How Citizen is reinventing itself by recruiting older Asian Americans

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Editor’s note: This is a translation of a story about how the crime-tracking app Citizen has been giving away free subscriptions to elderly Asians in the Bay Area. Find the English language version here.

This article was written in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center’s AI Accountability Network.

When it’s dark outside, Josephine Zhao sometimes calls an extra pair of “eyes”—literally, “eyes”—even if it’s just a few blocks back to her San Francisco home.

Zhao opened the Citizen App on his mobile phone and established contact with a customer service staff of the platform through a function called “real-time monitoring”. The platform can also track Zhao’s GPS location through the Internet, and the customer service can click another button to get authorization to turn on her phone camera. That way the platform can “see what I see,” Zhao said. Normally, she wouldn’t even have a conversation with a customer service agent, but Zhao felt reassured knowing that “someone is walking with me right now.”

It’s one of Zhao’s latest security measures: She also avoids public transportation and wears a long, pointed device on her key chain when she walks around the city. The device is a light pink plastic object that turns into a weapon when necessary.

But in her view, Citizen, a hyper-local app that allows users to report and track notifications of nearby crimes, is one of her best protections, data-driven DIY security measures that can protect a long-neglected group.

“Our needs in terms of education, public safety, housing, transportation, are all unmet and concerned. It’s as if we don’t matter,” said Zhao, who is also a substitute teacher and community liaison for several educational NGOs. , “Our needs are not being respected, our needs are not being met, people are belittling us everywhere.”

“I really believe Citizen is a tool for social justice and racial justice.”

“We have to do something to protect our community,” she added. “Citizen is the perfect tool.”

In the wake of ongoing race-based attacks and a series of mass shootings targeting Asian residents, many residents of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community told Massachusetts Tech Review, they welcomed the app as a solution to their anxieties about anti-Asian hatred.

For these deeply traumatized people, Citizen became a way to gain peace of mind.

Citizen Transformation

This positive response may seem odd for the app.After all because ofAmplify people’s fantasies about crimeand helpRacial gated access for white residents, which has long been under criticism. Citizen was originally named “Vigilante” because it has had a checkered history: Apple’s App Store opened up after the app’s 2016 launch.Take it down within a week, because it violates Apple’s Developer Review Guidelines, which state that apps must not encourage physical harm. In 2021, the company’s CEO asked his employees to offer a $30,000 reward for finding a person he mistook to set fires in Los Angeles, which at the time becameheadline News.And the app’s customers are oftenracist remarksbeen criticized.

It’s in this context that the app is now aggressively courting users like Zhao.From September 2022through community groups such as the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce orSan Francisco American Chinese Chamber of Commerce(Chinese American Association of Commerce in San Francisco), Citizen has been recruiting Chinese and other Asian residents in the Bay Area, includingincluding many older people, they join the service to get a free one-year premium subscription worth $240. (While the free version of the app alerts users to noteworthy events, if you want to getReal-time online monitoring with Citizen employeesservice, a more advanced version is required). Currently, Zhao works directly with Citizen, helping to translate its app interface into Chinese and promoting it among her network.

The app’s ultimate goal is to recruit 20,000 new users from the region’s AAPI community, which could equate to about $5 million worth of paid annual subscriptions. Darrell Stone, product lead at Citizen, says 700 people have signed up for their app so far.

The San Francisco Bay Area project, which is also a test of a broader reinvention of the app, has succeeded in engaging some vulnerable groups who may often not have access to police protection, fromAtlanta’s Black Transgender Communityto the Chicago areavictim of gang violence. “I really believe Citizen is a tool for social justice and racial justice,” said Trevor Chandler, who led the app last year when he was the organization’s director of government affairs and public policy. Program a pilot project in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But some advocates working with the Asian American community in the Bay Area, as well as experts in the field of research focused on disinformation among vulnerable populations, are skeptical that this rapid danger warning technology really addresses the core issue: whether it can actuallyletPeople are safer, not just keep themFeelA little safer.Beyond that, they wonder if the Citizen app can sometimes make things worse, as it could amplify prejudice against the community, especially in the wake of the global pandemic.placeandthe whole countryof the Asian community bringsEndlesstraumawhen.

“Almost every day you can see on any social media that the app solicits information from the masses, and it is spread wildly and quickly throughout the technology ecosystem, which in my opinion is completely abnormal,” Advocate Asia said. Kendall Kosai, vice president of public affairs at OCA, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the social, political and economic well-being of ethnic communities, said.

He said he installed Citizen on his phone and was taken aback by the biased comments some users submitted about certain events. “What is the effect on the psyche of our community?” he asked. “Obviously, this could all get out of hand very quickly.”

Get the “right information”

“I’m excited to use it,” said Alice Kim, 49, who runs Joe’s Ice Cream with her husband in North San Francisco’s Richmond district, aboutOne-third of the population is AsianKim said that he will see an increase in various vandalism incidents and car theft cases recently.

Like many other Asian-Americans, the Kims feel that concerns for their safety have longfell on deaf ears, largely ignored by local politicians. “It felt like they were living in another world,” said Alice’s husband, Sean Kim.

Over the course of several months in 2021, there have been three attempted break-ins at their store, and people even threw trash at her a few times, or started arguing when Alice said she asked people not to use the bathroom.

“Every morning when I come to work, I have a little anxiety about whether my store has been burglarized or whether I will see another broken window,” Alice told me, “especially during the epidemic, I feel very nervous and uncomfortable. Safety.”

In the fall of 2022, Alice asks Sean to install the Citizen app on her phone, and he has been explaining the various benefits of the app to Alice. Sean had been using the Citizen app before the app was pitched to the AAPI community, and when his friend Zhao gave them a free trial of the premium version, he decisively upgraded.

Sean thinks Citizen is more reliable than other local messaging apps like NextDoor because he feels that the news provided by Citizen seems to be verified. (in addition to relying onEmergency information from various public data sourcesIn addition, Citizen employees said they would alsoTo review criminal information reported by users。)

“We’re trying to ask people to double-check the messages forwarded in WeChat groups,” because “these messages sometimes cause other people to panic.”

“I think more and more people are using Citizen because a lot of people are checking the information,” Sean continued, “so at least I know, oh, that wasn’t a shot. Without the app, I listen to When it came time for the shot to go off, I had no idea what was going on. I felt like it was an effective tool. I had the right information and it made me feel safe.”

For Alice, being able to connect with customer service through Citizen’s advanced features was a way to address some issues that might not have reached the true crime threshold but made her feel very unsafe. On the app’s map, red dots indicate reports of serious incidents, such as someone being hit by a car or being attacked with a weapon; yellow dots indicate more benign warnings, such as reports of armed persons or the detection of gas odors, and gray dots Indicates a noteworthy but non-threatening problem, such as a lost pet.

Like the Kims, many Bay Area residents of Asian descent are actively monitored because they feel chronically neglected. Residents of the AAPI community have organized various spontaneous patrols in the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Oakland (although the Kims are not yet involved). The couple backed a controversial bill that would allow police, with the owner’s permission, toRetrieve private surveillance video within 24 hours. Sean and Alice have also spoken to other small business owners about installing private surveillance equipment, a step also taken by Chinatown business owners in nearby Oakland. To them, Citizen is just another tool to keep tabs on what’s going on around them.

Chandler argues that much of the negative rhetoric surrounding Citizen misses this point, and that some core users, like the Kims, rely on the tool because they face crime on their doorstep.

“Citizen and its premium versions are not a panacea that will solve all the problems in the world or prevent crime from happening around the world. It’s not for that,” Chandler said, “but it This app has become an incredibly powerful way for marginalized communities to have their voices heard.”

“Unfortunately, none of their assistants can speak Chinese”

“Although Citizen’sideagreat. But because of the uniqueness of our community, I do look at it with a healthy dose of skepticism,” said OCA’s Sai Ko. What is sexuality like? “

He noted that the Asian American community in the United States includes “50 different races and 100 different languages,” and that “different communities interact differently with local law enforcement around these public safety issues.”

Currently, Citizen only supports the English interface. Jessica Chen, executive director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said that to be truly effective, it must provide services in Chinese or other Asian languages. (Citizen’s Stone said in an email that it is “aggressively investing” in natural language processing technology that “will allow us to translate apps into different languages ​​in real time,” but he did not provide details of those initiatives or schedule.)

On a practical level, it is difficult to help members of a group adopt the same technology when they have varying degrees of familiarity with using technology and accessing information, and it is even more difficult when English is not their first language. Especially for the elderly whose native language is not English, it is very difficult to register on this platform and understand the news released by the platform.

“Do I have the time to teach them? And am I the right person to teach them?” Chen asked.

Josephine Hui, 75, has lived in Oakland for 40 years and is a financial educator who often commutes to work in Chinatown. She and several other seniors recently learned about the app at an event hosted by Citizen, a joint effort between the Asian Committee on Crime, a nonprofit focused on safety in Oakland, and the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. hold. She came across the Oakland Police Department’s public safety presentation on the app.

Josephine Josephine Hui, 75, at a local security event in Oakland sitting in a gymnasium as an audience member at a community meeting
Josephine Hui, 75, at a security event in Auckland.

“I think Citizen is a great app for anyone on the street,” she said. “It’s a pity that none of their assistants speak Chinese.”

Still, she said she was eager to learn how to use the app. She said she felt isolated during the pandemic, trapped at home and feared for her safety as attacks against Asian residents increased.

But before she could use the app, she hit a snag: When she tried to install it, she couldn’t remember her Apple account password.

confusing information

As president of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Carl Chan has been pushing for more safety measures to comeProtectResidents of Chinatown, and thank the community residents for their promotion.

However, for many elderly people, the system language of this App is not their native language, so Chen often has to help them learn how to use it. He worries that some people may misinterpret Citizen’s alerts if the information cannot be translated into languages ​​such as Chinese or Vietnamese. He also worries that if these seniors are not properly trained, they could mistake alerts from other locations for intelligence from their own area and pass them on to other platforms, spreading misinformation that would create unnecessary fear.

“We try to ask people to carefully check the information forwarded in the WeChat group,” Chen said, because “these information sometimes cause other people to panic.”

Diani Citra, who works at PEN America on misinformation in the Asian-American community, also worries that the spread of such dense information about crime could backfire, adding to anxiety among already traumatized populations.

Citra said apps like Citizen could help fill the information gap for a group of people in an “information desert,” either because they are not being followed by mainstream media or because they don’t receive information in their native language.

“Information about crime is so necessary for many marginalized communities that we are not getting community information that is relevant to our safety. We are in no position to ask them not to go because no one is providing any information right now. Get that information elsewhere,” she said, but using the app could still create a “magnified sense of danger.”

Although Chandler said that Citizen will continue to verify the information it publishes, Asian residents will further disseminate the information received from here to fragmented news websites and social platform media systems, such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Viber and so on. These platforms are often already saturated with misleading and divisive messages about anti-Asian hate.

“What was an outlier could be seen as a larger trend.”

For example, according to an August 2022 disinformation survey by the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans and the Disinfo Defense LeagueReportMore and more news aggregation platforms are collecting information about crimes where the perpetrators are black and the victims are Asian.

These outlets sometimes rewrite news articles with more provocative headlines or use old events as evidence that mainstream media is underreporting black anti-Asian crimes, often with the aim of advancing anti-black narratives and misrepresenting Asians, the report said. The victim’s identity is weaponized.

“The lack of coverage of Asian Americans in mainstream media and news organizations has left room for online sources and platforms that single out their ‘pro-Asian’ nature…these sources have fueled some problematic Narratives that revolve around misogyny, anti-Black racism and xenophobia.”

While there’s no evidence yet that promotional messages like this have taken hold on Citizen, Citra said older Asians, who are already more vulnerable to misinformation and divisive narratives, are more likely to see criminal messages without context become panicked. (Citizen did not answer a series of follow-up questions, including about possible misinformation on the app.) Citra warned: “What was an outlier could be seen as a larger trend.”

Can Citizen be changed?

Citizen has been courting the AAPI community at a time when the police situation and law and order situation is already tense in the US. Many of the communities Citizen is winning over don’t trust police departments or are willing to work with them. (Indeed, some organizers told me that many members of the Asian American community avoid reporting incidents to the police.)

“We sometimes get very excited about creating an immediate solution that makes things a little bit better, but we don’t think enough about structural long-term solutions.”

In theory, a technology like Citizen could represent a useful stepping stone for those who generally feel let down by official government agencies, but who still face a lot of security concerns.

However, not long ago, Citizen was criticized for creating a “culture of fear”,Encourage people to use private police. A former employee once described the app’s mainstream users as those who would write “extremely racist” of people who commented.

Chandler argues that these descriptions ignore the large user base of apps like Citizen who may need the app’s services to track crime in their neighborhood because that’s the reality, crime is happening all around them. . In his view, the app can be a powerful dissemination tool for users who don’t have the “privilege” of living in a secure community.

As an example, Chandler cites his work experience in Chicago. He said,Statistics, the South District is not as safe as the North District, and some people there have to live with the reality of crime every day. Residents there told him they rely on the app to keep their families safe, for example, if there is a shooting or car accident that could escalate into a larger conflict.

These Chicago users “are not being told by Citizen that they should be scared,” Chandler said. “They’re scared.”

Trevor Chandler at a safety event for the AAPI community in Oakland
Trevor Chandler at a safety event hosted by the AAPI community in Oakland

In the fall and winter of 2022, Chandler has been working with politicians and community organizers in the Bay Area, and he is speaking with another local mayor and nearby organizations to bring Citizen to the Hmong and Vietnamese communities in their area. free account. Before the end of the year, he pushed for Citizen to expand into Sacramento County, which has a high percentage of Asian residents.

But going forward, it’s unclear how much the company will continue to pour into the project. In early January 2023, Chandler and 33 other employeesfired

“I’m so proud that through our work with our community partners, we’re not only raising awareness of hate crimes in the AAPI community, but also providing practical solutions,” Chandler recently texted. Citizen staff, I can no longer continue to be involved in this.”

Chandler said the company will stand by its commitment to provide 20,000 free paid subscriptions to Bay Area residents of Asian descent, and Stone confirmed that the company “will continue to promote and support the program.” But Chandler also said he wasn’t sure if anyone else would stay on the project.

For Kenji Jones, president of Soar Over Hate, an organization that regularly provides self-defense classes to Asian-American residents in New York City, an ongoing commitment to the community is important. He’s encouraged by Citizen’s Bay Area rollout, especially that the idea of ​​an on-call customer service for app users is “very good.” But he also worries that the free trial service will only last for one year, and many low-income Asian residents may not be able to renew.

“What’s going to happen after that year? It’s a for-profit company. So it’s about making more money. They’re profiting off of this group, especially this group that feels very dangerous right now. So I think , to me a one-year trial is pretty unethical,” Jones said.

He added: “We sometimes get very excited about creating an immediate solution that makes things a little bit better, but we don’t think enough about structural long-term solutions.”

Jones also noted that some of the most important lessons his organization offers are helping people build self-confidence, and he worries that using the app could undermine those feelings, which could make people “more anxious and fearful about their safety.”

As Asians, “I think a lot of us are conditioned to feel small,” he said. “I think what a lot of people need is confidence, and that’s not something an app can give you.”

Lam Thuy Vo is a journalist who combines data analysis with on-the-ground reporting to examine how institutions and policies affect individual behavior.she is currentlyFuture of Information Fellow at Brown UniversityAI Accountability Fellow at the Pulitzer Center,as well asCraig Newmark Data Reporter-in-Residence at the Graduate School of Journalism

grateful WITH TR China Zhi Zhang of , provided translation support for this article.


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