Crowdsourced online tool SafeCityYEG maps 'safe' and 'unsafe' areas of Edmonton

An online tool to map where people feel safe, and unsafe, in Edmonton is set to officially launch on Wednesday but it has already accumulated thousands hits from residents — and some pointed criticism from those who fear it may stigmatize certain demographic groups.

Critics say the data may be skewed depending on who uploads the information

A screen grab of the SafeCityYEG mapping tool that allows residents to report where they feel safe. (City of Edmonton)

An online tool to map where people feel safe or unsafe in Edmonton has already accumulated thousands of hits from residents  — and some pointed criticism from those who fear it may unfairly stigmatize certain areas of the city.

SafeCityYEG is an online mapping tool that allows anyone to drop a pin on a virtual map of Edmonton. It's set to officially launch on Wednesday.

Participants can state whether they feel "safe" or "unsafe" in a particular location. The tool then prompts people to answer questions about why they feel that way, with a pull-down menu of options that covers topics such as lighting, signage, and whether a person was harassed.

The data on the map is updated constantly, with people updating or deleting their reports. So far, the majority of respondents are zeroing in on the downtown core, with almost a thousand reports on the area as of Tuesday afternoon. The bulk of respondents said they feel unsafe. 

Irfan Chaudhry, director in the office of human rights, diversity and equity at MacEwan University, worries about the subjective nature of the reporting mechanisms and about how the information could be used.

"Each of us have a very different definition of what safety is … and often times these do inadvertently [move] around racialized lines," he said, noting the data could be skewed if one particular demographic dominates the reporting.

"Often times spaces occupied by certain demographics might appear to seem or give the perception of being unsafe … now you have data guiding police and community safety resources to areas that are labelled as unsafe, but also tend to have a demographic of a certain background occupying those spaces.

"Now you run the risk of potential over-policing and all those different aspects that go along with it."

The idea for SafeCityYEG stemmed the city's efforts to make Edmonton a safer place for women.

Edmonton is a member of the United Nations Women Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces global initiative. Other member cities have used technology-based tools to gather information about sexual violence in their communities and help form responses to it.

"What I hear from women often in the city of Edmonton is that they don't feel safe. So it's trying to understand how we build a city that's safe for everyone," said Coun. Bev Esslinger, who has been involved in the project since the beginning.

In response to concerns that the map could stigmatize some areas of the city, she said, "We're just trying to understand why [people feel unsafe] and that's going to allow us to improve it." 

Lise Gotell, a gender studies professor at the University of Alberta, said the tool can be useful.

"Studies consistently show that 80 to 85 per cent of Canadian women experience street harassment. It's a barrier to mobility, it's a human rights issue. So we need to pay specific attention to this problem and that's what this map is supposed to do," she told CBC's Radio Active.

But Gotell believes the tool should be better described and promoted as being about women's safety. Funding for the project has come through the city's gender-based violence and sexual assault prevention council initiative budget.

"Right now, it doesn't identify gender or safety for women as being the primary concern."

Data from the tool is to be collected for one year and used to inform strategies to make areas safer.