Australian-based crowdsourcing platform She’s A Crowd reveals a never-before-seen glimpse of the violence and harassment women and girls experience in cities worldwide. We sat down with CEO Zoe Condliffe who is spearheading the call to action in making our cities safer.
In 2017, when Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” within 24 hours, tens of thousands of replies began a chorus of public outrage that rocketed around the world. Fast forward two and a half years, however, and whilst the visibility of many survivors’ campaigns for justice has been front-and-centre, there are many more incidents of gender-based violence that have gone unreported. Zoe Condliffe, the Australian CEO of She’s A Crowd, wants to change that. Through her anonymous crowdsourcing platform that encourages women to share their stories, she is building a database of over 80,000 data points that literally map out gendered violence and crime across cities in the hope that this information can make the world a safer place. “Countless women are victims of gender-based violence every hour of every day across the globe. We are revolutionising how governments, universities, and NGOs can address it,” she explains. “My vision is simple: any woman, anywhere in the world, can share her story – and people with the power to change the story will hear it.”
Born to an Australian family stationed in Cambodia as part of the country’s UNTAC peacekeeping operation, Zoe’s story has its roots in her beginnings. UNTAC was the UN’s largest-scale operation in the early 1990s, focused on disarming warring factions, repatriating thousands of refugees, and establishing a democratically-elected legislation in the then-conflict-stricken state of Cambodia. The impact of growing up in an incredibly political and emotionally-tense environment left its imprint on Zoe. “From a young age, I felt my privilege very deeply,” she says now. “My childhood sparked my passion for social justice.”
At 21, Zoe graduated from university and moved back to Cambodia with plans to start her first NGO. But she was abruptly derailed by an experience that would leave a lasting impact on the rest of her life. “I found myself in an abusive relationship. Like many people, I never thought this would happen to me,” she says. “When I started to share my story, friends began to open up to me about their own experiences and I felt less alone. From that moment forward, I decided to dedicate my life to ending gender-based violence through the power of storytelling.”
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When Zoe found solace by sharing her own story and hearing others share stories similar to hers, she realised that what she had was a privilege. “What, then, is happening to the countless women and girls who are more vulnerable than me?” she asked. It was from this place that she created the platform now helping people worldwide keep a record and make sense of their stories, placing her on SmartCompany’s Smart 30 under 30 List twice in the process. Visitors to She’s A Crowd find themselves on a simple platform that guides them step-by-step through a process asking questions that help them impart the details of their experience. Designed with sensitivity, the platform collects data points such as the location of the incident, the time of day, the assumed motivation, what happened, and what happened afterwards – with the idea of using this data to influence policy and help decision-makers better understand what’s happening in their cities. The platform has already partnered with universities, government bodies and law enforcement. “We work every day to prove our worth, collaborate with organisations who believe in our mission, and learn from those who don’t,” says Zoe.
By creating a platform that encourages women to tell their stories in a way that does not re-traumatise them, Zoe hopes to combat some of the main reasons why an estimated 80% of sexual assault cases go unreported each year – most commonly due to a fear of stigma, internalised shame, and also the emotional and physical dissociation that comes with the body’s automatic response in acknowledging trauma. “We need to understand there are a million reasons that prevent survivors from speaking out. I know first-hand how hard it can be to do that,” says Zoe. Factor in a system that places the weight of responsibility on the survivor to prove their trauma – an excruciating process that can stretch months if not years of police reports, judicial procedures, forensic examinations and other unfamiliar and intrusive procedures – and it’s not hard to see why only 5.7% of all reported assault cases end in arrest and 0.7% end up with a felony conviction. On the other hand, 9 out of 10 survivors develop physical and mental distress with consequences that include post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal contemplation, substance abuse, and severe depression and/or anxiety.
So, how exactly does data collection change the situation? According to Zoe, the data she collects has the power to provide insights for decision-makers to make cities safer for women. “We effectively combine the primary prevention model recommended by global experts with a community development model,” she explains. Every data point in She’s A Crowd’s records is geo-tagged, time-stamped, and aggregated with data analytics and geolocative technology, generating real information that fills in the missing gaps in sexual violence statistics and allows authoritative bodies to understand the problem to create better preventative policies. “That is the power of big data. It can change our future,” she says. One place where she is trying to do that is on university campuses where a staggering 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted. “No one, especially a woman, should feel unsafe walking alone after a long night at the library. My hope is that She’s A Crowd can inspire campuses to add more lampposts, security, and other safety measures so that every student has a safe journey home.”
Even in the post-MeToo era, Zoe admits that disrupting the status quo remains one of the hardest issues to tackle. “We frequently face resistance, whether it be from companies or individuals who prefer to maintain broken systems simply because they already exist,” she says. “Our work challenges both an industry standard and a societal one. We don’t just want to change those systems; we want to remake them.” For her, this runs to long-held ideas – wearing ‘revealing clothes’ causes sexual harassment, the notion that alcohol turns ordinary people into perpetrators or the idea that gender-based violence always presents itself in the same way. “I want to fight this attitude that gender-based violence is purely physical because it is not. That idea is dangerous. We need to expand the conversation to acknowledge that a lot of violence is actually more emotional and can be psychological, financial, and social long before the abuse turns physical.” Speaking to just these variances, She’s A Crowd offers survivors a range of categorised violations from ‘threats,’ ‘groping,’ ‘physical abuse,’ and ‘sexual assault’ to actions less commonly recognised – ‘condoning gender-based violence,’ ‘creepy vibes,’ and ‘enforcing harmful gender roles.’
Going forward, She’s A Crowd has prioritised expanding their solutions outside of Australia. “Our biggest challenge is expanding the dataset to the point that it is accessible to every woman in the world,” says Zoe. Just recently, they announced they are working with local organisations in Bandung, Indonesia to customise the tool for use in the region. The expansion comes after the imprisonment of Baiq Nuril Maknun who was jailed for reporting sexual harassment last year, reflecting the nation’s struggle with legal recourse against gendered violence. The move She’s A Crowd is making is bold and will prioritise the safety of millions in the area, hopefully provoking discussion around norms and victim-blaming narratives. For Zoe, it’s a step forward in achieving the ultimate goal: “It has been incredible to see the company I started as a young girl in Australia serve an entirely new community of people in a new, diverse landscape. We are ready for all women’s voices to be heard.”