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Interview – Kalpana Viswanath

Picture of Kalpana Vishwanath

Dr. Kalpana Viswanath, researcher, and urban safety and gender rights activist, shares her thoughts on issues of Public Safety and Sexuality with In Plainspeak. Co-founder and CEO of SafetiPin, a social enterprise that uses data and technology to build safer, more inclusive and smart cities, Kalpana has led large gender rights projects globally. She headed Jagori, a leading NGO working on women’s rights, and has been a consultant for many agencies including Women in Cities International, Action Aid, Plan International, UN Women, and UN Habitat. SafetiPin, launched in 2013, has worked with more than 30 cities in India and other developing countries.  Kalpana says “I really believe very strongly, cities are spaces where differences and diversity coexist and different people can use space, in ways that can challenge tradition, can challenge social norms, and therefore I think that is what women need to continue doing.”

Shikha Aleya: To begin, thank you Kalpana, for the time and energy you are sparing for this interview. Please tell us something about yourself and your journey. What are the experiences and observations that led you to focus on participative, co-creation of safe urban spaces?

Kalpana Viswanath: My background is in Sociology, I’ve done my Ph.D in Sociology, I’ve worked on issues of violence against women, urban safety, processes of urbanisation, and creating inclusive cities for the past 15 years. I’ve worked with Jagori earlier, where we first stumbled upon the safety audit, as a tool, as a methodology through which we could actually assess public spaces for how safe or unsafe women feel there. We recognised that while domestic violence and sexual harassment at the workplace is being dealt with, the entire arena of women’s safety, and access and mobility in the city, was something that had not yet been unpacked. So, we thought of using the tool of the safety audit, which was basically a way of using different parameters, both of infrastructure as well as the way a space is used, to measure how safe women feel. This methodology had been used in Canada in the late eighties, and subsequently in Africa and Latin America through UN Women and UN Habitat. In the early 2000’s, we took this methodology and used it to audit Delhi, around universities and low-income neighbourhoods and middle income neighbourhoods, taking the perspective of women on what they felt either hampered or aided their ability to move around freely and without fear.

In 2013 along with my co-founder Ashish Basu, we developed an app, SafetiPin, building on the safety audit tool. The rationale behind SafetiPin was twofold. One was, to take a tool which was available in paper and pen form, make it into a technology app which could then be available to anybody, in any city in the world. So now you can download the app called My SafetiPin, and you can input your data about your feelings of safety and what makes you feel safe, what your problems are, etc. At the same time you can see all the data that’s available. So the data then comes as a Safety Pin, safety scores, safest routes, and other features, which help women navigate cities in a more fearless way. Our aim was to expand women’s access, women’s rights, and women’s mobility, because we realised that the discourse on safety had begun to actually limit and restrict women’s ability to move about the city safely and without fear.

Shikha:  The SafetiPin app is a fascinating concept. We understand that when the app scores public space and safety, certain parameters are used to arrive at the safety score of a city location. In your experience, is it possible that the parameters of a safety audit may not always be the same for different groups such as seniors, persons with disability, or people who visibly appear to be gender non-conforming? Are there ways in which you see your products evolving to be even more inclusive, for example, designing app versions accessible to individuals with disabilities, or looking at language options?

Kalpana: One, this issue of languages. We have the app in 5 languages, English, Hindi, Spanish, Vietnamese and Khmer. We are open to having it in many more languages.

The parameters that we arrived at were based on a thorough investigation of all safety audits that had been done globally in cities around the world. We narrowed it down to those parameters which were common to all the different checklists. So these are a combination of both, physical infrastructure as well as the social usage, or social infrastructure, in public spaces. So it includes elements like lighting, how open the area is, whether there are eyes on the street, whether there are people on the street, etc.

We do recognise that for certain people with different sets of needs and different vulnerabilities, it may be possible to incorporate other parameters. While we do feel that the basic parameters that we have are actually quite comprehensive, one of the things that we recently found through our work is that if you build a city for safety, it is a walkable city, and conversely if you build a city for walkability, then it is also a safe city. So many of the parameters that lead towards walkability are also those that lead towards safety. Having said that, we are now building a new app which will have a feature of being able to customise certain kinds of questions if we want to, for example, do a specific study on how gender non-conforming people actually experience public spaces, or whether children have different kinds of needs. So we are open to looking at other options. There may be some specific parameters, but in our experience so far, we have found that it is quite comprehensive. The app itself may not be changed, but we may be able to add separate kinds of mechanisms through which other people’s experiences could feed into it and enrich the data that we already have.

Shikha: When SafetiPin collects data about hazards and unsafe zones, is there a follow up protocol? Have you received feedback and responses on issues of safety based on the data collected through the app, from urban development, civic, political and government authorities? 

Kalpana: The aim of SafetiPin data collection is to encourage and ensure that changes in responses take place. We do not believe in collecting data just for the sake of collecting data. We are always proactive in trying to ensure that the data reaches the key stakeholders who can then act on it. So, to give you a few examples of our work till date, in Delhi we had, in 2016, done a mapping of the entire city where we had collected data across almost three thousand kilometres of the city. We had found out that there were about 7800 dark spots in the city, dark spots being places where there were absolutely no lights. When we shared this data with the Delhi government, they actually used it to improve the lighting in more than 80% of the dark spots across 135 stretches of road. We did a re-auditing of those areas to see if actually changes had taken place, and they had. For us, really, something that has been very positive, is that in 2018, the Delhi government came back to us and requested us to do a fresh mapping of the entire city, this time to not only look at lighting but also a whole range of other issues, and focus on public transport, public toilets, public parks, schools, tourist monuments, etc., to do a complete audit of the city.

Similarly in Bangalore, our data were used to help identify the city areas that women use, that do not have bus stops within a 400 metre radius. Again, in Bogota, in Colombia, our partner there, the local government, has tried to increase women’s access to the city streets by using the data to decide where to improve lighting, where to place bike stands and where to place CC TV cameras, so that women would feel safer biking, even after dark. Our aim is to work with local governments, so while the user of the app is one audience, our other audience is actually key government stakeholders, municipal stakeholders, who act on the data to make cities safer.

Shikha: In another interview, you share your vision of an ideal world where women and girls are not bound by constraints of fear in a city. While an app such as Safetipin provides a safety tool, what is your observation about changing the mindsets in families and communities where ‘protection’ from known and unknown danger is cited as the reason to control the mobility of women? Or even control the use of a mobile phone?  Has the app given you an entry point to address this?

Kalpana: We recognise that an app, or a tool like SafetiPin, addresses one part of the issue, one part of the problem. Certainly, to bring about a change in women’s mobility, in women’s access to opportunity, would mean addressing institutions, city planning, as well as attitudes, social norms, and cultural norms. What we see is that SafetiPin is a tool that can be used by other organisations that are working on broader issues. SafetiPin itself aims to be a tool, so we work with governments, residents’ associations, NGOs, universities, and then, by creating synergies with other existing initiatives and programs, we believe that change can be more sustainable and powerful. To give you an example, recently, in partnership with Jagori and King’s College, London, we did a project in Madanpur Khadar. This is a low-income neighbourhood in Delhi, where we worked with a group of young women and asked them to use SafetiPin as well as other tools, including WhatsApp, to map their experience of the city – where they felt safe, where they felt unsafe, what they felt, what they experienced, what they saw. The data that they generated were used to help them write a song and create an exhibition which was displayed at a metro station. That song was a sort of a hip-hop song which has since then been put on YouTube. So it really gave the young women a sense of agency about their lives, and I think that kind of project with SafetiPin then enables larger conversations to happen. This is where we see that we can bring about other forms of real change, on issues of control on women’s lives, and social norms and cultural norms  which are restrictive.

Shikha: Thank you for sharing your experiences and these interesting stories. One last question! What is your observation of the invisible, unnoticed ways in which issues of sexuality and rights operate in the environmental dynamics of different kinds of public spaces, outdoors, indoors, and in transit spaces?

Kalpana: The issue of occupying space, of claiming space, of claiming rights, is something that I think a lot of vulnerable groups, marginalised groups, diverse groups of people in cities, are now asserting. The city has been designed and planned with the able-bodied, heterosexual male as the model, and that is being challenged. When we look at different kinds of spaces, whether it’s in the home, just outside the home, in public places such as parks, or outside schools, we’re constantly having to address the issue of not just rights, but actually the issue of sexuality and even relationships I would say.

We know that in India, especially in the past few years, there have been a lot of attacks on young women and young men, who choose to express their love. We’ve had these ‘Romeo squads’ put together by the police, in many cities, especially in North India. All these, while they purport to protect women, actually end up becoming the moral police, and this is where I think cultural and social norms come into play. In fact, even the protection model is problematic.

We know that cities are also spaces of freedom, anonymity, leisure, and entertainment, and women and girls should have an equal right to actually enjoy the city. I always talk about how the idea of flaneuring, being able to walk the city, and experience all the sensory elements that a city has, whether alone or with other people, is integral to city life. We need to ensure that it is available to all people. That’s where I think we bring in the elements of safety. So I would say that the fear of sexuality drives a lot of the control over women, we know, and therefore the dynamics of different kinds of spaces then becomes something that we need to address. I’ll give you an example, parks. We know that parks around cities in India are spaces that young people, that couples, use, to spend time with each other in ways for which they are not otherwise able to find spaces, so this then also becomes a space for moral policing, or censure, or things like people taking videos of other people where social media and new technologies actually begin to impinge on the rights of people. I think it’s a complicated and complex issue of sexuality and space, and I really believe very strongly that cities are spaces where differences and diversity coexist and different people can use space, in ways that can challenge tradition and social norms. For the fear of issues of safety we should not give up using public spaces, but continue to push the boundaries.

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