This controversial app tracks nearby danger in real time

New York (CNN Business)At a time when people are increasingly paranoid about their personal safety and that of their friends and family, Citizen — the real-time crime alert app — is hoping people will trust its service to help give them some peace of mind.

The three-year-old Citizen relies on a mix of technology and humans to comb through police and other emergency dispatches in order to create alerts, quickly, that populate in the app. Using a person’s smartphone’s location data, the app shares incidents that occur nearby such as robberies or fires. A list of updates is posted to each incident alert so people can see how they progress or resolve. Those in the area can upload live video of what they witness or comment on posts. Citizen says its app has been downloaded by three million people and currently works for a dozen US cities.
Now, Citizen is adding features to allow people to see if their friends or family are nearby an alerted emergency, such as a building fire, for example. They’ll be able to see which of their friends were sent an alert and check in with them, or can rest easier if no friends are nearby. Citizen is also adding a direct messaging feature so people can contact friends through the app.

    According to CEO and founder Andrew Frame, the networking capabilities are “a natural evolution for us to transition to a network product where you’re connected not only to the incidents and crimes around you but also to your friends and family.”
    It serves a similar purpose as Facebook’s Safety Check feature, which encourages people to let their family and friends know if they’re safe in the event of major incidents like a mass shooting, a building collapse, or a hurricane. Citizen’s evolution with these features comes at a time when some of these events seem to be happening with greater regularity.

    On Citizen, people must choose to upload their phone contacts to the app to connect with friends. From there, a person can select who they would like to add as a friend. Both parties must accept each other before they can view any information, the company said. People can choose to share location information with “friends only,” “specific friends only,” or stay “private.” Citizen said a person’s exact location information is never shared, only that a person is “nearby.”
    Citizen originally launched in 2016 as “Vigilante” but was quickly removed from the Apple App Store after it drew criticism that it was encouraging people to rush toward crime scenes to document them. In 2017, it relaunched as Citizen and played down the role of citizens in finding and reporting incidents.
    The vast majority of incident alerts on Citizen are now created by the company using publicly available emergency call information. About 5% of incidents are reported through a “live broadcast” feature and are typically combined with information from police-reported incidents. Those live user reports are reviewed by moderators at Citizen before being posted to the app, the company said.
    When asked about Citizen’s relationship with law enforcement, Frame told CNN Business last year: “I don’t know how much they love us, but they at least don’t hate us anymore.”
    The app has raised $60 million to date, including a $20 million investment announced Monday in the form of convertible debt from Goodwater Capital, as well as previous investors including Sequoia Capital, Founders Fund, and 8VC. The company said the money will be put toward launching new cities and enhancing its product.
    While Citizen does not yet make money, Frame teased that “there will be a premium version of the product for sale later this year,” but declined to go into further detail. He has previously said the company will not add advertisements or monetize users’ location information.

      Citizen, which launched in Austin on Monday, said it aims to be in 30 cities by the end of 2020. And with coronavirus arguably being one of the most high-profile public safety concerns of the moment, Citizen is now sharing local coronavirus updates in its app from local authorities to keep people informed.
      Frame said the company had “extraordinary inbound interest in people wanting us to help distribute information” on the matter.
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