Why we’re launching #ShareSafely

Today, we’re launching #ShareSafely, a community-powered initiative that leverages data to improve safety in the sharing economy.

In February, I penned my story of attempted sexual assault as a passenger in a car I requested using application-based ridesharing. I was afraid and unsure of posting about this. However, I shared it then and I am sharing it now in hopes of sparking industry dialogue and change. Application-based ridesharing is not going anywhere and it is still part of my life. I have intentionally removed the name of the company where this incident occurred because my story isn’t a tally mark for or against a company. It’s symptomatic of a greater industry-wide problem that requires an industry-wide response.

I was a middle school student in Maryland in 2005. I’ll never forget October 4 of that year, when I watched the “Shasta Groene Tragedy” episode on Oprah. The next day, I convinced my school to allow me to study Internet safety and loopholes in data sharing between police precincts as an independent course. For over a year I studied safety at technology companies through interviews, police data and journal articles.

At the time, the term “Internet safety” was practically foreign in most communities, while Internet adoption was widespread. I spent hours after school and weekends learning everything I could and realized none of my peers had access to the information I was learning about being safe online. From there, Protect Our Kids was formed to teach kids like me the importance of digital citizenship. We provided tools on how to introduce Internet safety into classrooms across Maryland. By 2006, we successfully launched a campaign for the inclusion of digital citizenship in schools and created a curriculum for teachers to implement. I was just a 13-year-old with access to a computer lab and people who believed we could make our community safer.

Now, 11 years later, the Internet has changed. Internet safety has evolved and the online world has merged with the physical. Before danger online could often be delayed, but now, one’s life could be in immediate risk through interactions facilitated by application-based ridesharing. Application-based ridesharing is new, it’s expanding rapidly and it has shifted cultural norms surrounding identity, privacy and trust. In the past, someone had to ask “a/s/l” to learn one’s age, sex and location. Today, if you request a ride using application-based ridesharing, your name and exact location become readily available. We’re entrusting our physical bodies when using these applications, but most people have a limited understanding of how to remain safe or report misconduct during and after a ride.

According to Re/Code, the Austin Police Department attributed 20 of 27 (74%) reported sexual assault cases in taxi cabs to application-based ridesharing in 2015. Local advocates suggest this number could be significantly higher. Another allegation suggests over 5,000 incidents of rape have been reported at one company. Yet none of the leading application-based ridesharing companies provide any insight or transparency into the types of reported incidents that occur through their platforms. In addition, none of the companies are sharing actionable solutions or plans to reduce misconduct, including sexual assault. This makes accountability impossible and limits the ability of intentional advocacy on behalf of riders and drivers.

Data provides the context necessary to advocate intelligently. We live in an era of deep learning, drones, smartphones and moving fast to break things. Yet we are at a standstill in releasing data that already exists through reports from drivers and riders. Withholding information is a misstep that hampers safety product and policy innovation in Silicon Valley and beyond. Imagine if there is a correlation between a specific city and sexual assault in application-based ridesharing, but police departments and the general public don’t have access to that information. That’s a public health concern. New York, the most populous city in the United States, publicly publishes data on reported sexual assaults that occur during rides in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. You can easily report misconduct on their website. Unfortunately most application-based ridesharing report flows are incredibly confusing and not built for a person who may be in crisis.

In the past decade it has become industry standard for technology companies to provide transparency reports that disclose information surrounding government requests of user information. This development came after numerous organizations and particularly privacy advocates argued for greater transparency from technology companies. Every reputable company including newly minted unicorns like Snapchat oblige with providing transparency reports. In recent months, some application-based ridesharing companies have shared transparency reports on governmental requests, but data on incidents relating to sexual assaults are noticeably missing.

Since writing the Medium post in February, I’ve received emails, texts and DMs from many of my readers saying, “it happened to me.” Our stories are powerful and are part of the complex puzzle towards building safer solutions for everyone. Stories illuminate points in a graph, but you can’t create a graph without data.

Our mission is to democratize access to information surrounding safety in the sharing economy. We will use the participatory action research framework to analyze and share research on application-based ridesharing with the public. But to be successful, we need your support. Please spend the next two minutes taking our anonymous #ShareSafely Survey. Your feedback will be used to produce a research paper and safety guide to empower people to advocate together to improve ridesharing for all.

Thank you and more to come!

@ShareSafely

*DISCLAIMER: @ShareSafely is an independent project and @ShareSafely team members are acting in their personal capacity. This does not reflect the views of any organization, corporation or entity to which they are affiliated.