App aims to equip bystanders to respond to hate

· The Pulse

An Edmonton-based developer is building an app to help bystanders respond appropriately to hate-motivated attacks.

The Allies app allows users to send out a beacon if they are experiencing or witnessing a hate incident, alerting nearby users and helping to coordinate bystander intervention. Over time, the AI feature would adjust its own recommendations based on how an event is unfolding and what strategies have been effective in the past.

"Every situation is different, and we've seen so many times that people use a cookie-cutter approach to solve it," explained Allies co-founder Peter Tang.

Although Allies has been available since the fall of 2021, the app has yet to collect enough incident data from its early adopters to allow the AI to formulate individualized responses. Budding partnerships in New York and other major U.S. cities that have seen a dramatic rise in hate crimes will allow this feature to be fully realized, Tang said.

Edmonton has also seen an increase in police-reported hate crimes, growing from 3.6 per 100,000 population in 2016 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2020, reports Statistics Canada. Similarly, StopHateAB reported an increase in verified hate incidents – things like slurs, graffiti, and intimidation that don't meet the legal definition of a hate crime – from 223 in 2020 to 316 in 2021.

Allies found an eager partner in Pride Corner on Whyte, a group that emerged to counteract the ongoing presence of street preachers broadcasting anti-LGBTQ2S+ messages on the corner of 104 Street and Whyte Avenue.

"We jumped on board right away," said Pride Corner on Whyte organizer Douglas Parsons. "Being part of a minority group, we wanted to make sure that if something happened, we would have allies. So, for us, it makes a lot of sense."

In one case, Parsons said, a user was confronted by a street preacher who "got right in their face, and they felt uncomfortable." After activating the alert, the user safely removed themselves from the confrontation and was met shortly after by a supporter responding to the Allies push notification.

Screenshots of the Allies app, with a map of Louise McKinney Park, a description of an incident where a senior Asian lady is being verbally harassed, and a number of people indicate they have arrived to help

The Allies app allows users who experience or witness a hate incident to send a beacon to other users and coordinate an intervention appropriate for the situation. (Supplied)

The Muslim Student Organization and Al-Rashid Mosque are also listed as partners working with Allies.

"It takes a community to fight this," Tang said of hate-motivated attacks in the city. "As someone standing across the street, there is an obligation for us as Canadians to see how we can help before it escalates into a situation where it becomes tragic."

A number of projects have put forward ideas on how to tackle hate-motivated violence in Edmonton, including the Stop Race-Based Hate website, which educates people on how to call out racism when they see it, and the Edmonton city council's new anti-racism strategy. What sets Allies apart is its research-informed approach to encouraging bystanders to act, Tang said.

"People do react when they see it as an emergency, but when there's an ambiguous situation, we don't want to look like fools trying to help when we're not needed," he said.

This hesitation leads to people taking cues from other bystanders as to what is an appropriate reaction, and "we all wait until the situation becomes tragic enough before we do decide to take action."

De-escalation is the goal of Allies, but Tang acknowledges the potential for misuse and is taking steps to discourage the vigilantism that experts have warned may be inspired by social media and community monitoring apps.

"The chatbot will monitor speech to catch any formulation of strategy to attack the perpetrator and warn the participants that everything is being recorded and attacking beyond defence may lead to assault charges," he said.

By communicating information to bystanders, Allies would clarify the situation and encourage them to help before it becomes unquestionably threatening. This coordinated intervention is key to safely resolving the incident, Tang said.

"We've seen the data, and by having a group response, it adds doubt to the perpetrator, and they are more inclined to leave rather than escalate."

The app is available for download on iOS and Android, and is currently available in six cities.