Will you be raped or seriously assaulted at work today? For female sex workers, the chance of being raped or seriously assaulted at work is 50 / 50. And 3 in 4 have experienced physical assault at the hands of pimps or punters.

There are 80,000 people working as a sex worker in the UK: a mainstream, but underground profession with more workers than in the entire UK mining and quarrying industry put together.

Clearly, this is a group that needs the support of society the most. Yet they are one of the most socially-excluded and vulnerable groups in the country and many feel they can’t rely on the help of strangers, the police and even witnesses of crimes against them.

For many the only weapon they have to fight these dangers is information. That comes in the form of noticeboards, zines and messages from vital support schemes like National Ugly Mugs. The scheme has over 200 organisations registered – these include MASH in Manchester and SWISH in London – who receive reports about threatening or violent behaviour towards sex workers and distribute these as warnings of who, where and what to avoid.

Days lost cost lives

Ugly Mugs take reports about “dodgy punters” from sex workers and put the information out via email, text and on noticeboards at support agencies in key areas. These warnings are often distributed the same day, but it can sometimes take days or weeks for people to read the information, depending on how often sex workers visit support centres or look at their emails.

Another example of how warnings are distributed is this booklet produced by Ugly Mugs and SWISH in London. Sandwiched between the maypole cartoon on the front and a recipe for Spring veggie casserole with herb dumplings at the back, are a number of disturbing Ugly Mugs alerts detailing everything from assaults, to rapes, to false imprisonment.

Ugly Mugs Newsletter

These leaflets save lives, but take time to put together and hit the streets, while the perpetrators of these violent crimes are still free and society unaware of the threat they pose.

If a sex worker could instantly send an alert about threatening behaviour to other sex workers in that area, it would provide information needed by sex workers to make real-time, informed decisions and save lives on our streets, in saunas and in sex workers homes.

Speeding up the process

Here at Reason Digital we use technology to do social good, so we got our team on the challenge.

We were inspired by the idea of the mobile apps that people use to connect with others instantly and nearby – often for casual sex – such as Grindr and Tinder, and applying that technology to a radically different problem.

This led us to a design for a mobile app that would use this same geo-local messaging technology, but completely anonymously. Sex workers install the app for free on their phones, then they start to get alerts of problems nearby. If they want to report they open the app and type some basic, text-message length details, and their warning is instantly sent to others near them.

Making an app that saves lives is more than design and code – it’s about partnerships, tricky ethical issues, building the trust of the people you’re trying to help and, of course, significant funds.

Ugly Mugs partnered with us, and we showed our prototype to The Nominet Trust who had sent out a rallying call to action for UK entrepreneurs to use technology to drive significant social change through their £1million Social Tech, Social Change challenge.

They backed the project, now we could answer the question, will it actually work?

Making apps with sex workers

SafetyNets could only work if the people who it is designed to help were involved from the start. That’s why we co-produced it with sex workers and sex work experts.

Through a series of workshops, focus groups, consultations and outreach sessions on the app. They have made changes so that the app works best for them, and takes into consideration everyday threats that only sex workers would be aware of.

If you’ve been to a focus group before you’ll know that they tend to be put together by a market research company who arrange for between 10-20 people of different backgrounds and age ranges to come in and sit round a table for an hour after work and discuss a website, app or a product. For this you are generally rewarded with a cash incentive.

We naively planned the same thing, and got very few attendees. We asked the few people that turned up why that might be. Simply put, sex workers were losing money talking to us and being off the beat, or not on call.

A totally different approach was needed.

We had to go where our users were, and that meant taking our prototypes and our notebooks to brothels, outreach sessions and even under canal bridges. Consultations become more informal, and more focused, stealing 5 or 10 minutes here and there, but our perseverance paid off.

It was also at one of these groups where a sex worker designed with us the idea of having the app in  black with white text. This was to stop the app lighting up their face which could further compromise their safety.

What we've come up with

Safetynets home screenThe design from this process has been implemented as an Android mobile app.

The app is now being piloted with male and female sex workers in Manchester. This lets us see it out in the real world, and make changes to make sure it does its job of making people safer in a challenging environment.

The app will be available on iPhones after this pilot is completed, and rolled out nationally with the support of local sex work charities across the UK, and the National Ugly Mugs scheme. We aim to reach 10,000 sex workers over 3 years.

Challenges

A number of challenges came out of these groups that gave us lots to think about.

We undertook the first piece of research ever into the smartphone usage of sex workers.

We met male escorts and sex workers in London and Manchester, who were hugely tech savvy and had the very latest iPhones and smartphones, who relied on phones for the bulk of their business.

We spoke to girls in brothels and saunas who were all glued to their Smartphones and Candy Crush Saga in their downtime.

But perhaps the most vulnerable sex workers, those out on the street, had the worst access to new technology. Most of them had old Nokias (that you wouldn’t be able to download an app on) for fear of a more expensive phone getting stolen or lost.

So as part of the pilot we’re giving away smartphones preloaded with the app to these users. And given the rate at which technology is changing those old Nokias may soon be a thing of the past and these people will have access to cheaper smartphones – meaning they can download apps and receive alerts.

No such thing as "a sex worker"

Doing this work with sex workers, we had all our preconceptions challenged – and those were fairly liberal ones to start with.

Yes, there are issues with drugs, alcohol and addiction – issues that frequent and random attacks do nothing to help with. But nothing prepared us for the range of people we met and their very individual experiences.

These people weren’t just sex workers. They were mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, sons and brothers. They were members of society who were giving something back. One of the people we spoke to volunteered for a dogs home and for a homeless charity. Another woman was saving money so she could get back into education.

We spoke to sex workers who were earning enough to rent in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – one of the most expensive areas in the UK. We spoke to sex workers who spoke multiple languages – their English was definitely better than our Russian. And conversely, we met people with low literacy levels. The app needs to cater for all these people and their diverse needs.

manchester-chelsea

One of the people we spoke to asked if the app could send good news alerts as well as ones about attacks, which reminded us of the Spring veggie casserole with little herb dumplings in the SWISH booklet. The relentless bad news needs to be tempered with some hope or something softer. I’m not sure our alerts will be about dumplings, but perhaps the support and opportunities offered by local charities for other activities, nothing to do with sex work, like cooking and art classes, provides something positive to let people know about.

Making a difference

In March 2013, Thomas Hall raped three sex workers and assaulted another in an hour in Manchester’s red light district just behind Piccadilly Train Station. The development of this new app aims to avoid any repeat of this kind of tragedy, giving sex workers the power to alert each other of people like Hall’s presence.

The prime concern for SafetyNets is improving safety, but another outcome is saving money. A rape investigation of a sex worker costs approximately £100,000, in comparison with that of a non-sex-worker, which costs between £12,000 – £40,000. If SafetyNets helps reduce rapes, assaults and attacks on sex workers, it will reduce the amount of money needed to be spent on these investigations, saving society money in the long term.

‘This Nominet funding, and our partnership with Ugly Mugs, is giving us the opportunity to do something truly ground-breaking; working with sex workers – one of the UK’s most vulnerable groups – to develop an app that keeps them safe,’ says Matt Haworth, Co-Founder of Reason Digital

The ultimate aim is that the technology developed for SafetyNets can be perfected in the UK and then can be used to keep sex workers safe in other parts of Europe and overseas. It will then be re-engineered to help other marginalised and excluded groups tackle the issues that face them.

Reason Digital News