25/05/2016 13:16 BST | Updated 26/05/2017 06:12 BST

How We Developed an App to Keep Sex Workers Safe


Waiting in the reception area of a charity supporting sex workers one day, we were drawn to a noticeboard labelled "Dodgy Punters" that listed instances of harassment and crimes against sex workers. These ranged from bizarre examples of throwing boiled eggs out of a moving car to horrific, violent attacks.

Sex workers are often targeted by dangerous individuals but are frequently reluctant to report these incidents to the police. In the face of such violent threats, sex workers have built a strong community that takes care of its own. They often mistrust the police but have a wealth of lived experience that they use to look out for each other and to protect new, inexperienced members who might be unfamiliar with potential dangers.

In the 1980's a British academic came across a group of sex workers sharing handwritten notes and using the term 'ugly mugs' to describe individuals who were unreasonable and/or violent, in order to warn other sex workers. National Ugly Mugs, a multi-award winning national organisation providing greater access to justice and protection for sex workers, developed the concept of handwritten notes into a paper-based, email and SMS alert service. This allowed users to change their behaviour, avoid offenders and be more willing to report to the police as a result.

In conjunction with National Ugly Mugs, and with help from Comic Relief funding, Reason Digital - a leading social enterprise in the burgeoning "tech for good" scene - conceived, designed and developed mobile app, SafetyNets. The app, currently in use in London, helps sex workers notify each other of imminent dangers nearby in real time, in order to reduce instances of violent attacks, rape or murder. The app was co-designed with sex workers and the agencies supporting them including Manchester Action on Street Health and Survivors Manchester. We needed the app to support sex workers of all gender identities and working in all sectors, on the streets, in brothels and privately or independently.

We went out to speak to sex workers, tested and tweaked our designs and app functionality in response to feedback. We were able to release a product that was usable and practical for sex workers because of their involvement at all stages of the development process.

We made a number of useful learnings from the process. The design featured a dark background so the app was less likely to light up their faces at night, which would make them more of a target. We presented a series of pre-selected options in order to speed up the process of submitting vital safety information and built in features to personalise the alerts shown based on gender identity.

It was essential that the app respected the individual's privacy as much as it promoted their safety. As such, the app uses a technical process that enables the phone itself to decide which alerts to show based on its current location. This way, we can send out vital alerts about dangers nearby without building a central database tracking the movements of individual sex workers and therefore protecting their identity.

The app is freely available in Google and Apple app stores, but individuals need to be registered with National Ugly Mugs in order to use the app. This way, we can be sure the only people using the app are sex workers known to the organisation and can't be abused by criminals seeking to compromise the safety of sex workers.

It was also important to choose the right partners to develop and deliver the app - organisations who are trusted by and understand the issues faced by sex workers and who understand the political, social and economic context of sex work, in order to understand what technical solution was likely to work.

SafetyNets wouldn't exist at all without the financial support of funders willing to take a risk on an innovative, untested project that wouldn't otherwise see the light of day.

The initial Manchester pilot and London launch were funded by The Nominet Trust and Comic Relief respectively - two organisations with a reputation for experimenting with "tech for good" projects to find effective new ways of delivering social impact using technology. Promotional work with people aged between eighteen and twenty-five in sex work was funded by The Foundation.

The app is a digital innovation that not only empowers sex workers to make informed decisions about their own safety but is ultimately helping to save more lives.

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