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How Harassmap in Egypt is using Crisismapping to Fight the Sexual Harassment of Women

Posted: August 29, 2014 at 4:55 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Harass Map is an online crowdmapping platform founded in 2010 to address the chronic problem of the sexual harassment of women in Egypt. It is a web-based crowdsourcing platform that collects information from witnesses and victims of sexual harassment, and uses a referral system to support victims; as well as works with community networks on the ground to create “zero tolerance” sexual harassment zones. Since its founding Harass Map has grown from a small number of volunteers to almost a 1000. Its phenomenal success has led to its replication in 8 countries including in North Africa, the Middle East; and South Asia.

Joining us today is Rebecca Chiao, one of the co-founders and the director of Harass Map in Egypt.

Sawtna: What’s the story behind Harras Map? How and why was the idea of Harass Map born?

“The problem was that at the time we decided to start HarassMap, there was no project or activity going on in Egypt that was engaging the public, or working with the public on a social level on [the sexual harassment of women]. “

Rebecca: The story of HarassMap is a bit of a personal story, because me and my co-founders, who are me and Angie Khozlan, Amal Fahmy, and Sawsan Gaid, experienced this problem ourselves as women living in Egypt. We had all worked on this issue for several years before we launched HarassMap.

The problem was that at the time we decided to start HarassMap, there was no project or activity going on in Egypt that was engaging the public, or working with the public on a social level on this issue. There was some work being done by NGOs on advocacy for a new law. So we felt that in order to have the laws implemented, or to have any impact on our daily lives, in our experiences as well as everyone else that we know, there needs to be a way to engage all of society in working together on this issue.

To be honest we didn’t want to start this ourselves as an independent initiative. We wanted an NGO to take this on, because they have resources, infrastructure, and experience. But none of them were interested so we started HarassMap as an independent group of volunteers. It was us four at the beginning, and it grew from there.

Sawtna: How does Harass Map technically work? What online platform does it use? How is data collected? What data does Harass Map crowdsource, and what is done with that data?

Rebecca: Our model is a little bit complicated because we have it integrated together with different activities. I’ll try to explain it from the first step.

But we didn’t want this to be just a website, or just a reporting system. We want to be able to give people an answer when they ask us “what happens after I report? So what? What does a report do to change this problem?”

The very beginning is a Ushahidi-based reporting and mapping system. Victims and witnesses can send a report to us about what happened to them and where; what their experience was and any details they want to provide–and it’s anonymous. They can send it by SMS on their mobile phone, by a form on our website, by social media like Facebook and twitter, or by email. They can send a report and get an auto-response from us about how to get services that are offered for free to victims  already existing with [other] NGOs. We set up a referral network of organizations that provide support to victims. We use this mechanism to try and spread the word about this [problem].

This is only a small part of what we do. We just started HarassMap because it was an amazing opportunity to reach out and open a channel of communication to more people than have ever been reached in Egypt by an NGO project or a social project at this point.

“We started HarassMap because it was an amazing opportunity to reach out and open a channel of communication to more people than have ever been reached in Egypt by an NGO project or a social project.”

When we launched in 2010, 97 percent of Egyptians owned mobile phones. Now it is more than 100 percent, technically speaking because many people have more than one. This was for us a very attractive way to reach more people geographically and socially than we ever would have been able to [reach] ourselves, with direct NGO work. But we didn’t want this to be just a website, or just a reporting system. We want to be able to give people an answer when they ask us “what happens after I report? So what? What does a report do to change this problem?”

Most important to us are these next steps:

We take all of the reports and publish them on our website anonymously, and map them on a map of Egypt. So it can be communicated that this isn’t a rural problem or an urban problem specifically – it crosses all social classes. It crosses all times of day, all types of women and how they’re dressed. Sometimes even men. So [this information] breaks a lot of stereotypes, and we use this in public campaigns that try to change the attitude of society. We target mostly bystanders and we try to break the stereotypes that stop them from intervening when they see harassment happen.

A lot of times this means stereotypes of what women are wearing; stereotypes about men and what drives them to harass or assault women. Our communications unit takes all of this data that we collect, and they craft messages that try to rebrand harassment from something that is considered cool or acceptable, or masculine, or fun (all of these are what we experience from people today), and we try to change that to a more positive role model of the person who is standing up to harassment is cool and masculine, and Egypt’s future as the people we should look up to.

“We have hundreds of volunteers all over Egypt, and we train them to organize their own communities in ways that engage people to change their behavior from one that ignores harassment or accepts it or tolerates it, or stays silent about it, to one that stands up to it. And we created these zero-tolerance areas where harassers feel that they’re not welcome, or that there will be some consequences [to their actions]. “

Sawtna: What work is done offline at the community level to complement the crowdsourcing of information online?

Rebecca: We also use this information in our community outreach unit, which is the main part of what we do. We have hundreds of volunteers all over Egypt, and we train them to organize their own communities in ways that engage people to change their behavior from one that ignores harassment or accepts it or tolerates it, or stays silent about it, to one that stands up to it. And  we created these zero-tolerance areas where harassers feel that they’re not welcome, or that there will be some consequences [to their actions]. This will make them think twice about harassing or assaulting someone, and hopefully deter them in the future. In this way little by little hopefully we will change what’s happening on the ground in reality, as well as going beyond awareness. Going beyond attitude change and making behavioral change in the streets.

This is something we’re also trying to expand into a workplace anti-harassment campaign, and we’re also starting work in schools and universities.

Sawtna: What were the main challenges with using the crisis map (associated with anonymous crowdsourcing of reports of sexual harassment) when you first launched it? And how did you work around these challenges?

“Even though we can’t provide professional counseling or legal service ourselves as HarassMap, we have partners that do this for free. So at least we’re able to put people in touch with them.”

Rebecca: We had many challenges. When we started we were completely volunteers, and we had full time jobs, and no money—we paid for everything ourselves. We were really limited in terms of capacity, and for us this was the biggest challenge. From the first day we launched we had too many volunteers for us to handle. They were more than 100, I think. It was difficult to do the plans that we wanted to do while not having enough people to keep track of everything, and to organize it and carry it out.

Just after we launched (in December of 2010) the first demonstrations in Egypt’s revolutions started in January 2011. Since then we’ve had several governmental changes, so we’ve had lots of instability. This is also very difficult, it makes planning our community work really hard. There is always something going on, so we always have to change our plans, and this takes a bigger capacity than what we usually have.

In terms of the data and the technological challenges, the first challenge was that we had to adapt the technology to what was available in Egypt, instead of using FrontlineSMS with a mobile phone, as directed by the instructions on the [Ushahidi] website, we couldn’t find that mobile phone here in Egypt, so we had to find a way around that.

We don’t have regular internet. We also have a problem with locations here. Ushahidi is setup to be a bit automated, so in some countries you can just give an address in the phone, or GPS coordinates, and it automatically maps the location of the report that you are sending. In Egypt we don’t really use street addresses very much, we usually describe things like, “In this neighborhood, next to the McDonalds, down the street from the school.” And of course Ushahidi is not able to handle this kind of description.

We also have a language challenge in that reports come in Arabic, they come in English, they come in Arabic written in English letters, so it’s pretty haphazard. These are challenges that we had to figure out. Thankfully we are doing ok with that.

“The most important thing to us is that we learn important information about what’s going on in the streets, so we could address it in an effective way and we could share this information with other people addressing it, so that they can be effective as well. And that victims and witnesses can have a voice – a way to talk about this- and to talk freely and safely where they don’t have to fear being punished or being attacked…”

The verification was a challenge we thought we would have before we launched. But as soon as we launched we realized that it didn’t turn out to be a problem. Fake reports are really easy to identify, and real reports are really clear that they’re real. We look at each report personally, and we read it and we make sure that it’s believable and it’s mapped accurately and has all the important information in it. But we don’t go out and physically verify that people are telling the truth, because just like any other data collection there is going to be the possibility that someone exaggerates, or someone misremembers something. There is always a margin of error because people are fallible, and this isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing to us is that we learn important information about what’s going on in the streets, so we could address it in an effective way and we could share this information with other people addressing it, so that they can be effective as well. And that victims and witnesses can have a voice – a way to talk about this- and to talk freely and safely where they don’t have to fear being punished or being attacked, or any of these other consequences that we sometimes hear about.

Last year there was a terrible incident in Asyoot, where a girl who was harassed by a man on a motorcycle spoke back to him and spit at him; he beat her and then shot her, and she died. So sometimes speaking back is not always a safe option. This is important to us as well, and to be able to connect people with help. Even though we can’t provide professional counseling or legal service ourselves as HarassMap, we have partners that do this for free. So at least we’re able to put people in touch with them.

Sawtna: How were you able to advertise for HarassMap to get 100 volunteers from the first day?

Rebecca: It might not be 100. Our numbers during that time when we were first volunteers are very inaccurate. I was just making a guess. But it was a lot, it was more than we could handle. We didn’t have the capacity to advertise. We decided to test our online platform before we launched. It was in mid-October when we decided to test this out with our friends on facebook and twitter just to see if it’s going to have any technical problems or if it works. Angie and I were sitting at my house having lunch together and we just decided to do it spontaneously, and within 24 hours the website crashed. We don’t know how people heard about this. We thought we were just telling our friends. Then we got a lot of volunteers and a lot of media coverage; it must’ve been through social media.

Sawtna: How has Harass Map evolved from the time it was launched in terms of its overall objectives scope and reach–both online and offline?

Rebecca: We have gotten amazingly better at what we do. When we first launched we had a model, a plan. We were able to implement it on a small scale, and we got good feedback about it. So [we] kept trying to improve how we are doing it, improve our ability to do it and continually take feedback and try to implement it.

“Now instead of having a couple of hundred volunteers that were enthusiastic but badly trained, we have a couple hundred very well trained volunteers, and they have their own teams in their local communities as well, and it’s much stronger and much more consistent.”

We all had full time jobs, and it was really hard to do this on evenings and weekends. Especially when the commute in Cairo to and from work is sometimes two hours long. It was tough. The real turning point was in June 2012 when we got a grant from IDRC for a research project. This gave us a little bit of money to hire some core staff. When we hired the staff they were incredible. They were much more skilled than me and Angie, or any of us. They had the ability to improve on the work that we are doing, and the plan that we had, to incorporate the feedback and make things strong and do a thorough job with what the original model was. But then also to expand and come up with new ideas that we have never thought of before.

Starting with the middle of 2012 it was a whole new story for us, and we were able to expand the number of places that we are in, but also deepen our work and do it in a much better way. Now instead of having a couple of hundred volunteers that were enthusiastic but badly trained, we have a couple hundred very well trained volunteers, and they have their own teams in their local communities as well, and it’s much stronger and much more consistent.

They are doing much more work on the ground and we are integrating creative ideas, like cooperating with a project that does open-mic events where people have five minutes to talk about this issue and just say what’s in their hearts or what happened to them, no matter what they think, whether they agree with us or not. This has opened up an important dialogue in communities.

We are starting a partnership as well with another initiative that works directly with harassers, which is something we don’t do ourselves.  I think this is starting to strengthen the work a lot, and making it possible for these local teams in different communities around Egypt to have a good, effective and dynamic approach, which is appropriate for their communities and lead by them and not by us sitting in Cairo. So this has been the real change for us.

“The idea that this campaign resonated and spread way beyond our own networks is a real success for us…We are weak on the numbers, but we have a lot of qualitative or anecdotal feedback from people.”

Sawtna: What impact has access to reliable visual, quantitative and qualitative data on sexual harassment against women in the streets of Cairo had in terms of pressuring the authorities, persuading/helping civil society actors and making sure that women impacted by sexual harassment get the support they need.

Rebecca: This is something that we’re very slow on setting up. We just found a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) consultant to come and help us design a formal M&E system. So soon hopefully we will be able to have measurements of results. Before this we didn’t have the capacity to do it in an accurate, measurable, scientific way– we just did it the best we can.

We have a lot of anecdotal information, and we take feedback after every event, after every volunteer organized community event. We take a lot of feedback and we discuss it, analyze it, and we try to adjust our program based on that feedback.

We have some measurements of things like when we make social media campaigns, we can estimate the spread, but we can only estimate the first layer. If you share something on Facebook you can see how many people shared directly from you, but you can’t tell how many have shared from the people who shared.

For example, in our public campaign that we did countering the myths about sexual harassment, (this was based on the data that we got and the feedback from the field), a lot of people say harassment is because the way people are dressed, or harassment is because people are not educated. We noticed that this isn’t held up by the data, so we made a campaign that said “if harassment is because of how women dress, then why are veiled women and women who wear niqab harassed?” “If harassment is because people are not educated, then why are university professors harassing?” We’ve had several messages and they went completely viral.

Even though we can’t measure the exact amount of people who saw this because of the way Facebook works, we do have some idea on the direct shares. But also anecdotal things like the Muslim Brotherhood took our campaign, took our logo off and put their logo on and started sharing with their network, which is amazing for us. We love it.

The idea that this campaign resonated and spread way beyond our own networks is a real success for us. So we are weak on the numbers, but we have a lot of qualitative or anecdotal feedback from people.

Sawtna: It’s obvious that HarassMap is very inspirational; it’s going global. Can you tell us a little bit about how it’s going global, how that interest started and what support do you give for countries or communities outside Egypt that are thinking of replicating HarassMap?

Rebecca: We got our first request early on, it came a few months after we launched in early 2011. We realized very early on that a program like this has to be crafted by people locally. It can’t be something that was designed for Egypt and then applied in Canada without any changes or adaptation.

We rely on people taking control over their own replication. So there is support that we give them, but it is really limited to coaching. There have been 25 other countries that have contacted us so far. Usually it starts with sharing our information or anything we have written. The setting up time for a Skype coaching session, and I do that. I answer any of their questions, I tell them about the challenges that we had, the things that we do differently, what harassment is like here. And how we planned our program, how it’s very important to have the online component, but also a strong offline component, and what needs to be done in order to prepare for that. What needs to be done to answer peoples’ questions about what happens after they send a report, or why they should send a report. To think through all of these issues and to brainstorm about planning their local program, Because harassment and assault look different in different countries.

Then I put them in touch with anyone who can help them. Ushahidi has been a wonderful support. They coach people as well on setting up the tech platform. FrontlineSMS can also help people. And also create a community so they can talk to each other and share experiences. I stay in touch with them in case they decide to give me questions later on. We would like to develop this better in the future, so we would be able to share best practices or brainstorm together and share experiences in a more systematized way. But this is something that we haven’t had the time to develop because we focus mostly on Egypt.

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