Zoe Condliffe's startup She's a Crowd is providing a digital tool to deal with gender-based violence. (Photo: Supplied)

Female tech power finding tools to tackle sexual misconduct

A graduate of a women-only startup incubator is using crowdsourcing to gather usable data about patterns of sexual assault.

Whereas once the female of the species was expected to deal with ‘creepy’ behaviour from men as best she could, the #metoo movement has empowered women to speak out about sexual harassment and violence in our society like never before.

Combine that revolution with a digital solution and you have an innovative new business idea.

Melbourne woman Zoe Condliffe’s venture She’s a Crowd provides an online platform for women to anonymously tell their stories of gender-based intimidation, harassment and assault.

Websites for people to anonymously share such stories of abuse are not new, but the twist in Condliffe’s concept is that each of these stories is geotagged, allowing She’s a Crowd to aggregate the data and provide valuable information to governments and other decision-makers about the prevalence of gender-based violence on their patch. Condliffe believes she’s also the first to turn the idea into a money-making enterprise, albeit that She’s a Crowd aims to invest much of its profit back into the initiative.

The recently launched platform has already collected 10,000 stories, and although it’s Australian-domiciled there is nothing to stop women from all over the world adding their experiences to the database.

The researcher in gender and crowdsourcing technology at Monash University says it’s an idea whose time has come. While more than 80% of sexual assaults go unreported, half a million women told their stories in the first 24 hours of the #metoo movement, Condliffe says.

“I think it’s one of those things, the right solution at the right time,” she says. “MeToo happened and I knew that women wanted to share their stories online, and that they didn’t have a place where they could do it and feel like it was actually being used.”

She’s a Crowd may have remained no more than a concept had Condliffe not joined SheStarts, a women-only startup incubator helping female entrepreneurs build tech companies.

The only one of its kind in this part of the world and very possibly unique internationally, SheStarts was launched in Australia in 2016 by accelerator provider Blue Chilli in conjunction with MYOB and ANZ. Two cohorts of female startup founders have now graduated from the programme, and it is recruiting for the 2019 course.

MYOB’s executive GM of marketing and direct sales Natalie Feehan says there have been some notable SheStarts successes, such as FarmPay, an online payment platform founded by a farmer who was appalled at how long it took for she and her  husband to get paid for their produce, and VetChat providing virtual vet consultations. The programme has been so successful that the organisers are looking at rolling it out to other countries, including New Zealand.

The SheStarts founders come from diverse backgrounds and have different skill sets, Feehan says. What they have in common is that they all have a great idea but just don’t know how to make it happen. Blue Chilli saw that 90% of the founders coming through its programmes were men, and identified an opportunity to create an accelerator specifically for non-technical women.

“The number one challenge for female entrepreneurs is if they don’t have a tech background, they don’t know how to bring a technical product or idea to life,” she says.

According to The US National Centre for Women and Information Technology, the percentage of women working in tech has steadily declined since 1991. Just a quarter of the global tech workforce are women, and in New Zealand that figure is even worse at 23 per cent, MYOB says in its Women in Tech report. Kiwi men are twice as likely to study ICT and five times as likely to study engineering as their female counterparts, it says.

We still have an issue with women in tech, both in terms of the lack of a pipeline of females with technical skills as well as in attitudes, Condliffe says.

“I can tell you firsthand it’s really challenging to be a female founder. You don’t get taken as seriously,” she says.

“The other day I was pitching at a huge pitch event, and I won People’s Choice award, and that’s a pretty big deal, there were 100 people that were vying for these prizes. I went up to one of the judges after and said, ‘I’d love feedback on the business from your perspective’. He said, ‘you only won People’s Choice because women voted for you’. And I was like, ‘are women not people?’.”

Nevertheless she has received more positive feedback to She’s a Crowd than to any other social venture she’s been involved with, Condliffe says.

Her target client base is organisations such as universities and local councils which are keen to know on a granular level what is going on for inhabitants of their spaces. Currently the majority of their information on sexual assault comes from crime statistics, which given the under-reporting of the problem leaves a large data gap.

She’s a Crowd allows women to share all the details of an incident, including exactly where and when it happened and whether they knew the offender, and stories span the spectrum from intimidation to assault.

She’s a Crowd has studied how women talk about these things and it uses their language, Condliffe says.

“They won’t say, ‘I was sexually assaulted’, they’ll say ‘I was groped’, or ‘this guy just felt creepy to me’. Every single story is geotagged so that means it’s given an exact location of where it happened, so we’re collecting all this data, and we can create maps that pick up trends.”

It will enable decision-makers to look at what’s happening and why, and what can be done about it, she says.

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“There might be a bar and the bar staff are like, ‘yeah, we get reports all the time’. But no-one’s actually keeping track of it.”

Women in New Zealand can use the platform to report incidents, although that data won’t be usable until it reaches a critical mass, Condliffe says.

“But we would encourage everyone to share their story because they’re beginning to chip away at the problem. That will go straight into our database and one day be used.”

New Zealand entrepreneurs can also apply to take part in SheStarts. However, if they wish to raise capital for their business through Blue Chilli’s networks once they graduate they would need to incorporate the business in Australia, Feehan says.


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