The good folks at ihollaback.org have been making the problem of street harassment in cities more visible since 2005, but addressing issues around physical and verbal abuse on a societal level still has a long way to go.
That’s why last week, the team at Hollaback and the New York City Council jointly announced that a new version of the app would include a feature in which victims of street harassment could report their abuse directly to New York politicians in their district.
"You’ll notice on the menu we now have an option for resources, secondly there’s a Know Your Rights section and what to do when you experience those things, and then third of all on the storytelling form, there’s a field that says New York City Council wants to hear your story," Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback, told Co.Exist. "What that allows [people] to do is reach out to the Department of Parks, Education, Consumer Affairs—and if it looks like there’s a lot of incidences happening in one area, we can work together on solutions. The demographic information is about targeting the problem," she said.
For the first time, Hollaback is teaming up with the city to bring big data tools to street harassment storytelling. Now, reports on Hollaback plug directly into CouncilStat, the City Council’s citizen reporting system that is usually the domain of pothole and landlord grievances. For example, if someone gets groped in Union Square, they can report the incident through Hollaback, and it will go straight to Councilmember Rosie Mendez. When enough of those reports have been filed, May hopes that the city can track problem areas or demographics more clearly.
"If we find out this is happening most often to 16-year-olds, then we know that going into high schools and middle schools and doing education programs will help them the best," May said. "It’s about the Council having a comprehensive set of data where they can do interventions."
May also hopes that the app will result in safety audits, in which members of different community groups can go to areas where people most often feel unsafe and study them. As a result of those notes, the city can then take steps to improve the area physically, whether that means better street lighting, working telephones, or cleaning up tags of derogatory slurs. Another way to use this data to the city’s advantage might be to include public service announcements on transit lines most prone to harassment.
A less visible but equally important effect of gathering and publishing this kind of data is that victims of street harassment feel more empowered and less alienated the next time they experience this kind of abuse, May says.
"That’s important to moving towards a tipping point where we as society understand that this is not okay," May added. "New York City, with the release of this app, is taking a really innovative stance—it’s the first city in the world to collect these reports without going to the police, which is often a whole other set of red tape and headaches," she said.