Madhureeta Anand, a 45-year-old independent filmmaker and writer, has dedicated her life to addressing critical questions surrounding gender violence and women’s safety. She has been a fearless advocate of gender equality.
About five years ago, however, she was attacked by a miscreant on the street in New Delhi. She describes it as a “horrible experience” which made her “think about mechanisms that can ensure the safety of women in different spaces”. Those thoughts about personal safety went into overdrive when her daughter turned 16 a year later.
What followed in the next four years was the creation of the ‘Phree App’, which allows users, particularly women and the transgender community, to rate commercial establishments, streets, and areas for safety. The app helps create a map marking out safe/unsafe spaces, thereby creating a pre-emptive safety environment for these vulnerable segments of society. It is a unique app open to users from around the world backed by ‘Made in India’ technology.
Travellers, parents, women, and just about any other group looking for information related to safety will benefit from this app, which was launched at the end of August this year.
The app is now available on the Google Play store with over 1,000 downloads so far.
Fears of a single mother
“When my daughter turned 16 and started going out with her friends regularly, it put the fear of God in me, particularly since I was a single mother. But as an avowed feminist, I never wanted to be a parent who would constantly call my daughter every hour asking for her whereabouts and telling her where she can or cannot go. In fact, whenever my daughter was out with her friends, I would call up the owners of the concerned cafes or restaurants about their presence there,” says Madhureeta, in a conversation with The Better India.
Eventually one night, Madhureeta thought about whether there was any way of checking how safe a commercial establishment or an area was for women. When she searched online, she couldn’t find any platform, which established a safety rating for such spaces.
That’s when things truly started to click into gear. “The emphasis was on the social and economic implications of such a platform. This is not just about a safety rating. The moment you introduce such ratings, the focus shifts from the survivor of a terrible experience to the unsafe environment itself. It becomes more difficult to engage in ‘victim-blaming’, saying things like ‘these girls were dressed skimpily and were thus harassed’. This narrative becomes less important than a bar or a cafe getting a bad safety rating, which has a direct impact on whether other customers choose to visit the concerned establishment,” she notes.
Armed with a genuine idea, she began presenting it to different technological entities. But whenever she presented her idea for an app, the constant response was ‘why hasn’t anyone done this before’. That’s all they would ask. For the most part, they didn’t show any real interest.
The concept behind most apps geared toward women is formulated by men. Instead of creating a safe environment, the emphasis is usually on rescuing a woman from danger.
“Ola or Uber, for example, have ‘alert’ or ‘emergency’ features in their cab sharing apps backed by the notion that someone would save them. These solutions are not practical. If you have to press that emergency trigger, it means that a woman has already suffered a bad experience. We don’t want users to press that emergency trigger anymore. Despite lukewarm responses, it remained a good idea, and I was committed to it,” says Madhureeta.
Take the example of the Himmat App developed by the Delhi Police. It is “an emergency service, comprising an android emergency application, which can send a distress call or emergency message to Delhi Police officials and specified contact or group in an emergency faced by a woman.”
The rationale is the same. The Phree App seeks to ensure that women can preempt an unpleasant experience by avoiding spaces rated as unsafe.
Matters finally began to take off in the summer of 2019, when she was on a visit to Palo Alto, California. During a luncheon there with her friends from school, she met Pradeep Bakshi, Managing Partner of Trantor Inc, which ranks among the largest fintech companies in the world. Pradeep was the husband of one of her school friends attending the luncheon. When Madhureeta found out what he did for a living, she decided to discuss her idea with him.
After a brief 10-minute discussion, he expressed his desire to assist her in developing this app. As a father of two daughters, he understood why this app was necessary. For the next year, he worked closely with Madhureeta until the app was finally launched in August.
“Throughout the process of developing this app, he has been tremendous for us. Designing an app is an art because there are so many aspects of it. He spent a year designing multiple beta versions of the app, and we finally launched it in August this year,” she says.
How Does It Work?
They’ve used the Google Maps API, and the app has got three sections where users can mark establishments, streets and areas for safety. For example, if there is a part of Hauz Khas in New Delhi, which a user thinks is unsafe, she just has to pinpoint that specific area on the map with a review saying why it’s so. In terms of streets, the app allows users to mark upto 10 km, but not more.
Meanwhile, users can mark a specific establishment like a cafe, restaurant, gym or mall safe or unsafe as well. If a user is near the said premises, the app will send them a little notification stating ‘you’re at XYZ Cafe’, and how they want to rate it.
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Let’s take a moment and listen to what #phree user Akriti from New Delhi ( @cree_eeep ) has to say about her experience with Phree for Safety! #phreeforsafety #womensupportingwomen #womenempoweringwomen #sisterhood #ambitiouswomen #girlssupportinggirls #safetyfirst #selfcare #quotes #motivation #thoughtsoftheday #randommemes #freedom #freeyourself #brave #besafe #womensafety #protect #protectyourself #safetyapp #tech #safetyawareness #womenpower #girlboss #safety #app #travel #parenting @madhureeta @make_india_safe_for_women @pinthecreep @safecitiesforwomen @unwomen @womenforwomen @violenceagainstwomeninindia @womenintheworld @womenentrepreneur @ficci_india @ficci_flo @makerswomen @makeinindia
A post shared by Phree For Safety (@phree_safe) on Sep 21, 2020 at 1:59am PDT
In case, users don’t want to mark it at or near the premises; they can do it at home as well. There is a tutorial on the app that will guide them through the process.
“In about six months, we are looking to add the Phree Plus feature, which will give users all the helplines in the given area, a ‘Quora’-like a forum for safety, where they can ask other users questions like whether it’s safe for women to visit this pub in a certain city. So, if you’re in Bengaluru and if you want to ask questions of Delhi, you can visit the page dedicated to the latter city and ask people there. Ultimately, we will also add 2-minute soap-opera-like episodes every day with five characters around the world navigating different safety issues across cities, countries and cultures from women and transgender people. We have already started designing this version of the app,” says Madhureeta.
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Let’s take a moment and listen to what #phree user Sinduja from Bangalore has to say about her experience with Phree for Safety! #phreeforsafety #womensupportingwomen #womenempoweringwomen #sisterhood #ambitiouswomen #girlssupportinggirls #safetyfirst #selfcare #quotes #motivation #thoughtsoftheday #randommemes #freedom #freeyourself #brave #besafe #womensafety #protect #protectyourself #safetyapp #tech #safetyawareness #womenpower #girlboss #safety #app #travel #parenting @madhureeta @makerswomen @makeinindia @womenforwomen @unwomen @ficci_flo @ficci_india
A post shared by Phree For Safety (@phree_safe) on Sep 23, 2020 at 1:07am PDT
How does the app ensure users don’t act in bad faith?
If a commercial establishment is marked unsafe by multiple folks, it can affect their business. To address these concerns, the Phree App team has taken certain measures:
1) Users can rate the place only once, and they can only amend their rating.
2) The app doesn’t use emails, but phone numbers and users need an OTP to log in.
3) If within an area, say 1,000 people start rating one place categorically too quickly, it’s either an emergency or a fake. So, the team looks into it immediately. The app has certain algorithms in place to catch whether certain profiles are fake or not.
4) If there are too many ratings marked safe or unsafe without any written reviews, it’s automatically flagged as suspect. The app flags these reviews and puts out a rider saying they aren’t sure whether this is a genuine rating or not.
Pradeep Bakshi’s entry into the development of the app was the first point of investment. But now Phree App is going for their first round of official funding. Since the world has been living through a pandemic, this process has slowed down a little.
“Women are redefining many things, including entrepreneurship. Instead of feeling like a victim, I want to make a positive change through my writings, films and now the app. To make this happen, I follow a stringent timeline, and when needed, I will throw an all-nighter,” she says.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)