Can Crowd-Sourced Data About Sexual Assaults Make Cities Safer? An Australian Startup is Defying Skeptics by Trying

Data around sexual assaults is often woefully incomplete. She's A Crowd attempts to address that by asking survivors to anonymously self-report data. But critics wonder, how can this data be useful?

A woman sits at a desk with a map showing on the computer
Zoe Condliffe launched She’s A Crowd due to the #MeToo movement and her own personal experience with gender-based violence. She's A Crowd

One in three women globally will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization. But the true prevalence of gender-based violence is difficult to determine because incidents are underreported. 

Less than 40 percent of women sexually assaulted in the U.S. seek help, and fewer than 10 percent report it to law enforcement. While other countries’ percentages differ, the trend persists around the world. One Australian-based startup thinks it can help solve this data problem and empower survivors while doing so. 

In 2018, Zoe Condliffe launched She’s A Crowd, a technology company that crowd-sources gender-based violence data. It publishes some of the data on a digital map online so users can visualize where assaults occur, down to the exact location. The rest of the data, which includes individual survivors’ stories, is behind a paywall. Condliffe claims it is the world’s biggest location-based set of sexual assault data.

Condliffe’s own personal experience and the #MeToo movement led her to launch She’s A Crowd, she said. Condliffe, 32, is from Melbourne, Australia and lives near Sydney. As a sexual assault and domestic violence survivor, she said she found solace in sharing her story. The #MeToo movement began in 2017, initiated by journalists uncovering Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abuse in the entertainment industry. The movement called for accountability for assailants around the world and empowered women to tell their stories. 

The company’s data points come from individual survivors reporting their stories to She’s A Crowd’s website, and Condliffe uses social media to get the word out. The platform receives 10 million monthly visits, and 32 percent of visitors end up submitting their story to the dataset. It isn’t without its criticisms, though. Some sexual assault experts question the data’s validity and how useful it can be to policy-makers. 

How Reporting Works

To report an assault, users fill out questions about the incident like the date, time of day and what kind of assault they experienced. They also pinpoint where it happened on a map which is visible to public users who visit the site. Survivors can report incidents like domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as coercion, catcalling and groping, among others. 

The website asks what time of day an assault happened.
Survivors answer 10 pages of questions to report an event. She's A Crowd

The report goes into an encrypted database, and a team of six employees at She’s A Crowd manually recode and remove identifying information from the data, including details from the personal testimonies survivors added, which helps protect survivors’ identities and the company from legal action. A limited version of the report appears on the website’s public map, and the total report goes onto a private dashboard that is available on a subscription basis. 

The reporting platform is “designed around survivors needing to feel heard, validated and seen, and helping them feel like they’re contributing to change, which is such a powerful way of healing,” Condliffe said.

But there are also some major concerns about the data’s accuracy, said Gwen Wright, former executive director of New York’s Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. She’s currently serving as the interim executive director for the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. People who don’t trust systems are less likely to report, and “that usually breaks down into lower-income and immigrant communities.” These groups could be underrepresented in the data.

“The self-reporting aspect is a limitation in itself,” Wright said, adding that only individuals who know of She’s a Crowd can report. 

But that’s the nature of crowd-sourced data, Condliffe said.

“It’s not a population study,” she said. “We can’t tell you what proportion of a population is experiencing an issue, but we can tell you among those who are experiencing an issue, what’s going on for them and where.” 

After operating for five years, the database has more than 100,000 reports, with 400 to 600 new reports coming in every day, said Chi-uh Neylon, the company’s operations manager. More than 50,000 of these reports come from the U.S. There are more than 463,000 sexual assaults each year in the U.S. alone, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a nonprofit. That statistic doesn’t include other categories She’s A Crowd counts, like groping and catcalling. 

Experts question if the data can make a difference

There are deeply embedded psychological reasons women don’t report assaults and violence, said Irwin Zalkin, a lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse cases. Some include shame, guilt and fear—fear they won’t be believed and that police might get involved, he said. Only 8 percent of assailants reported to the police in the U.S. will serve jail time, according to RAINN. The lack of accountability might contribute to general underreporting in the U.S. and around the world. And until a dataset is complete, it won’t be helpful to decision-makers, said Zalkin.

Thousands of harassment cases happen in major cities on a yearly basis, and “most victims take that information to the grave,” he said. 

“In terms of understanding the dangers of a particular area—is this a hotbed of sexual assault?—it’s ridiculous,” he said. “Do you know much sex trafficking is going on, and how many domestic violence cases there are, and how many unwelcome comments occur?”

Decision-makers already know sexual assault is an issue, and knowing how many incidents occurred on a certain street isn’t likely to change policy, he said. If reporting to She’s A Crowd “gives some survivors out there a sense of support because they can tell their story anonymously, that’s fine,” he said. “I just don’t think this is going to be a real, useful tool.”

Condliffe disagreed, saying there is a need for qualitative data in this space and that the alternative is no gender-specific, location-based data at all. 

Some Australian government agencies have found uses for She’s A Crowd’s data, including Transport for New South Wales. The agency oversees all transport and roads in New South Wales (NSW), the state which includes Sydney. 

In 2019, Plan International, a humanitarian organization, published a report that said 14 percent of group harassment incidents against women and girls in Sydney happened on public transportation, and 82 percent of incidents happened in the street. It recommended city organizations collect gender-disaggregated data to inform policies that will better protect women. In response, Transport for NSW began working with She’s A Crowd and two other data collectors to better understand what areas in the state could be safer. The data informed the group’s lobbying for funding, said Stephanie Salter, a director at Transport for NSW.

In June, the NSW government allocated $30 million to the Safer Cities program, which in partnership with Transport for NSW will fund initiatives to make cities safer for women, like improving lighting and infrastructure. 

“There’s a saying: What can be measured can be funded,” Salter said. “She’s A Crowd was a very important part in creating a space so the government could better understand where the gap was and what we needed to do.” 

Some data lives behind a paywall

Individuals can view the public map on She’s A Crowd’s website to see for themselves what areas have the most reports. Survivors and other women can look near where they might attend college, rent an apartment or travel, for example, so they can make informed decisions, Condliffe said. 

Displayed is an image of downtown Manhattan with pinpoints in it.
Survivors have reported in downtown Manhattan. She's A Crowd

The data behind the paywall is much more comprehensive. Users can sort this data rather than just viewing it on a map, and they can see details that don’t appear on the website, including the age of the survivor, the possible motivation of the attacker and what action the survivor took afterwards, if any. She’s A Crowd negotiates the price of this access with clients, charging anywhere from 200 Australian dollars to 600 Australian dollars ($130 to $400) per month.

This data is somewhat difficult to access. She’s A Crowd requires users to book a demonstration session with a team member beforehand, and the company requires users to disclose how they’ll use the data. She’s A Crowd’s team is working to streamline this process, Condliffe said. 

Based on interviews, the team is protective of who views this data at all, despite it being de-identified. This is because even with anonymized data, there is always a risk of someone being identified and that risk increases tenfold when all the data is free to the public, Condliffe said. It’s also behind a paywall for survivors’ safety. The company wants to share enough data to make survivors feel they have a voice, but not so much that it makes people feel unsafe every time they go outside, she said. And if it is published in full, She’s A Crowd can’t oversee how the data is being used. Condliffe said she wants to make sure the data is being used for positive change and not for bad actors to identify where women are vulnerable. 

But it also has to do with She’s A Crowd being a business and needing to make money. The company’s primary revenue comes from this subscription model, along with some grant funding, investors, custom projects and merchandise sales. She’s A Crowd was chosen to receive one of Coralus’ zero interest loans in 2023, and Humanitech, a branch of the Australian Red Cross, will contribute $50,000 in funding once She’s A Crowd completes their program. 

 “A handful of companies” pay for the service, including Australian government agencies, ridesharing companies, universities and consultancies, Condliffe said. To date, no U.S. groups pay for the data, although She’s A Crowd hasn’t marketed much in the U.S.

Can Crowd-Sourced Data About Sexual Assaults Make Cities Safer? An Australian Startup is Defying Skeptics by Trying