Innovators In Focus: Aagah – The App That Is Trying To End Street Harassment In Pakistan

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Street harrasment is a problem women go through throughout their life everywhere, but even more so in Pakistan. Walking through the city that’s your home shouldn’t feel dangerous, yet it does. It’s to make Pakistan feel safe again that Aagah was founded. The app works through artificial intelligence and requires individuals to report the areas where they faced street harrasment so other people can check the map and be aware of the unsafe zones. We spoke to the team behind Aagah to find out more about their initiative – scroll down to read all about it:

How would you define Aagah? What is your objective?

Aagah is an effort to pool public data with high end technology, to offer a solution to a problem that exists in our society. Simply put – our objective is to radically reduce the prevalence of street harassment that women face in Pakistan.

What’s the story behind the name Aagah?

Going into this we were not aware that Aagah is quite a popular name for many social initiatives in Pakistan. I can see why education and awareness is the first step to solving any social problem; you cannot solve what you will not acknowledge. Specifically for our initiative, what enables harassers to keep harassing, is the veil they are offered by the social constructs of our society. Aagah aims to use data to publicly offer maps of cities and publicly disclose results of the research to make everyone aware that not only does this problem exist, but it is deeply entrenched in our society.

What is unique about the way Aagah is trying to spread awareness about street harassment?

I feel what is truly unique about Aagah is how our solution is interdisciplinary.
Aagah’s central pillar is our research aspect that uses advanced Artificial Intelligence and Data Science models, but it’s not just that – we are collecting data on this topic on a national level, we use real-time maps to display harassment maps for each city, we have active social media platforms, and are working on creating a community that strives to engage in conversation and discuss solutions to this problem. Alongside this, we are actively collaborating with other organizations, both on-ground and digital, whose goals are aligned with ours to create a more robust solution. We are immersed in constantly improving our approach, refining our internal processes, and painstakingly polishing our project so that it can serve the need it was created for effectively. Maybe the most unique aspect of Aagah is the hope it creates.

How would you describe the research-based solution you have developed to combat this issue?

It all depends on the quality of data we are getting; if women and girls start to report constantly, then our research models are very robust. The beauty of Artificial Intelligence is that once you get enough data to train your model, you can actually start predicting where harassment will take place tomorrow. Our statistics show that even if 3% of women start to regularly report, it can make our solution extremely powerful.
-The information we ask in our form is divided into parts and each part informs a different part of research. Since this problem is  not studied enough and is misunderstood, some additional facts we want to uncover are :

– What factors can predict higher rates of harassment?

– What factors can predict severity of incidents?

– Understanding the victim’s perspective on depth and intensity of harassment

– Harasser behaviour on victim and bystander response

  – What can you as a victim, or bystander do that is most effective?

Aagah plans to create a realtime reporting system – how do you believe this will help in curbing the issue at hand?

Our maps are updated in real-time, but the reporting is not designed to be in real-time. When a victim is being harassed, their safety is of utmost priority and reporting can always be done at a later time when the victim is safe and has recuperated from the shock of the incident. Our solution aims to aid systemic reform in how we as a country are dealing with  rampant street harassment. 

What does the background process when reporting street harassment with Aagah look like?

One word – seamless. The entire reporting process and real-time updating of maps is automatic. You visit our website and send in the report and we save the data on a secure database. The map is updated from the location you entered and the system is ready to accept the next report.
The research aspect however requires intensive, labouring hours of cleaning the data, removing errors, duplicates, checking for ‘fake reports’, analyzing and modeling our machines to work with the data and finally gleaning insights into our problem. You will be surprised at how smart machines can get when fed with large data.

How are you going to ensure anonymity in reporting?

At Aagah, trust is one of our primary values. We do not ask any identifiable questions or ask you to reveal your identity in any way. We store the data on a very secure cloud database, and we do not sell or share your information with any third party company, nor do we share our data with external organizations that we work with. When we say we value your trust,  we do not just mean in terms of simply keeping your anonymity or securing your data. You trusted us in good faith that your report is a step in making Pakistan safer, and we will do our best in fulfilling that trust. InshaAllah!

What was your biggest challenge in developing Aagah?

What I personally love about Aagah is how straight forward, yet impactful this solution is. What doesn’t our community have to solve this issue? We have the expertise, the platform, the technology, the manpower and woman power. We just need the data, and that is where we are struggling. We launched less than two months ago and there is a long way to go, but if more women could step up and report and if more publications like Mashion can give us such platforms to let women know that something like Aagah exists, I believe we will all be doing our part in contributing to a safer Pakistan. 

How are you planning to keep a track of Aagah’s progress/impact?

This one is tricky because there are two aspects to it:
1. We have metrics to track Aagah’s progress. You can visit our website and see how many reports we have collected so far and from how many cities. Another set of metrics is our social media engagement and following – as that develops and grows, we can get a sense of our reach. We also track our website traffic and pay close attention to details that give us hints about how engaging our platform is and where we need to improve.
2) The second aspect is actual change on ground. Now we have to acknowledge that the problem street harassment is a multi-pronged ‘museebat’ entrenched into the fabric of our society and I would be lying to you if I said we have a magic wand that we can wave and make everything better. We don’t, nobody does. Actual change on ground will come when people support our research, when we get the results we are aiming to achieve, and when those results are responsibly used by organizations to hit the nail on the head, so to speak. The entire community has a role to play. It is difficult but not impossible, and we have already taken the first step of this journey of a thousand miles.

How can one support Aagah?

Thank you for asking this question. Women and girls across Pakistan please step up and anonymously share your cases of street harassment on our online portal. We are interested in every case, no matter how small or how severe. You deserve better, we deserve better. Report once, twice, ten times. Tell us of every incident, we are here, we are listening, we want to help.
Please share this message with whoever you can, your friends, family, universities, office spaces, Your reports are of utmost importance, please don’t think of it as trivial, report, encourage others to report and share this message with everyone you can. You can report here.

Are you planning to partner with other organizations?

Absolutely. Like I said before this is a community effort, and we are only as effective as the support we receive. I see Aagah as a small, but crucial piece in a much larger machine. The most efficient solution will arise when all the wheels turn together.

In wake of the recent events such as the motorway rape, what actions does Aagah plan to take?

That horrific case has actually jolted Pakistan into action and I have started to see many online/tech-savvy initiatives taken by the authorities to protect women, which is great! While our solution focuses on systematically addressing harassment in a community, one limitation that it has is it does not address individual cases. That is beyond Aagah’s scope of work but this is where authorities can step in, and we can collaborate to facilitate their solutions with our data, to make the overall solution more impactful for women. I am encouraged to see authorities embracing technology, I would think it will be easier to collaborate with them when they are already working on these lines. 

What impact do you think Aagah can create in mobilizing action and policy institutions?

It’s not like ‘no one in the country cares about women’s safety’ – that is just not true. We have laws in place that incur severe punishment for street harassment of women. Most men are not harassers, and would actually like to have a Pakistan where women are safe and secure. Not to mention the numerous organizations around the country that are doing wonderful work related to women empowerment, women’s rights and amplifying women’s voices. Mashion is just one example of such an organization!
So what are we missing? Why are we still not able to address the basic need of safe streets that is a requirement of every stratum of society? I think the answer is, we do not really know how to get rid of this problem, There are two answers to women’s street harassment in society, one is to tell women not to go out late at night, the other is for women to organize themselves and march. Both solutions don’t really address the issue at hand.
With Aagah we will have data-driven research inform us of the best, most efficient solution that we can put in place. Implement policies that are not just guess work, but proven to work. My hope is in the organizations and the people who are sincere about helping women in this country. The Aagah Initiative will augment almost any organization working with women.

Where do you hope to see Aagah in the future? 

The Aagah Initiative will lay out the framework of how to approach not just the issue of women’s street harassment, but any social issue in a community. We hope to:

– Deeply study the prevalence of street harassment of women in Pakistan and glean insights into the problem and inform data-driven policies that are effective

– Contribute to the global pool of knowledge regarding street harassment and its solution

– Become a useful resource for organizations and authorities working on women’s affairs

– Be an organization that is committed to its people and fulfills its promise of contributing to safer streets – InshaAllah!

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