The challengeIt can take days or weeks for sex workers to receive information about dangerous behaviour in the area. We needed to build an app that allowed sex workers to report offenders quickly, easily, discreetly and safely.
The resultThe SafetyNets app is being piloted with thousands of sex workers across the UK. It’s intended to drive down the violent crimes committed against vulnerable groups while saving money to the justice and health care system.
There are estimated to be 100,000 sex workers in the UK – that’s more workers than the mining and quarrying industry combined. A female sex worker has a 50/50 chance of being sexually assaulted and 3 in 4 have experienced physical assault at the hands of a pimp or punter.
More than half the murders of sex workers in Liverpool in the past 20 years remain unsolved.
As you’d expect, many sex workers don’t trust the help of strangers, the police or even witnesses of the crimes against them. Instead, they must rely on information as their only weapon to fight danger.
In the 1980s, sex workers would share handwritten notes using the term ‘ugly mugs’ to describe violent or unreasonable punters. National Ugly Mugs, a national organisation helping sex workers access protection and justice, developed the concept of handwritten notes, turning them into emails, zines, texts and noticeboards. These warnings are often issued on the same day, but it can take weeks for people to actually read the information.
75 percent of sex workers have been assaulted, over 50% have been raped.
"Society's most at-risk people now have a way to look out for one another."
As part of our volunteer work at Reason Digital, some of our team witnessed first hand the “dodgy punters” noticeboard, which is essentially a localised, paper version of Ugly Mugs. Though the information was valuable, it needed to be more effective. We knew that there must be a better solution, using digital technology to bring real-time, localised warnings and support..
We joined forces with Ugly Mugs to create a location sensitive app that would generate instantaneous alerts, preventing crimes from happening at all, rather than warning women once an attack has already happened.
Our user research showed that geo-local messaging technology could be key to providing a design solution. It can already be seen working to great effect in dating apps. Why not apply that solution to a radically different problem? Sex workers can download the app for free and anonymously start to report warnings to others near them, or receive nearby alerts.
The SafetyNets app was designed to improve reach and automate processes, allowing sex workers to instantly and secretly alert others about threatening behaviour in the area, without fear of prosecution. The app empowers sex workers to make real-time, informed decisions and save lives on our streets, in saunas and in sex workers homes.
"Since signing up, I have also passed on details to other sex workers who have found the information positive."
There is also a societal benefit to SafetyNets. A police investigation into the rape 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 to reduce rapes, assaults and attacks on sex workers, it will also reduce investigation costs.
The app also offers information on support available for health, wellbeing and employability. For instance, locations of condom distribution points, needle exchanges and where to find support organisations.
Signposting sex workers to the right support centres reduces costs to the NHS. It means less unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
"This is an incredibly cost effective way of saving lives… The human cost is not quantifiable."
How we did it
- After partnering with Ugly Mugs, we went on to source funding from tech for good supporters such like Comic Relief and The Nominet Trust, and applied our human-centred design approach.
- We co-produced the app with sex workers and experts in the field, to ensure the app would work for the right people.
- We took out prototypes to wherever our users were – brothels, outreach sessions and under canal bridges – for informal consultations.
- By using the location and notification features of mobiles, the app allows users to send short messages to any other users, within a certain distance.
- We needed to ensure that the app didn’t inadvertently end up as a database disclosing information on where every sex worker in Britain is. Privacy is key: we added location fuzzing into the app so the specific location of any sent message isn’t known. Suspicious or criminal activity will immediately alert others in the vicinity and be shared anonymously with support agencies and police.
- A smartphone can be used as a panic button, communicating the current location of a sex worker to a trusted contact and requesting help, without alerting the perpetrator.
Nothing prepared us for the range of people we met: Mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, sons and brothers. One of the people we spoke to volunteered for a dogs home and for a homeless charity. Another woman was saving money so that she could get back into education. There were people who had issues with drugs, alcohol and addiction and others who were earning enough to rent in some of the most expensive areas in the UK.
There are different kinds of sex workers – street, brothel and private. Each have individual safety needs and so the way the app is used might depend on where they are having sex, how isolated they are and the potential level of danger. The app needed to cater for each person and their diverse needs.
"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"
- After testing the app in the real world, we can go on to make appropriate changes. One of the sex workers we spoke to asked if the app could send good news alerts, as well as attack warnings. The app may benefit from positive news that has nothing to do with sex work – support and opportunities offered by local charities for other activities, like cooking and art classes.
- After the pilot is complete, it will be rolled out nationally with the support of local sex worker charities across the UK and the National Ugly Mugs scheme.
- We aim to reach 10,000 sex workers over 3 years.
- 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.
- We have spoken at conferences all over the world about SafetyNets, including some of the biggest sex worker conferences to academics. These events provide us with invaluable feedback to help drive future iterations.
Tech 4 Good Awards
Safetynets was winner of the Tech4Good 2016 “Community Impact” award