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Makers launch Citizen app, which alerts users to nearby crime, in Baltimore

Makers launch Citizen app, which alerts users to nearby crime, in Baltimore
"Citizen is a new technology that sends real-time safety alerts directly to your phone, available as a free app for anyone to use," according to a news release. (Image taken from Citizen news release)

A mobile app that provides users with real-time alerts about crimes and other emergency situations in their immediate surroundings launched Wednesday in Baltimore, its developer said.

The app, called Citizen, collects publicly available information — such as police scanner chatter — and pushes out notifications to users within a certain radius of incidents.

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“We’re all about empowering people and giving them situational awareness for their safety,” said Andrew Frame, the developer’s founder and CEO.

The app started in New York City several years ago and is now also available in San Francisco. Frame says 10 percent of New York residents — or more than 800,000 people — have downloaded the app, but declined to provide specific user figures there or in California.

He said company officials chose Baltimore as their third market because it is close to New York and the company has connections in the city, including former gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, who is an investor. They also chose Baltimore, Frame acknowledged, because of its high crime levels.

“That’s certainly one thing,” he said. “We want to come to cities and people who need this the most.”

Baltimore, with more than 300 homicides in each of the past four years, is the most murderous city in the nation per capita. It also suffers from a wide array of other violent crimes, including nonfatal shootings, robberies and carjackings.

Jealous — the former head of the NAACP and Gov. Larry Hogan’s Democratic challenger last year — said he has been having conversations about the benefits of the app with elected officials and others in Baltimore, including Mayor Catherine Pugh and several members of the City Council.

He said he planned to have additional discussions in coming days with incoming Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and the police union, as well as with community association leaders and other neighborhood residents.

“We’re in the process of making our rounds,” he said.

Jealous said the app would improve safety in the city. During beta-testing of the app last week, the app’s analysts had information about the shooting at Frederick Douglass High School within 90 seconds of it hitting the police scanner, and would have been in a position to alert users to avoid the school.

Pugh said that in addition to Jealous briefing her team on the app, she had been approached about it at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“We are vetting it,” she said.

Matt Jablow, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said he would have to learn more about the app to comment in any specificity, but that “in theory, it sounds like it could be of real use to Baltimore residents.”

He noted that the Police Department and local residents already use the Nextdoor app to post information about incidents in their neighborhoods.

Frame, 39, of New York, said Citizen issues about 2 million safety notifications per day, and has helped reconnect lost children with their families, warned residents of fires in their buildings and prevented people from walking into potentially dangerous situations.

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To provide a similar service in Baltimore, it will employ a team of analysts — some with prior law enforcement or journalism experience — to put out alerts around the clock, he said.

He said the company will soon publish policies that outline the kinds of incidents that the app pushes alerts for, and the kinds it does not. For instance, it issues alerts for most crimes, but does not issue alerts for suspicious people or bags, or for cases of domestic violence or suicide attempts that occur within private homes, he said.

“If we don’t think it’s providing a public safety benefit, it doesn’t go in the app,” Frame said.

The app is and will always be free for download, he said. Monetizing the app is “stage two,” but the company is not there yet and the venture capitalists bankrolling it “are all OK with this plan,” he said. He would not say how much funding has been invested into the app to date, or how the company plans to monetize the app in the future. He did say, however, that the company will never share user data with outside parties.

“We take data privacy very serious,” he said. “It’s not for sale. It won’t be for sale.”

The company has caused controversy. When it was first released, bearing the name Vigilante, it was removed quickly from the Apple app store. The New York Police Department slammed the app. Jealous said he “cussed out” Frame when Frame first approached him years ago, when he was a venture capitalist at Kapor Capital, to invest. At the time, Jealous said he feared the app would direct citizens to intervene in potentially dangerous situations.

Jealous said he only got on board after “intense” discussions, the renaming of the app and a renewed emphasis by Frame on keeping people safe.

The Citizen app shows a timeline of the shooting at Frederick Douglass High School last week.
The Citizen app shows a timeline of the shooting at Frederick Douglass High School last week. (Image taken from Citizen news release)

Frame said that in New York, the company has had “nothing but amazing results from people using this information for good,” and the app warns users against endangering themselves. It does allow users to stream video of incidents, which it then disseminates to other users, but Frame said that only brings transparency and has not led users to endanger themselves capturing video.

The New York Police Department, asked for its position on the app, said only that people who believe that a crime has been committed should contact police. The San Francisco Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Jealous said people across New York — including firefighters, emergency room nurses, doormen and “moms of every color, rich to poor” — love the app, and that he is excited about bringing it to his home city.

“My hope was it would bring increased transparency to public safety, police community relations,” he said. “But it’s really done so much more than that.”

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