BeSAFE: an App for Creating Safe Neighborhoods, Community Empowered.

North Philadelphia, Summer 2013 Credit: M. Raney

I am a documentary filmmaker working on a film about a family impacted by gun violence. It is a story about an American family facing challenges shared by many across the country. They appreciate the richness of their community, as well as its struggles and vulnerabilities. They’ve chosen to make personal sacrifices to support their community, and to participate in making conditions better for themselves and their neighbors. It’s a story about love, healing, and commitment to family and community.

Philadelphia CeaseFire Anti-Violence Rally, November 2013 Credit: M. Raney

I hope the film — through its reach and exposure to audiences across the country — can be used as a tool for social change, to address the scourge of gun violence in urban communities, as well as issues pertaining to trauma, healing, and community reinvestment. My strategy is to create a community engagement campaign that will involve partnering with both local and national organizations that are already dealing with issues I hope to address in my film. These partners and I would work together to figure out the ways in which the film can be used as such a tool. This will mostly include community screenings and panel discussions and community talkbacks. However, I am also exploring the possibility of creating more products — beyond the film — that address the issues and concerns that I’ve discovered over the course of making the film.

That is how I came up with the BeSAFE app.

Philadelphia’s gun violence rates have improved in the last few years, but the city still has higher rates of homicide when compared to cities like Chicago and New York. These incidents tend to be concentrated in communities of color plagued by poverty and under-investment.

However, most of the crime is committed by a very small number of people in the community, many of whom are repeat offenders. For example, In Oakland, CA, only .3% of the city’s population were responsible for most of the homicides, consisting mostly of gang members. Families like the one featured in my film are directly and indirectly impacted by the actions of a few.

One of the most frustrating and illegitimate critiques for these communities is the “black-on-black violence pathology” notion that they are apathetic about solving the problem of crime and violence. However, community organizers have been hard at work trying to find solutions and designing methods to reduce and prevent gun violence, as well as advocating for community investment that would address some of the structural ills from which these conditions arise.

The BeSAFE app/device is meant to help residents to better navigate their neighborhoods and support the efforts of residents and organizations like CeaseFire and others that are taking a community-based and empowered approach to creating safer communities.

The guiding principle of BeSAFE is peace of mind and empowerment. It is not about stoking people’s fears or anxieties. The questions that drive the design and implementation of BeSAFE are:

How do we…?

• create safer communities, using alternatives to punitive and state intervention, i.e., over-policing, broken windows approaches, punishment, criminalization

• empower community members and other stakeholders to work with violence reduction and prevention organizations and workers without fear of disclosure for “snitching,” endangering themselves and their families

• create a reliable, cooperative way for parents and children to check-in and be accountable to each other without breeding “helicopter” parenting or invading privacy

• give access to emergency services without alerting bystanders or compromising anonymity when making sounds (beeping, clicking) is not safe

• empower community members to advocate for gun violence reduction with data, particularly financial/economic stats. Personal stories combined with “bottom line” economic arguments are potentially more galvanizing for politicians and policymakers. It makes it easier for them to make policy that is responsive to the community, and for the community to hold their representatives accountable.

The BeSAFE App/Device has several features:

• GPS — family members can opt-in to keep tabs on each other, especially when children may be going out with peers without adult or parental supervision.

• Silent, text-based 911 — there are instances when making a sound can be dangerous so, following the lead of NYC 911 silent capability, this technology will be implemented

• Anonymous tip interface — Community-based conflict mediation organizations like CeaseFire rely on information from the community about conflicts brewing in their local neighborhoods. This interface would allow more people to participate, without fear of being disclosed, of their identity being revealed or privacy breached

• “Amber” type alerts to let residents know of potentially unsafe conditions in the neighborhood.

• Interactive “game,” a calculator-based program which allows the user to reallocate money that is spent on responding to gun violence to community-building and personal enhancement activities. The game educates the user about just how much their communities are spending on gun violence, and how much investment they do not have access to, as a result. This knowledge also empowers users to advocate for the underfunded, but effective, community-based violence reduction programs, demanding that policymakers invest in these programs, and reallocate funds to improve the quality of life for its residents (improving schools, building cultural centers, creating affordable housing, etc.)


The main challenge to the operational and hardware design is how to ensure maintain privacy/anonymity while tracking information. This applies to the GPS and Tips features, especially. Another challenge is how to ensure compliance and effective use of the device. The GPS feature is a voluntary, opt-in feature that the “trackee” can turn on and off at will. If it’s smartphone-based, losing the phone or having it stolen renders it ineffective. A wearable device might be more suitable, but it would require something that can be worn discretely and be undetectable. Also, how does someone report a tip via a smartphone or wearable device that may have GPS and other identifying features? A disabling tracking feature may work, but again, requires proper use and may be vulnerable to user error.

Financing the design and distribution of the app is also a challenge. Investors, corporate sponsorship and sales to private institutions and buyers could offset production costs and make it available for free or reduced rates the schools, institutions and community organizations.

App designing is all very new to me, but I’m excited by its possibilities. I hope that the film’s wide reach, coupled with community-inspired products, and social justice partnerships will be a powerful combination in creating meaningful social change that addresses the needs of local communities in a way that is both effective and sustainable.

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