where transit crimes have happened, and if respondents already use AI-driven apps for transit safety.

The FGDs, on the other hand, were conducted on 5 groups of respondents. One FGD involves women survivors of transit harassment or violence, and another FGD on those who have no experience of such violence in the past. The focus of the discussions would be on their perceptions, experiences, practices with regard to transit safety. (See Annex B for specific domains and variables). Apart from the 2 FGDs with women participants, 2 FGDs were also conducted with government personnel (traffic enforcers) and transit operators (jeepney and tricycle drivers). The focus of the discussions were on the following topics: transit-related violence against women, national culture of safety, existing policies and law and SOPs, and their recommendations (See Annex B). The last FGD involved app designers and developers and revolved around their understanding of transit safety, motivations for app development and recommendations on how AI-driven women safety apps should work. All respondents were asked for their informed consent before participating in the FGDs. To determine if respondents were fit to take part in the FGDs, a specialist conducted a psychological pre-screening test through a distress scale for transit crime survivors. A psychologist was present during the conduct of the study whenever sensitive topics were discussed.

The ethnography of urban public transportation is the last data gathering component of the study. Two ethnographers (1 male and 1 female) spent a week observing women commuters in Metro Manila, particularly, the time when there is a high volume of women commuters, the general features of women commuters (morning, lunch time, night rush hours), the type of interactions in transit, negative and positive disruptions; and passenger behaviors while waiting, boarding, riding, and alighting. Observations were done in jeepneys, buses, trains, and train stations. Data for the FGDs and the ethnography of urban public transportation was content analyzed to find emerging codes, themes, patterns, similarities, differences, and unique responses.

Results

Quantitative Findings (See detailed Tables in Annex C)

  1. Demographics and Psychographics

A total of 427 women respondents participated in the online survey. Many of them are relatively young as 73% of the respondents were aged 18 to 40 years old. Most of them receive a monthly salary below the poverty threshold of about Php12,000 for a family of five. Half of them are from bigger cities, particularly the City of Manila, Quezon City, and Caloocan City (which happen to be the 3 most populous cities in the National Capital Region).

80% of the women travel to work using 2 or more vehicle types. Although the most common mode of transportation is jeepneys, an overwhelming majority (80%) use a combination of public transportation modes. This means that they would take different jeepneys in combination with buses, trains or tricycles/ pedicabs. 8 in 10 of the respondents go home alone. In terms of their activities while in transit, many use their mobile phones (70%) but only 25% of the respondents use mobile transit applications. More than half of the respondents need to travel 2 to 2.5 hours to reach their workplace (assuming that traffic is not heavy). Almost 60% of the respondents need to travel more than 2.5 hours to reach their workplace during heavy traffic. Respondents spend the same amount of time when transiting from their workplace to their homes regardless of heavy or light traffic. Most respondents claim that their neighborhood (80%) and the premises of their workplaces (83%) are well-lit. There are also CCTV cameras in the neighborhood (53%) and outside their workplace premises (79%).

Majority of women’s attitudes to transit includes being cautious when taking public transportation. They believe that they have the necessary knowledge about safety to be empowered in the future. Regarding psychological empowerment, most respondents believe they are independent when traveling alone, confident about their ability to travel, and capable of deciding how to travel. They believe they have independence and freedom when they travel alone and are self-assured about their capabilities. They find themselves empowered when in transit, and consider such activity meaningful. Despite these attitudes and beliefs, however, they still think that there are things and events that are beyond their control whenever they are in transit. Most of the women have already become accustomed to using public transportation over the years. Despite being accustomed, however, most respondents still feel exhausted taking public transportation. Taking public transport, after all, is cheaper and easier on the pocket.

In terms of their attitude towards AI for road safety among women commuters in Metro Manila, most recommend using smart applications to inform them about transit safety and security. Most of them believe that the use of AI can minimize or eradicate transit crimes. They believe using AI can make them safer while using public spaces, thus making them proactive.

  1. Experiences of Transit Crimes

Of the 427 respondents, 29 (n=123) reported having experiences of armed robbery while in transit. Almost half of these incidents happened in the evening with no bystanders in the area. Most of the perpetrators are older male individuals with slim to muscular body types. Most of the incidents happened in areas far from a village office (barangay hall) or police stations. In terms of experiences of pickpocketing among women commuters in Metro Manila, 41% or 175 of the respondents experienced such street mishaps. A little more than half of the incidents (53%) happened in the morning and with bystanders in the area. Most of the pickpocketing incidents happened in areas far from a village office (barangay hall) and police station. Most perpetrators are older male individuals with muscular build.

Most of the respondents (56%) have not experienced verbal sexual harassment in transit. Those who have experienced such harassment, however, experienced (43%)of such incidents in the morning. Most of the verbal sexual harassment incidents (66%) happened in the presence of a bystanders. These incidents happened far from the village office and police station. The perpetrator is usually male (97%) and older (82%). Most respondents (69%) have not experienced physical or sexual harassment in transit. Experiences of physical or sexual harassment, mostly (48%) happened in the morning. These physical and sexual harassment incidents happened mostly (58%) in the presence of a bystander. They happened far from the village office and police station. The perpetrator is usually male (98%) and older (82%) with muscular body build (26%).

  1. Perception of Risks

Regarding the perception of risks, most respondents chose very likely/likely compared to neutral and unlikely/very unlikely. Among the types of risk, the highest risk perceived in transit is meeting an accident (64%), followed by violence (56%), being harassed (51%), sabotage (43%) and sexual violence (41%). Meanwhile, the lowest risk perception is a terrorist attack (22%). Women practice self-protection measures such as checking their surroundings and the people around them when they walk around the metro. Extra measures include putting their bags in front of their bodies. They also present themselves as confident and assertive,and keep emergency numbers ready. They avoid walking alone when they have consumed alcoholic beverages. Only very few women bring defense weapons such as stun guns, tear gas, or pepper sprays.

  1. Regression Analysis

Among the different study variables, subjective norms have the highest mean level, followed by intention to be empowered and psychological empowerment. These results attest that the woman respondents in the study are empowered amidst the different risks of commuting. The high result in terms of subjective norms, which refers to approved behaviors in commuting, shows that normative belief among respondents that they should be careful, protective of themselves, and cautious whenever they commute; thus, their intentions to be empowered is also high. The high scores in personal measures for self-protection also support this notion and their attitude toward AI. This implies that they have a positive attitude toward any tool that can aid or further empower them in their commuting.

Regarding the correlation results, respondents’ beliefs and attitudes about urban transit safety and empowered mobility have a significantly low positive relationship with perceived risk and individual values related to urban transit safety. Individuals possessing these beliefs and attitudes also include individual values related to urban transit safety and acknowledge the perceived risks in commuting.

Meanwhile, subjective norms have a significant low positive correlation with perceived risk and individual values related to urban transit safety and a moderate direct correlation with beliefs and attitudes about urban transit safety and empowered mobility. Subjective norms refers to approved beliefs on how people should behave while commuting. Furthermore, perceived behavior control has a significant low positive relationship with perceived risk and a moderate positive relationship with individual values related to urban transit safety and subjective norms. Moreover, it positively correlates with beliefs and attitudes about urban transit safety and empowered mobility. In summary, the respondents' personal values, beliefs, and attitudes are related to the group's subjective norms or normative beliefs about approved behaviors related to women's empowerment concerning commuting, which is also associated with their perceived ability to manage the situation – perceived behavioral control.

Intention to be empowered has a low negative correlation with age; a low positive correlation with perceived risk and individual values related to urban transit safety; and a high direct correlation with beliefs and attitudes about urban transit safety and empowered mobility, subjective norms, and perceived behavior control. This means that the older women are the ones who have a higher intention to be empowered. At the same time, they have a low perception of risk and individual values related to urban transit safety. Interestingly, those with high intention to be empowered also have high beliefs and attitudes about urban transit safety and empowered mobility, subjective norms, and perceived behavior control.

Psychological empowerment has a moderate positive relationship with individual values related to urban transit safety, beliefs and attitudes about urban transit safety and empowered mobility, subjective norms, and a high direct correlation with perceived behavior control and intention to be empowered. In other words, a woman who is psychologically empowered does not only have the values, beliefs, and attitudes but also displays efficacy and the intention to be empowered while commuting.

For attitudes towards AI, there is a low direct correlation between individual values related to urban transit safety and beliefs and attitudes about urban transit safety and empowered mobility, and a moderate direct correlation with beliefs and attitudes about urban transit safety and empowered mobility, subjective norms, perceived behavior control, intention to be empowered, and psychological empowerment. This means that the respondents who display positive attitudes, values, and beliefs and value empowerment have a positive attitude towards AI since it can help them to be more empowered. Lastly, for personal measures for self-protection, there is a low positive relationship with age and a low positive correlation with individual values related to urban transit safety and attitude towards AI.

Hierarchical regression analysis on the intention to be empowered was conducted by running three different models as presented in Table 26 (See Annex C). In Model 1, it can be gathered that personal variables of age, personal monthly income, number of work hours per day, and number of working days per week do not account for the intention to be empowered. In Model 2, perceived risk, individual values related to urban transit safety, psychological empowerment, attitude towards AI, and personal measures for self-protection were inputted as additional predictors. Compared to Model 1, with personal variables as the sole predictors, important commuting variables and empowerment variables were included in the model. In other words, a woman who has the intention to be empowered is young, has a higher number of working days, has a higher perception of risk, has higher values related to urban transit safety, is psychologically empowered, has a positive attitude towards AI and has personal measures for self-protection.

The third model added the Theory of Planned Behavior variables comprising beliefs and attitudes about urban transit safety and empowered mobility, subjective norms, and perceived behavior control as predictors of intention to be empowered. This model shows that a woman who has intentions to be empowered has a high number of working days in a week, is psychologically empowered, has high beliefs and attitudes about urban safety and empowered mobility, believes the normative importance of being empowered in commuting, and is efficacious or believes that she can display the necessary behaviors in commuting. Among all the predictors, subjective norms and perceived behavioral control are the most important predictors to explain the intention to be empowered. This implies that empowered mobility among women can be attained if there’s this social pressure among women to engage in behaviors that make them more cautious and careful. This is a type of injunctive norm, meaning that one is expected to follow, and others are expected to follow.

Meanwhile, perceived behavioral control refers to the person’s perception of the ease or difficulty of doing something. This perceived behavioral control is influenced by many other things, like adequate resources to manifest these behaviors. This means that if commuting women have the necessary resources, they can have stronger perceived behavioral control, thus having a higher intention to be more empowered.

Qualitative Findings

  1. Focus Group Discussions

Women in Transit

When women think about urban public transportation, the first thing that comes to their minds is their safety in connection to being a commuter, looking after their personal belongings and how operators and drivers manage their chosen public utility vehicles. Being safe in transit also means being protected and defended by transport operators and being able to travel comfortably without worrying about being harassed. The style of driving and state of the vehicle is also important. They are also reminded of the necessity for vigilance and awareness of their surroundings when using public transportation. One respondent claims that she only feels safe if there are other passengers, but she prefers to be transiting with someone she knows when she commutes. Another respondent says that she prefers to use “registered” or legitimate transportation (i.e. a tricycle that is registered with the Land Transportation Office). Some respondents mentioned that they feel unsafe when beggars are allowed to ride public utility vehicles.

Transit safety is also determined by the time of transit. Respondents who have not had experience in transit violence claim that it is safer to travel at daytime versus nighttime. They believe that women should take extra care and vigilance when commuting at night due to the perceived prevalence of harassers, snatchers, pickpockets, robbers and holduppers. This perception is based on the news that they receive about urban jeepney commuters. Common modus operandis that they have heard of include the slashing of bags, snatching of cellphones when riding or alighting vehicles. Sexual violence, however, tends to be observed when perpetrators invade the respondents’ personal spaces by sitting or getting too close despite ample space, staring, pretending to accidentally hit body parts (such as legs or breasts).

Women who had experienced violence in transit, on the other hand, mentioned the following incidents: being slapped if you do not give alms, grabbing bags, snatching of personal belongings, sitting too close and violation of personal space, rubbing penis against another passenger’s body, pretending to accidentally touch or hit body parts such as hands, lap, legs, buttocks, or breasts, deliberately touching breasts and other private parts, staring maliciously, putting head on another person’s shoulder and pretending to be asleep (headbangers), forcing conversations about personal information, transport operators using vulgar or improper language with passengers, taking photos without consent, sticking out tongue to passenger with licking actions, exhibitionism and masturbation, unsolicited invitations, catcalling, and rape jokes.

Respondents believe that male offenders tend to take advantage of female commuters because they are perceived as weak, and they are not capable of fighting back. They tend to offend particular individuals who appear weaker because they believe they are stronger than them. One respondent argued that it is not because they look weak, but because they are women. While there are also female offenders, there tends to be more male offenders. Based on stories, respondents claim that intoxicated (drunk) individuals are more prone to being offenders. When transiting, some of their fears include being kidnapped, harassed, having their belongings snatched or pickpocketed. They also blame the survivors of these transit crimes for wearing certain clothes, gold jewelry and other valuables or carrying expensive phones. These are supposedly high risk and put them in the radar of the offenders.

In order to keep safe, the respondents bring pepper spray, avoid streets or paths that have few people, ensure awareness, vigilance, and consciousness about surroundings, do not sleep in public vehicles, do not use cell phones or bring out wallets, ride near exits, alight immediately if uncomfortable, hold bag in front, hugging bag, take photos of cab plate number and inform family and friends about plate number, sharing locations, walk fast in dark areas or walking in zigzag pattern, observe co-passengers, bring companions (buddy system), keep alert and do not sit beside men, bringing pocket scissors as a weapon. They believe that “perpetrators are scared of vigilant people”.

They believe that empowered women in transit ask for help if there are suspicious people, confront offenders, embark on information campaigns on what to do when faced with certain situations, talk back and speak out or call out offenders. To defend themselves, they stare back at suspicious individuals, call out offenders, voice-activated Siri and Google speakers (activating emergency calls i.e. “Hey, blank, call 911!”). (A respondent mentioned that other passengers do not help in the event of an unfortunate incident though.)

With regard to AI-powered mobile apps, some suggested include speed dial, location tracking, immediate response in the event of a transit mishap, emergency numbers (nearest hospital, police, etc.), notifying authorities, keyword to alert authorities, app tied with women’s groups such as Gabriela. Some of the suggestions for authorities include police/ patrol visibility, more CCTV cameras, more streetlights and lights in waiting sheds, prioritizing of public transportation, and immediate response.

Transit Authorities

The transit authorities’ main task is to enforce traffic rules and ensure smooth traffic flow and access to transportation. Transit safety means careful and safe drivers who follow traffic rules, Driving too fast and not following traffic rules, or some passengers bring weapons such as knives, rude and sexually-offending passengers, existence of “manyak” (pervert) makes transiting unsafe. They should always be on the lookout for drivers who are drunk or have taken drugs, and drivers and passengers who are rowdy and rude. Different times posts different levels of safety, eg. snatchers of cellphones and bags come out in the night.

They have encountered situations wherein male passengers choose to ride PUVs when there are “beautiful” women or women wearing particular attires (such as short skirts or shorts). Offending behavior include staring, accidentally touching breasts, uneasy and awkward movements, intentionally sitting too close even if it is not crowded, taking photos without consent, acts of lasciviousness, holdup. Common “victims”- are women who wear “daring” clothes, persons wearing expensive and classy clothes and using expensive accessories.The process of reporting transit crimes involve referring to police station (blotter), “barangay”, or traffic base (HQ). They mentioned that they catch criminals by using CCTV, and with the involvement and concern of the drivers or operators. Some suggestions to improve safety include lighting, more advanced technology like CCTV (no blind sports), more outposts, police and traffic enforcer visibility, more seminars on various laws, proactive local and national government.

The transit authorities believe that women are empowered when there is equality on the road, the VAWC laws and “Bawal Bastos” Law (Safe Spaces Act) are enforced, they know self-defense, and are aware of their surroundings. They suggest bringing ball pens or tear gas which can be used as a weapon. If one cannot fight, however, the best recourse is to run (flight).

Some of their suggestions for a safety app include a real-time locator, alarm system when one is threatened, GPS tracker, phone can still be tracked even it it is off or there is no signal, allow prepaid account holders who do not have load (credits) to call the police or emergency contacts, voice activated like Siri or speed dial functions.

Transit Operators/ Drivers

Operators and drivers define transit safety as the wearing of masks, and drivers/ operators constantly ensuring that brakes and wheels are in excellent condition. Drivers should ensure that passengers are always safe, and drop them off in safe places. They should also remind passengers to take care of their personal belongings such as cell phones and bags. Drivers should not have a hangover or be taking drugs.

Some incidents that they experienced include passengers fighting over seats and cursing each other. Some passengers would even tell others to ride taxis or private cars if they refuse to accept the reality of crowded vehicles. Some drivers have also experienced that drunk passengers cause trouble, or vomit in the vehicle. The other passengers would then complain to drivers about drunk passengers. Drivers would bring harassers and offenders to the police station, or ask the drunks to alight the vehicle.

Some examples of incidents that they have witnessed include whistling, staring, pretending to accidentally put their head on shoulder/ falling asleep, and touching body parts. Drivers believe that women should wear “proper” attire when riding public transpo (not something you would wear privately) In order to promote transit safety, they believe that drivers and passengers should be educated on laws. On top of this, there should be more roving patrollers, additional CCTVs and ample lighting. The suggested safety app should contain info on laws, alert police in the event of mishap.

App Developers

When respondents think about urban public transportation safety, they think of a transport system design where commuters feel safe and secure in public transportation. The adherence levels of traffic safety rules and guidelines by the motorists positively impact public road safety. Some perceive safe public transportation utilities as well-lit, spacious, and well-ventilated. One respondent considers the importance of ensuring the protection of data of commuters in urban public transportation safety. While one respondent believes that the presence of police and relevant local and national authorities increases the feeling of safety in public spaces, another respondent believes otherwise. In terms of street or road crimes associated with transportation safety, respondents share that the most common crimes in their areas are robbery, snatching, assault, aggravated assault, and running a yellow light. Behaviors or crimes that particularly affect women while they are commuting or walking in the street include sexual harassment such as staring or leering, and catcalling. There is a belief that women are more likely to be at risk .

When consulted on how they think AI and technology can be applied to empower women in transit, respondents think of embedding safety features such as safety rating system in existing ride-hailing service apps, collecting of data on safety such as providing women with navigational information on the safest routes in the city, reporting public transport routes and areas on a map where women feel unsafe, and rating the safety of routes based on the street safety, lighting, prevalence of crimes. One respondent proposes a combination of Sakay.ph and Waze where the reporting-based feature of Waze is added to the crowd-sourced route database feature of Sakay.ph (which enables commuters to pick a route based on safety rating).

One respondent believes that these AI-driven women safety apps can be used to protect women commuters from transit crimes most especially when partnered with and supported by government agencies such as the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA). Another respondent recommends an alert feature that sends emergency alerts to nearby app users to respond or report on behalf of the app user in cases where there are no nearby police or local authorities in the area. One respondent further recommends including a point system feature to encourage incident reporting and sharing of safe routes for women. Another, however, suggests embedding the live view map feature on Google maps or adding a photo function in the reporting feature to help women visualize the route. While another suggests a function that sends out alerts to the user’s contacts upon a press of a panic button. Other suggestions include a real-time location detection and alert feature that warns users on unsafe routes and possible alternative routes.

Local government units can help promote safety for women by adding more surveillance cameras, increasing the visibility of police and local authorities in public spaces, improving street lighting, installing emergency buttons in public transportation, and improving police response and law enforcement response to sexual assault and harassment.

  1. Ethnography

Two observers spent a week observing women commuters in jeepneys, buses, trains, and train stations. The aim of the ethnography is to observe the time when there is a high volume of women commuters, general features of women commuters in the morning, lunch time and night rush hours, commuters’ type of interactions, negative disruptions, and passenger behaviors while waiting, boarding, riding, changing from one mode of transportation to another and walking toward the final destination.

Jeepneys

Most of the women who take jeepneys during the morning and evening rush hours are young office workers and students with lower to middle class income, who mostly wear school uniforms or semi-formal clothes. Some are in their 30s however, in casual wear (denim pants and shirt, denim pants and polo) and accompanied by either a child or an elderly person. They keep their bags close by. Others have their backpacks and shoulder bags on their laps majority of the time. They were all quietly seated, and they would occasionally bring out their phones and use them, while others were just staring outside the jeepney windows.

There appears to be more adult women during the night commute, and some appear to be tired and sleepy. Some of them appear to be young corporate workers wearing semi-formal attire (slacks/ collared shirts, and formal dresses). A few of the young women are dressed casually (shorts and sleeveless tops, and casual dresses). Most of them are by themselves, while others are in pairs or groups of three. The groups would engage in conversations about their day at work. Those who came from school talked about their school activities. Women who are alighting are more alert especially when they are about to get off at an illegal stop. Some women have their bags slung over the front as they get off. Some cover their necklines.. Some began taking off their masks as soon as they left the vehicle. Some women who are accompanied by children would hurriedly walk to the next jeepney to avoid being left behind. Negative disruptions in jeepneys usually involve a high volume of commuters causing longer lines, and jeepney drivers getting a violation ticket whenever they unload/load in illegal stops.

Buses

Majority of women who ride the bus in the morning are most likely in their 40s and 50s. They are dressed casually in slacks and long-sleeved collared shirts. There are also women in their 20s and 30s wearing office skirts and blouses. Some students in their school uniforms (with their school IDs) also ride the bus. The vast majority of women are traveling by themselves. Those who have companions, however, are with men, older children, or toddlers. Some women use their phones while in transit. Most are scrolling through their social media accounts. While there are a few who are asleep, most of them are alert and anticipating their next stop.

In the evening, some bus riders have bags of groceries or fast food with them. Majority of the elderly women are alone and sleeping. Most of the younger women are on their phones, talking to their friends and classmates. While waiting and boarding the bus, most women securely carry their bags in front of them. Those wearing skirts would pull their skirts down as they exit the bus. They hold their bags (such as backpacks and laptop bags) and other belongings close to their bodies when changing modes of transportation. They are attentive as they repeatedly scan their surroundings.

Negative disruptions during morning and evening commute typically involve a large number of commuters resulting in overcrowded buses. Many are uncomfortable and frustrated (as evidenced by long and deep sighs, and resting their heads in their arms while holding the poles in the bus). Delays occasionally occur when buses pull over to make way for the emergency vehicles and train crossings.

Trains

Most of the women ride in designated women-only train cars. Many of them are employees, students, and senior citizens. Some wore office or school uniforms, while some were in casual dresses. Others, however, are in semi-formal clothing such as slacks and collared shirts or office dresses. Some women who were accompanied by their children (probably in kindergarten or primary school) wearing their school uniforms. They probably have lower to middle class incomes. Occasionally, some students could be heard whispering and giggling. Others were silent. Some of them were alert, looking around and observing their surroundings. Those who were in groups frequently conversed with their friends and partners.

While waiting for the train, women commuters use their phones and scroll through their social media accounts. Most of the women have their bags (backpacks) in front of them. Some are wiping their sweat due to excessive heat in the station. Others use their hand fans. While some just stood there quietly. As they prepared their train ticket/card, they made sure their bags were zipped and close to their bodies. Some use their phones while exiting the platform. While some rush off and head towards the terminal's exit to catch their next jeepney or bus.

Negative disruptions typically include long queues in entering the train station, overcrowded trains during rush hours, and delays in train arrival and departure. There are incidents where male commuters try to sneak into the female area to get on the train. Trains without air conditioning are among the negative disruptions usually occurring in the afternoon.

Summary and Discussion

Filipino women believe that they have enough knowledge about urban transit safety to be empowered. They believe that they are independent when traveling alone, and consider such activity meaningful. They are confident about their ability to travel, and capable of deciding how to travel. Despite these attitudes and beliefs, however, they still think that there are things and events that are beyond their control whenever they are in transit. On work days, most women in Metro Manila spend at least 4 hours a day going to work and getting home. This means that they spend almost half of their day in transit. Some studies have demonstrated that length of travel time predisposes individuals to different forms of risks (Newton & Ceccato, 2015). As women commuters, this is probably the reason why most respondents are very likely to perceive a higher risk of meeting accidents, violence, and sexual harassment while in transit. Unfortunately, some of these incidents and actual risks include robbery, physical and verbal sexual violence.

Women who had experienced violence in transit have mentioned specific crimes such as grabbing of bags, snatching of personal belongings, sitting too close and violating personal spaces, rubbing body parts against another, pretending to accidentally touch or hit body parts, staring maliciously, putting head on another person’s shoulder and pretending to be asleep, forcing conversations about personal information, improper language, taking photos without consent, exhibitionism and masturbation, unsolicited invitations, catcalling, and rape jokes. Because of these incidents, spending a lot of time in transit, and using a combination of modes of transportation, women have already conditioned themselves to be cautious when taking public transportation. Furthermore, there is already social pressure among women to engage in such behaviors wherein they should be more cautious and careful. As mentioned earlier, this is a type of injunctive norm that women follow.

Women take certain precautionary measures such as avoiding dark areas, holding on to their personal belongings, and using their bags to shield possible perpetrators from coming close, keeping emergency numbers ready, taking pictures of cab plate numbers, and being constantly aware and vigilant of their surroundings. They also keep themselves alert at all times. To avoid being harassed in transit, they also present themselves as confident and assertive. While most of them travel alone, however, they make sure that their mental faculties are alert (they are not intoxicated) when walking. Some of them bring weapons such as pepper sprays, pocket scissors, and ballpoint pens. Some women even bring a personal safety alarm called Bella, which flashes strobe lights and sounds a siren at 130 decibels (comparable to a jet engine flying 100 feet above) to scare off possible perpetrators. Testimonials reveal that women who carry Bella feel safer and more capable of defending themselves. Aside from such devices, however, women feel more empowered in transit if they have a companion or are traveling with a friend. As much as possible, they prefer to be a part of a buddy system.

While transit authorities and operators believe that there should be enough police visibility such as more roving patrollers and additional CCTVs, some women believe that it takes time for authorities to respond to violence in transit. In fact, some suggested that they would be more at ease if other women or women’s groups would be involved. All groups, however, believe that areas should be well-lit and commuter-friendly. With necessary resources and proper infrastructure, women can have stronger perceived behavioral control, and thus, have a higher intention to be more empowered. In New York City, for example, a study shows that women feel more safe with the visibility of uniformed/non-uniformed police or transit personnel rather than electronic surveillance (Buckley, 2016). Another finding suggests that aside from “having more eyes on the street to reduce crime intentions'', there is a need for street improvement in connection to the frequency of women’s use of public transportation (Harumain et al., 2021b, p. 109). Using technology in improving the security and women’s freedom should involve building inclusive and safe spaces, such as mapping urban spaces of fear where young women’s empowerment and reflective freedom can be developed.

Women believe that they are further empowered when they ask for help, and confront offenders. To defend themselves, they stare back at suspicious individuals, call out offenders, voice-activate Siri and Google speakers. It is quite unfortunate though that some bystanders do not help out. The local community, therefore, should be a part of this “collective strength”, wherein it ensures that the environment is perceived to be a safe place for women, and an unsafe place for would-be perpetrators to commit their acts of harassment and sexual violence. Nathaniel Buckley (2016) refers to this as “reversing the bystander effect” wherein the normalization of sexual violence is addressed. So, rather than women avoiding the bus, there is a movement to “push the harassers off the bus and make transit spaces safer” (Buckley, 2016, p. 47).

Since most women use their phones while in transit, they are aware of the existence of safety applications in mobile devices. Some of their commonly suggested functions include speed dial, location tracking, immediate response in the event of a transit mishap, emergency numbers (nearest hospital, police, etc.), notifying authorities, voice activation or keywords to alert authorities, and the app tied with women’s groups. Transit authorities and operators suggest that safety apps include a real-time locator, alarm system when one is threatened, GPS tracker, tracking of phone even without a signal, allow prepaid account holders who do not have load (credits) to call the police or emergency contacts, voice activation like Siri or speed dial functions. App experts likewise suggest features such as safety rating systems, navigational information on the safest routes in the city, reporting of public transport routes and areas on a map where women feel unsafe, and reports on incidents of crimes. One app developer proposed a combination of Sakay.ph and Waze where the reporting-based feature of Waze is added to the crowd-sourced route database feature of Sakay.ph (which enables commuters to pick a route based on safety rating). These apps should be partnered with government agencies.

Key Insights

Women define urban transit safety as not only their own personal safety but the safety of their belongings. It is also about comfortable travel, and being with other passengers who are also concerned about their safety. Although they feel independent when traveling alone, a key insight that arises all throughout the study is the need for women to be around other women or their friends/ companions when in transit. Aside from adequate transit and security infrastructure, women feel more empowered with certain resources, or in this case “weapons” for self-defense. Their mobile device apps can be a first line of defense in the absence of other weapons. Access to information, along with awareness and vigilance also contributes to their confidence while in transit. Given high perceptions of risk in transit, knowing the best routes and being updated also matter to women. In the event of untoward incidents, however, women expect nothing less but immediate responses from bystanders, authorities, and their emergency contacts. Considering that such responses do not come in a timely manner, there should be alternative mechanisms to ensure immediate safety.

Banking on the concept of Dworkin’s Take Back the Night, the burden should not be on women to protect themselves but on the accountability of both perpetrators, and transit authorities and operators. Safety transit apps, therefore, should shift most of the accountability away from women. This concept has already been used by the Hollaback! app, which has “set out to transform this culture of victim-blaming into one where harassers take the blame and victims receive the support they need.” This same insight has been used by Hollaback! in its map feature with GPS location with dots representing places where harassment has been reported (Weiss, 2015). Clicking on the dot shows information and support may be offered to the survivor by clicking "I've got your back". Rather than merely showing support through an app, however, this study finds that women believe they are empowered in transit when they confront perpetrators head on -and actively ask for help. This is similar to calling out (as in call-out culture), wherein offenders are publicly named due to their oppressive behaviors or actions. As gathered from both the qualitative and quantitative data, women have already taken various measures to keep themselves safe through various means. Infrastructural mechanisms should support metro commuters as well. Such could include integration with institutional and policy-based systems which are already in place at a barangay (village) or national level.

The SafeHer Concept

Based on the data gathered and key insights, the AI-driven concept SafeHer seeks to address various needs of women to ensure their safety while in transit. SafeHer empowers women by merging defensive functions with the idea of women’s collective strength and action. It also integrates operations that call for the cooperation of both local transit authorities and government units, and makes perpetrators accountable for their transit crimes. Below is a table that enumerates the needs and issues according to Filipino women, empowering actions, and proposed functions for the AI-driven women’s safety app:

Need/ Issue/ Incident

Mode for Empowerment/

Empowering Actions

AI-Driven App Response

Buddy System/ Companion

Collective Strength

Nearby Women Commuters

Sharing Live Location to Contacts

Prevalence of Transit Crimes

Information, Awareness and Vigilance

Number of Reported Incidents within the User’s Vicinity

Verbal/ Physical Harassment

Call Out/ “Weapons”

Perpetrator’s Accountability

Gov’t Authorities’ Accountability

Sound Alarm

Flashing Lights

Voice Statement “Police are on their way”

Front and Rear Photos

Filing a Report

Reported Incidents and Resolved Issues

Immediate Response

Reversing the Bystander Effect

Incident Report

Emergency Texts

Medical ID

Recommended Tie-up with Barangay VAW Desks

Emergencies

Automatic Response

SOS Alert

Crash and Scream Detection

Manually-Triggered SOS

Data Privacy

User Verification

Valid ID and Selfie

The following specifies the AI-driven app responses or functions in SafeHer: A Women Empowerment & Safety App:

AI-powered SOS Alert

The primary feature of the app is the AI-powered SOS Alert. An SOS alert may be triggered in three ways: crash detection, scream detection, and a manually triggered SOS alert. For AI-powered SOS alerts from crash detection and scream detection, the user can cancel the alert by using the saved lock pattern in case it has been triggered accidentally. If she is unable to do so, the app performs a series of actions as part of the SOS alert:

  1. A sound alarm and the phone’s flashing lights are enabled for emergency services to easily identify the user’s location.

    1. The sound alarm includes a statement to fend off harassers: “Stop harassing me. Police have been contacted and are on their way.”

  2. An incident report is submitted to the emergency services.

  3. An emergency text is sent to the user’s saved emergency contacts.

    1. The text includes a message that the user is in probable danger, a timestamp of when the SOS alert was triggered, and a generated link to the live location of the user.

  4. A series of front and rear photos are taken at 3-second intervals.

Nearby Women Commuters

Based on the key insight of wanting to have a companion or a friend to travel with, another key function of the app is a feature to know how many women commuters are around the vicinity of the user. It provides a sense of camaraderie and collective action that there are people nearby who may assist in emergencies. The homepage features the number of reported incidents within the user’s vicinity, which can help her determine which route to take on her commute. The homepage also makes the three main features of the app accessible: triggering an SOS alert, filing a report, and sharing a live location.

Sharing a Live Location

The users can also share their live location in two ways: by sharing with emergency contacts or by generating a shareable link.

Filing a Report

The app includes a reporting system where users may file a report of an incident they may encounter or a public location to provide awareness of the safety level of an area. These reports are consolidated and sent to authorities with the proper jurisdictions for analysis and resolution of the issue.

Reported Incidents and Resolved iIssues

The Notifications page includes reported incidents within the user’s vicinity to help ensure that users are aware of the imminent dangers and vulnerabilities on the road. Moreover, it also contains resolved issues by local authorities or public transportation operators. This added feature informs users that their reports are acknowledged, and actions are being taken to address the issue. It encourages users to report any incidents they may encounter on the road and promote accountability from the end of the government authorities.

User Verification

To keep the app a safe space for women commuters to use, a user verification step is added to creating an account. The user verification process requires users to upload a valid ID and take a selfie to validate their identity. This step is only required to access a few app features, including information about nearby women commuters.

Medical ID

Verified users may opt to set up their medical ID in the app. The information is sent to emergency services if the user triggers an SOS alert and requires medical assistance.

Recommendations

Preliminary Concept Test

The following statements present observations and recommendations during a preliminary concept test:

  • The app is similar to Waze and Life360 but it includes additional features such as making emergency SOS calls and reporting incidents.

  • The app's name gives a good idea of what it's about and who it's for. It would be preferable if it could be accessed via a smart watch, as some women prefer not to use their phones while commuting.

  • Notifications on resolved issues could include displaying the context and resolution process (who resolved it, when it was resolved, etc.).

  • Medical information could be optional and useful if the user is pregnant.

  • Voice only (a single word recorded by the user), hand gesture only, or digits only could be additional trigger cancellation options (limit to 3-4 digits).

  • The verification process should be elaborated and optional. Once an account is created, the app owner should handle and claim responsibility for end-user data privacy.

  • NGOs may assist in app promotion, but access to the database should be handled solely by the app owner.

Integration with VAW Desks

To address women’s concerns about the slow response time of police and other government authorities to transit crimes, SafeHer can be integrated with the Violence Against Women (VAW) Desk. Since the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the Philippine Magna Carta of Women provides for the establishment of a VAW desk in every barangay, there is bound to be a VAW desk within close vicinity of transit crimes. Since its primary purpose is to be a frontline service provider to victim-survivors who experience physical, sexual, psychological, economic, and other forms of abuse, women should immediately be assisted in accessing necessary services. Furthermore, integrating the app with a VAW Desk response app can assist VAW Desk representatives in responding to gender-based violence (GBV) cases brought to the barangay. The other functions of the VAW Desk include gender-responsive plans in addressing gender-based violence, support services, capacity building, and referral system. It is also their job to coordinate with and refer cases to government agencies, non government organizations (NGOs), institutions, and other service providers as necessary. Thus, reports and incidents that are received in SafeHer can easily be referred to the proper agencies.

Since the VAW desk is also tasked to record the number of GBV cases handled by the barangay and submit a quarterly report on all VAW cases to the Department of Interior and Local Government City/Municipal Field Office and the City/Municipal Social Welfare Development Office (C/MSWDO), data received from and transmitted by SafeHer can supplement GBV records. All VAW Desk personnel are trained on how to handle, refer, and record VAW cases brought to their respective duty stations. This may also address the concern of women with regard to the question of who responds to their concerns about physical or verbal sexual harassment while in transit. There may be an added dose of confidence to use SafeHer in that VAW Desk responders are properly trained on GBV matters. The sheer number of VAW Desks can also hopefully address the pace of response time. As of June 2019, 37,686 out of 42,045 barangays have established VAW Desks all over the country. The challenges with such integration, however, is the tedious coordination with various agencies and local government units, the development of a SafeHer counterpart app for responders within the VAW Desks, pilot-testing, and of course, training on usage and data management for the app prior to roll-out.

Data Management

SafeHer will contain a lot of sensitive information, like personal details and medical data. Such information should then be protected against unauthorized access. For SafeHer, encrypting sensitive user information such as passwords and personal information is required both in transit and at rest, as well as during processing. This can be done by using an encryption library such as keystore jars or certificates in the app. An easy way to do this is by using Secure Socket Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS). SSL/TLS is a protocol that provides privacy, authentication, and data integrity. It is widely used in web browsers because it encrypts data before transmitting it over the internet. It also protects the reverse transmission of private information by encrypting the data before sending it to the server and decrypting it when received by the server. Data security is a complex topic that requires great attention from both developers and stakeholders alike. A recommendation is to consult with a cyber security expert who can analyze and assess potential threats and implement detailed and secure plans and procedures to avoid potential security breaches.

Best Route Recommendation

The primary focus of SafeHer is to create an AI-powered SOS alert system. However, another feature to assist users during their commute is to provide the best route possible, taking into consideration other conditions they may encounter on the road, such as weather, traffic, and reported incidents. This has been the suggestion of the app designers and developers who were respondents in the FGDs. Such a feature, however, has already been proved to be successful in the already existing Hollaback!, and My Safetipin app in India which provides information about an area based on a scoring system to identify safe and unsafe places. Based on the idea of Kalpana Viswanath, the idea is to make cities more walkable and encourage more women to go out (Ghosh, 2020).

App Expansion to Smartwatches

Using mobile phones in public can be dangerous, as anyone nearby may easily snatch a phone from a person’s hands. Commuters may opt to keep their phones inside their bags to prevent this from happening. Therefore, to keep the app accessible, it can be expanded to smartwatches, a straightforward wearable device.

Conclusion

The primary motivation of this paper is to involve women in urban planning and ensure that public spaces, transportation and transit facilities, and AI-powered safety applications are there to cater to and accommodate their specific needs. Considering the length of time that they spend in transit, and the unsafetyness of transport systems in Metro Manila, mechanisms and models should not be less than empowering for Filipino women. The empowerment of Filipino women in transit, after all, is revealed as a combination of defense mechanisms alongside the idea of collective action. Cooperation of both local transit authorities and government units must also be demanded as institutional support. With the unique demographics and psychographics, circumstances, communities and locations of Filipino women, and their socio-cultural, personal, practical and spatial factors, SafeHer is informed and conceptualized to allow Filipino women to be safe(h)er and AI-(em)powered.

Acknowledgements

The development of this paper and app concept would not have been possible without the aid of the <A+> Alliance and the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The research team would also like to thank Lyka Mae Lucena of Lunas Collective, Eva Aurora Callueng of Rainbow Catholics Philippines, Praksis Miranda of the Women and Gender Studies Association of the Philippines, and the ethnographers and staff of the Social Development Research Center of De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines.

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