While South Korean cities are regarded as safe in general, it is far less safe for women than for men. That’s a sad reality as it is shown with the Gangnam murder and through surveys. An approach in Korea to improve personal safety is through smartphones and a safe walking app. It attempts to suggest the safest walking route. But can an app guide to safe routes and how does it work?
Issues of Personal Safety
Seoul conducts annual surveys about the walking environment. In 2015, Seoul added walking at night to the survey. While the score of women is equal to the score given by men for the categories overall, residential and city center, the score for walking at night is 5.87 by men but only 5.66 by women (of a 10-point scale). The findings are confirmed by OECD surveys. According to the OECD, only half of the women in Korea feel safe walking alone at night in the area where they live, while 71% of Korean men feel safe.
Services to Improve Safety
Seoul provides a service that accompanies women to their home. It is called “Service for Women to Arrive Safely at Home” (여성 안심귀가 서비스). The service started in 2013. It can be requested by calling 120 at least 30 minutes before arriving at the final bus or subway station. Two scouts (often a woman and a man) will meet the requester there and accompany her to her doorsteps.
The service operates from 10 pm to 1am. It can be seen as an innovative way to provide safety. A problem is that this service requires a high headcount. In 2014 there were 500 scouts and despite a growth in interest, there were only 420 scouts recruited in 2015 and 2016. It causes a lack of service availability. Additionally, it is restricted to a certain time and the service is currently only available in Seoul, not in other parts of Korea.
Safety App for Walking
Through smartphones, we now have information at our fingertips and there are pedestrian navigation apps. An app by SK Telecom guides pedestrians towards safe paths: T-Map Safe Walking (안심보행).
The app launched in June 2014 and it is only available for Android devices. It was developed by SK Planet and the Gyeonggi Police Agency. The purpose is to provide a pedestrian navigation tool for women, children, people with disabilities and other vulnerable social groups and to show the safest, most convenient and shortest routes.
The last update was in November 2014 and it has between 100,000 and 500,000 downloads. There was a trial in Giheung (Yongin) and through that update in November the area was expanded to Gyeonggi province.
In theory, the app should display police stations, security cameras, street lights, safe zones for children and convenience stores along the proposed route. However, data on security cameras doesn’t exist and information on traffic lights is limited.
Functions of Safe Walking App
Here you can see four screenshots of the Safe Walking app:
The first screenshot on the far left shows the app interface with the map. Paths highlighted in bright yellow color are regarded as safe. The yellow dots are street lights.
The second screenshot shows the proposed routes: the shortest path in red, the most convenient path without stairs in blue and the safest route in green. Playing around with different departure and destinations, it seems that the app assumes that main streets are safer than side-alleys. It probably also counts how many street lights and other elements exist along each possible route.
The third screenshot shows the so-called “siren”. The button called “siren” is in the lower left corner. It sets off a loud alarm. It has the function to scare off an aggressor and get attention from anyone close-by.
In the settings three phone numbers can be designated as receivers of location updates. The location is shared via a short message that contains a link to a map that displays the location (the screenshot on the right). It’s possible to send a message by pressing a button. Or automatic messages can be sent every 3, 5 or 10 minutes for the duration of 30 minutes, 1 or 2 hours.
If the user shakes the phone while using the app, it is going to apply all three main functions: turn on the siren, open the dialer for 112 and send a location message to contacts.
Testing the Safe Walking App
There are little information about the impact of this service. The Safe Walking app has a rating of 3.5 in the Google Play store and around 500 reviews in total without any comments. So, I tested the app on several occasions.
Positive aspects are that just as with a normal navigation software, the instructions are clear and there is a good guidance provided. As it is adjusted to pedestrians, the instructions are simpler. The basic commands are “in xx meters turn left/right”and “turn the first road left/right”. Most importantly, the location was successfully sent to the emergency contacts.
However, there have been several issues with the app. Despite being still 100+ meters away, the navigation voice says always that the next turn is 50 meters away. The data has also many shortcomings. Pedestrians require more detailed information. Even though the application was published over a year ago, it still doesn’t show any information about security cameras and traffic lights are still only available for the trial area. A severe issue is that the app closes instantly if it loses connection. The route guidance can be resumed if the app is opened again but it distracts the user from the road. The stability of the app has to be improved.
It seems that the sustainability of the project seems to be lacking. Nevertheless, the app can be useful for people who visit an area for the first time. It’s a decent pedestrian navigation tool but for an app that guarantees safety, the quality of the data isn’t good enough. To be a trustworthy service, many improvements have to be made.
Far better than any safe walking app would be to have streets safe enough for women and anyone to walk home at any time of the day or night. Inclusive and sustainable urban planning has to be promoted and more participation can help to recognize issues that are often overlooked or ignored.