4 campus seniors create app tracking locations of crimes

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Ethan Epstein/File

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On Feb. 15, four UC Berkeley seniors launched Wildfire, a smartphone application that posts user-generated crime PSAs.

The app allows its users to publish posts with their observations of crimes committed on and near the campus. The app then sends out push notifications based on users’ proximity to locations of crimes. Wildfire’s creators are now working to improve the current 5-mile radius.

The four founders of the app — CEO Hriday Kemburu, business lead Vinay Ramesh and tech leads Tim Hyon and Jay Patel — started working on this project Oct. 1 after Kemburu was the victim of an attempted attack. Although Kemburu posted a crime alert in the popular Free & For Sale Facebook group, he expressed concern that not enough people saw it as soon as possible.

“The problem with Free & For Sale is that a lot of people don’t get notifications, and you also have to be online,” Kemburu said. “We thought that there had to be a better, more efficient way of notifying people in your area.”

Kemburu said there is a delay of five to 10 minutes between users’ posts and the subsequent notifications, but they are constantly trying to decrease this window. According to Kemburu and his partners, moderators confirm the Wildfire posts’ legitimacy using alerts from The Daily Californian, Berkeleyside, UCPD and Berkeley Police Department. The team has also approached UCPD about potential collaboration on the app.

“We are in the process of early testing Wildfire,” said UCPD spokesperson Sabrina Reich. “In general, we think these mobile safety apps can be beneficial but when used in accordance with other safety methods, like calling 911.”

Reich said these apps can have several problems: For instance, they need funds to continue running. Reich added that there could be a delay between when the crime is reported to UCPD and when the Wildfire notification is posted.

Some students have also expressed concerns over the dependability of an app that relies on user-generated content.

“I think it’s just going to reinforce racial profiling similar to what this app Nextdoor does where people can just ‘file reports,’” said Blake Simons, a campus senior and the deputy communications director of the Afrikan Black Coalition, a universitywide group for black students. “It’s reinforcing policing and reinforcing racialized biases.”

Simons has repeatedly expressed concern about community-generated crime reports in the past, especially those on Free & For Sale, which often include race. In September, he posted on the Facebook page his own experiences of allegedly being racially profiled in Berkeley by police officers.

Similarly, Cori McGowens, chair of the campus’s Black Student Union, expressed her apprehensions with the app’s impact on the black community.

“I think it’s a good idea, generally speaking, but I do think that as far as the long-term goals of an app like this, they aren’t super beneficial for the community because what it does is put black bodies on display,” McGowens said. “It’s also on smartphones, which is also part of the issue, because forms of racism like police brutality are directly connected to capitalism, so having an app in a smartphone doesn’t make too much sense.”

Ramesh said the Wildfire team anticipates these concerns and attempted to tackle them preemptively. They reached out to campus activists and underrepresented minority groups, including several ASUC senators, members of the ASUC’s Sexual Assault Commission and the head of the South and South West Asian and North African community, Kemburu said in an email, resulting in Wildfire’s moderation system.

Some Wildfire users said they appreciate the feeling of safety provided by the app.

“For me, having posted statuses on there, I felt really empowered — I personally know that I’m helping others to ensure their public safety by having them be aware of what’s going on,” said Kent Chen, a campus senior and Wildfire user.

The recent app went live just last week and already has a few hundred users, according to Kemburu. He explained that the team is constantly addressing feedback and updating the app accordingly.

“Our name is Wildfire, so we’re hoping in the future that content can spread like wildfire,” Kemburu said.

Contact Chantelle Lee at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ChantelleHLee.