Smart Apps for Safer Cities: Taxi Crimes and Panic Buttons

November 20, 2012 For a previous blog post, I had asked my Kenyan friend Freddie why he preferred using mobile banking rather than the ATM for making payments.

“There has been a trend lately in Nairobi of thugs hijacking you, taking you to the ATM and forcing you to withdraw money,” he said.

His answer struck me, because the story was a familiar one. Known as "paseo millonario" (Millionaire Ride) or “secuestro express” (Express Kidnapping), this particular method of abduction is common and on the rise in Latin America, especially among taxi usage. And when car-less, taxis are pretty much the sole means of getting around Latin American mega-cities past 10-11pm, unlike in New York City, where taxis are chosen over the subway out of a convenience. During several months doing research in Brazil and Colombia last year, I heard endless abduction stories from colleagues and friends. Never was I allowed to hail a taxi on the street, because everybody knew at least one person who has been taken on a "millionaire's ride."

"Trust me, you won't regret paying a little more," my Bogotan friend Mario would tell me every time when it got too late to take the TransMilenio, and he would call a door-to-door taxi service to pick me up.

Taxi kidnapping have become so frequent that the United States is issuing official warnings. In its 2012 Crime and Safety Report on Bogota, for instance, the United States Department of State Overseas Security Advisory Council describes a "common trend in taxi-related crime" when the victim, traveling alone, has hailed a taxi on the street. The taxi driver will usually stop abruptly to allow a accomplice to enter the vehicle. According to the report, the driver and accomplice will then proceed to rob the passenger and take the passenger to as many ATMs as possible. After a day or two of forcing the victim to withdraw the daily maximum amount at various ATMs, the victim is usually released. Not surprisingly, the Department of State Overseas Security simply advises not to hail taxis on the street.

Naturally, I wondered if there were any other precautions one could take, and in a Smart Cities presentation at UC Berkeley I learned that there are, in fact, several innovative (& free!) tactics of trying to make one's taxi travel more secure.

The first of its kind is Taxiaviso (Taxi Warning), a smart-phone application that was deployed in Mexico in 2011. Once hailed, the taxi can be verified prior to boarding: The user types in the license plate number and the system momentarily responds with a verification or denial. Taxiaviso also allows the user to double-check approximate prices, track the car's route via GPS and take a photograph of the driver’s credentials (usually displayed on the taxi's window). All recorded information is sent to the user's social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Finally, in the very unfortunate case that something should go wrong, the user can push an on-screen panic button that will send an emergency message to those networks. According to Emilio Güemez, inventor of Taxiaviso in an interview with El Universal TV, the main goal is not only to keep friends and family up-to-date with your taxi safety status, but to create a reputation system for taxis based on evaluations. At the end of the ride, Taxiaviso asks the user to rate the taxi on several scales and provides a space for commentaries on the overall taxi experience--a Yelp for taxis so to speak.

Two other taxi-safety apps have been launched in Bogota, Colombia. Taxi Seguro (Safe Taxi) and Denuncie al Taxista (Denounce the Taxi Driver).

Very similar to Taxiaviso, Taxi Seguro also allows passengers to track the cab’s route using a 10-second-intervall-updates GPS system, determine the approximate duration of the ride, enter the license plate and take photographs of the driver’s credentials. It, too, includes a panic button but this panic button will actually alert authorities in addition to sending an email to a number of friends and family. Yes, emergency emails (rather than calls or text messages) do not seem tremendously effective and Taxi Seguro is in the process of looking for a partnership that will allow them to send panic text messages rather than emails. In the (likely) case that the app user cannot reach the phone while being robbed, the alert is also sent out when the taxi significantly deters from its planned route or the ride takes much longer than estimated. People like it. According to El Tiempo, almost 16,000 users from Colombia, the United States, Mexico, Spain, Canada, Chile, Australia, France and Venezuela have downloaded TaxiSeguro.

The second Colombia-based app, Denuncie al Taxista, allows users to inquire about a taxi's reputation by tweeting #TaxiSeguro + license plate, report misconduct by tweeting #denuncio + license plate, doublecheck on prices and praise a taxi driver to the Twitter handle @DenuncieTaxista.With over 33,000 followers, Denuncie al Taxista provides a good overview of good and bad taxi companies and drivers. In Bogota, the number one rated taxi driver is Sil866. According to 37 positive reviews, he provides excellent service, exact change and groovy music. Teo474, on the other hand, is probably the highest-charging taximan in town, as confirmed by 14 negative reviews.

Interestingly, Taxi Seguro also exists for taxi drivers. Born out of a collaboration between the Vodaphone Portugal Foundation in partnership with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Public Security Police, this system contributes to drivers’ safety through prevention or discouragement of possible assaults by displaying a Taxi Seguro sticker on the vehicle and facilitating a faster and more efficient police response. It allows the driver to push a type of panic button that will alert the police who can then track the cab via a combination of GSM, GPS, Internet and digital cartography technologies. When alerted, the police listen in to what is happening inside the vehicle and, based on what they hear, deploy units to make an arrest. Since its launch in Februrary 2007, the Portuguese Taxi Seguro system has been implemented in thousands of vehicles in the greater Lisbon area. According to a Vodaphone-sponsored video, a similar system is being considered to improve security at gas stops and pharmacies.

The U.S. and England have introduced several similar apps, but they have not taken off as in Mexico and Colombia.

There are of course several major downturns. First of all, all of these apps rely on a third party's response, and second of all, you need a smart phone to use them. While smart phone penetration in Latin America is quickly catching up with the global average, distrust in the police remains a major issue. Whether informing your social network first or authorities directly, the effectiveness of the app will boil down to the police responding. And unfortunately, in Latin America you may find yourself pushing the panic button in vein. According to The Christian Science Monitor, Latin American police, having recognized their bad reputation, are trying to boost their involvement in and response to their communities. Until that happens, the safest option might actually be to listen to your friend, wait for the door-to-door taxi and pay that extra charge.

Christina Gossmann is a Master in City Planning student at UCBerkeley interested in the interaction of technology and media in the urban space.