Women’s safety campaigners have called the Home Office’s backing of an app that allows users to track their friends’ journeys home “insulting to women and girls”, arguing that it does nothing to tackle the issue of men’s violence against women.
The new app provides anyone walking home at night with a monitored route on their phone. If the walker moves more than 40 metres from the route or stops for more than three minutes, the app asks if they are OK. If there is no reply, nominated “guardians” – normally friends and family – receive a notification on their phones to say there has been a deviation. They can then check on the person in question and alert the police if they are unable to do so.
The Home Office minister, Rachel Maclean, said such schemes should be part of a wider plan to make streets safer for women and girls. “We need a whole-of-society approach to tackling violence against women and girls, and I welcome initiatives from the private sector that deliver on this aim,” she said.
Anna Birley from Reclaim These Streets, which was set up after the murder of Sarah Everard, said safety apps did nothing to tackle the underlying problem of men’s violence against women.
“The Home Office backing of this app is insulting to women and girls,” she said. “We already share our location, we already ask our friends to text us when they get home, we already wear bright clothes, stick to the well-lit routes and clutch our keys between our fingers.
“It still isn’t enough. Women and girls, and the steps that we take to stay safe every day, are not the problem. The problem is that male violence makes us unsafe.”
The free, not-for-profit app, Path Community, is being trialled by about 500 people including Metropolitan police officers in Southwark and Lambeth in south London. It creates routes avoiding unlit streets, alleys or areas known for antisocial behaviour and users can mark where they feel unsafe.
Harry Mead, the creator, told the Guardian that anonymised information can then be shared with local councils and police to establish problem areas that may need more resources. The platform was also developing an education platform, he said.
“The underlying issue of men’s violence is the core problem and everyone has to help tackle it,” he said. “The app is designed to help with immediate concerns and help users feel safer. Path is our attempt to do our bit.”.
Domestic violence campaigners have also raised concerns about safety apps that track movement being misused by abusers. They could “potentially extend an abuser’s reach beyond the home, controlling women in spaces they previously felt safe and free”, said the chief executive of Women’s Aid, Farah Nazeer.
The Home Office and police and crime commissioners needed to work with the women’s sector to remove barriers to their safety, she said. “There is so much work to be done to increase survivors’ confidence in reporting abuse to police, tackle misogyny with public awareness and education and, of course, provide adequate funding to services supporting survivors,” she said.
Mead said developers were very conscious of the issue of potential misuse and had designed the app to be as private as possible while providing maximum safety. Tracking only lasted for the duration of a set journey and users would always be contacted first to check if they were OK before a guardian was notified while a toggle to turn live tracking on and off was being developed, he added.
The shadow minister for domestic violence, Jess Phillips, said: “This seems like a sticking plaster instead of dealing with the actual problem that is men’s violence against women.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office said its Tackling Violence against Women and Girls strategy launched last year included initiatives and funding to target potential perpetrators and protect potential victims, including the pilot of the StreetSafe online tool, which allows the public to anonymously report areas where they feel unsafe.