Healthy fod for babies Inside Citizen, the App That Asks You to Report on Crimes

Healthy fod for babies

Anthony Goblirsch’s mom is driving him to the evacuation zone. A gas leak has sprung up in the area, and mother and son are zipping to the scene in the family’s SUV, a black GMC Denali.

Hope sits half cross-legged, her right foot working the pedals while her left foot stays tucked against her right thigh. Anthony is in the back, next to the vacant car seat meant for his younger sister, listening to a police scanner and thumbing a map on Hope’s smartphone as he feeds her driving directions. Anthony is using his mother’s phone because he’s only 12 years old. He has to wait until he’s a little older before he gets his own.

Anthony is a thin white kid with straight brown hair, his nose and cheeks splotched with freckles. His shirt bears the logo of the local youth gymnastics program he belonged to before everything got canceled. It’s late February 2020, just a couple short weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic will grind the world to a halt.

Anthony remembers something as they drive: “Oh, Mom, we need to feed my beetles today.”

“I just fed your beetles,” Hope says.

“OK, awesome, thanks Mom, you’re the best.” Anthony shifts his attention back to the scanner as some chatter comes across the line. More fire units are en route to the gas leak.

They’re driving through the suburbs of San Mateo, just south of San Francisco. Anthony first heard the call about the gas leak through the scanner app on Hope’s computer, which he monitors regularly. That’s when the pair hopped in the SUV. By now, officials have ordered a local preschool to evacuate. People in the surrounding buildings have been told to shelter in place.

When they arrive, the intersection next to the school is blocked by a fire engine. Anthony correctly identifies it as truck 23 from San Mateo Consolidated Fire Department. Hope takes the next left and stops the car in the street. “I’m gonna let you out here, buddy,” she says. “OK, good luck!”

Anthony bounds out of the vehicle, his mom’s phone in hand. The heels of his shoes are squished beneath his feet, flattened in his rush to leave the house. Hope rolls away as Anthony attaches the phone to a lightweight tripod, his quick and precise movements displaying the evidence of a practiced hand.

Anthony moves toward the commotion, holding the tripod out in front of him. He taps a button on the screen, and the camera starts broadcasting the scene live onto the internet. He starts talking. “Anthony G., reporting live at a large gas leak which evacuated a school …”

A few minutes later, a woman approaches Anthony and asks what’s happening. He gives her a rapid-fire recap of everything he knows about the situation: the gas leak, the evacuation, the orders for locals to stay indoors, which first-response units have arrived so far.

She stares at him. “Wow. We got a little reporter here.”

“Yeah! Thanks!” Anthony turns back to the camera and continues his narration.

The woman’s brow furrows. “That’s scary,” she says as she walks away, throwing a glance back at Anthony as she goes.

Her concern is justified. Anthony is filming with Citizen, an app that alerts its users to nearby emergency incidents and lets them livestream from the scene. Anthony has filmed it all: car crashes, home invasions, police pursuits, and, unwittingly, the aftermath of a suicide. In the year that Anthony has been uploading to Citizen, he’s filmed hundreds of these videos: 675 to be exact.

His prolificity has earned him a fan base—other Citizen users who comment to commend his videos and ask, “Where’s Anthony G?” on incidents he doesn’t cover. There are hecklers too. They mock his cinematography and insult his preteen voice. He’s gotten used to ignoring all but the most vicious trolls.

Anthony is just one of millions of users who have flocked to Citizen for viewing, reporting, and commenting on local incidents in real time. The company says 5 million people have signed up. It won’t confirm how many of those users are regularly active on the platform, or how many actually post videos rather than just lurk. Still, Citizen is a vibrant and growing platform—one that appeals to our curiosity and our base human desire to not only stay aware of nearby danger, but to draw ever closer toward it.

Citizen Crime

The first thing you see when you open Citizen is a map. It is an app that always runs in dark mode, the black grids of New York, San Francisco, Baltimore, Los Angeles—any of the 19 cities where the app is currently available—splayed across the screen. Pinch and zoom and you’ll see dots show up on the map. Each one indicates a local crisis: a fire, an assault, a man wielding two tridents. All this geolocated information is gleaned from the city’s emergency scanners and filtered through Citizen employees, who compile the incidents and place them on the map. The app’s always-on location awareness is a necessity. If the incident is in your neighborhood, the app sends you a push notification about the potential danger. If Citizen decides you’re really close, a button appears to let you livestream what’s happening.

Most Citizen users aren’t like Anthony. They don’t film hundreds of videos or chase down fires and traffic collisions with their moms on the weekend. Maybe they fear for their safety when they walk through a city. Maybe they need to know where the protests are. Maybe they just want to talk shit in the comments.

Whatever the reason, Citizen has already appealed to the millions who have created user accounts, hundreds of thousands of them in the past two months alone. The creators of the app see it as a tool for transparency, a neutral, simplified messenger that grants city dwellers access to the millions of cryptic coded reports that zip across emergency scanners every day. But Citizen’s ambitions don’t stop there.

Since the death of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests against police brutality, Citizen’s user numbers have surged as people look for ways to monitor the demonstrations and anticipate the movements of the law enforcement officials seeking to control them. In May, Citizen added a contact-tracing feature to its service that allowed users to opt in to help track the spread of Covid-19.

Citizen is well positioned to seize upon this moment of societal upheaval. The app promises the feeling of safety and community, both luxuries that are sorely missed in a world where people have been forced apart and incensed by rampant inequality. Citizen’s pitch is especially appealing as this country reconsiders its overreliance on law enforcement and what it means to keep a community safe in the first place.

Citizen may want to stay neutral, but that’s not so easy. Especially not when you want to solve such a fundamental problem as safety at a time when the world is on fire. Critics of the app have long pointed out the way the app can amplify the country’s larger societal problems. The app’s comment sections tend to devolve into streams of racism and hatred. Users have complained about the app stoking their anxiety and paranoia as it constantly reminds them of the dangers beyond their doorstep. Citizen also faces very real concerns about its potential to enable racial profiling and discriminatory surveillance.

“What Covid, what George Floyd’s killing and the availability of these new technological tools have shared and surfaced is that we have an unequal society,” says Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. “Whoever is in control of that information, or whoever controls that app or that platform, they control the narrative.”

For a company so enamored with creating transparency, Citizen is remarkably reticent to comment on any specific features aimed at fixing the darker aspects of its service. It insists that there are solutions at work, but it has not been willing to disclose any of those plans yet. In a way, the company’s secrecy has only backfired, by inviting suspicion and speculation about potential nefarious intent.

Citizen may want to create a world of openness and accountability, but that effort must soon turn inward if the company wants to convince people that it only wants to keep them safe.

Watching the Watchers

Andrew Frame, Citizen’s founder and CEO, likes to talk about burning buildings. He’s not a pyromaniac or anything. It’s just a hypothetical example he and others who work at Citizen like to use when you ask them why they made the app.

“Why is there this asymmetry of information between the first responders who have access to everything going on, including a fire in your building, and everybody else?” Frame asks. “You, in your building, you don’t have access to that information. That’s crazy. That’s your information. That’s your address.”

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Citizen often gets grouped in with other services that sell the promise of increased safety. The easy analogies are Nextdoor, a social platform with a history of racism and abuse masquerading as hand-wringing, and Amazon’s Ring, which has been criticized for getting too cozy with law enforcement. These comparisons frustrate Frame. He’s a true startup founder who believes his product represents a unique vision. Those other labels—social media, security system, neighborhood watch—don’t quite fit Citizen either.

“We don’t have competition,” Frame says. “We’ve created our own category.”

He’s got a point. Citizen offers a service that nothing else has quite managed to pull off. Sure, Ring can capture video clips of crimes, but the cameras can’t see much beyond your property line. Nextdoor offers a forum for people to bicker about their safety concerns, but it’s similarly confined to the limits of a single neighborhood. Only Citizen alerts people to crimes and catastrophes at both the local and hyper-local level in real time, then lets them comment and share information with each other. It’s the crowdsourced canary in your pocket that squawks whenever there’s a report of a man stabbed or forty teenagers fighting.

“Safety is one of the core primal needs that all 7 and a half billion people have,” Frame says. “It’s not a demographic. Safety is something that everybody requires and needs.”

It’s a lofty mission: keeping people safe by keeping them aware. Citizen is a company as dependent on the chaotic nature of the startup ethos as it is resistant to being lumped in with the rest of the so-called disruptors. Ask Citizen employees what attracted them to the organization in the first place and you’ll get answers that align their outlook with that of their leader.

“There’s a lot of big swinging dicks in Silicon Valley,” one Citizen spokesperson told me. “Andrew’s delusions of grandeur were by far the most humble.”

From the beginning, the company has struggled to convince people that its intentions are pure. The app burst into existence in October 2016 as Vigilante, a product that was introduced to the world via a video that depicts a small army of bystanders coming together to stop an assault by wielding their phone cameras. The marketing campaign was quickly condemned by law enforcement for suggesting that people put themselves in harm’s way and attempt to levy justice unchecked. It was also lambasted by the media and ejected from the App Store within 48 hours of its arrival. Five months later, wounds licked and souls searched, the company rebranded as Citizen. The service stayed nearly the same—a platform for ordinary users with a smartphone to learn about and report on emergencies in their neighborhood—albeit with more measured marketing and a less aggressive moniker. But the suspicion and fiery op-eds never really abated.

Citizen has continued to tweak its service as critics point out the platform’s flaws. It created a full-time content moderation team to review comment sections and nuke offensive posts. Designers reconfigured the visuals of the app to deemphasize the alarming amount of alerts and provide visual feedback that shows users when an area is safe. Citizen set clear guidelines about what incidents it would and wouldn’t push: no reports of suspicious people, no domestic disputes, no suicides.

These are far from perfect solutions; any service that allows user contributions is bound to be messy and divisive. But they’re still better than the response common to the tech industry, where social platforms often meet such activities with dead-eyed detachment.

Cash Only

Before the pandemic forced society into isolation, Citizen was expanding quickly. In March the VC firm Goodwater Capital injected $20 million into Citizen, a full third of the total funding the company has ever raised. It enabled Citizen to accelerate its rollout schedule. In the early days of 2020, Citizen was adding a new city to its platform just about every week.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

When quarantine began, the company’s employees had to adjust to working from home, away from the Uplift standing desks and curved computer monitors that filled Citizen’s downtown Manhattan office. The team adapted its product quickly, supplementing the app with new features like regular updates of Covid-19 statistics and city-specific shelter-in-place regulations. When the police killing of George Floyd kicked off nationwide demonstrations protesting police brutality against Black Americans, a slew of new users downloaded the app as a way to monitor the turmoil.

Despite growing adoption, Citizen still has yet to generate any revenue. (“We’ve never made a penny,” Frame says.) It’s a free app with no ads, and so far, the company has been mysterious about where its profit motives ultimately lie. But that secrecy could be coming to an end. Frame told me that he plans to turn Citizen into a monetizable product this year.

“At the end of the day, this is a C corp: We are here to make money,” Frame says. “But we are here to make money responsibly. We want to deliver on a mission. We don’t want to compromise on our values. We want to make money for shareholders responsibly. That’s fuel. The way to build an engine that scales is to have capitalism working for you.”

The company says it doesn’t consider views, clicks, or time spent to be valuable metrics for measuring success. Frame says Citizen will never sell user data or serve ads to its users. But while its plans might not depend on engagement in the app, it does depend on the sheer volume of its user base. The company has not announced any specifics, but the general thrust of the plan is clear: Get enough users to be able to create a tiered experience, then sell subscriptions for premium features.

“The monetization indirectly follows,” Frame says. “The size of our network, that’s the size of the audience that we get to sell this next generation of safety features to. There will be features coming out available only to those who pay—beyond what Citizen offers today.”

Citizen depends on human beings. Algorithms and scanner-monitoring hardware can only take it so far. After all, alerts still have to be individually vetted and sent out by Citizen employees. Those alerts are received by users who interpret those messages, share them, and add to them by filming or commenting on a scene. The more videos are filmed, the more the app catches people’s attention and garners downloads. If Citizen has to grow before it can make money, then it has to entice people to use the app in the first place.

“Citizen will give you that power to be safe and informed and make better decisions,” says Dennis “Prince” Mapp, Citizen’s head of culture and community who has been with the company since nearly the beginning. “Instead of walking into a fire, I can walk away from the fire.”

The problem is, a person walking around the block to avoid a fire does not make for a very exciting marketing video. What captures people’s attention is footage of the fire itself or a kidnapped child or some straight-up terrorism. Citizen’s current marketing strategy relies on pointing to positive interactions captured on the app. In April, Citizen started to send users notifications containing what it calls Magic Moments—slickly edited videos that recall incidents where Citizen users came to the rescue or prevented themselves and others from falling victim to an awful tragedy. (Not all of them involved disaster porn. Magic Moments have included a celebration of essential workers and people reuniting a lost dog with its owner.)

Citizen can’t encourage users to get closer to danger or race across town to film a horrific incident; the Vigilante fiasco taught the team that lesson. But to show what the app is really capable of, it needs the participation and content provided by its users. It needs users who don’t just sit at home and gape at the screen while someone gets assaulted in a Trader Joe’s. The people who will take Citizen to the next level are the ones willing to go to the scene, to get the footage.

To grow, Citizen needs videos. It needs content. It needs people like Anthony G.

New Live Crew

Anthony first got into Citizen after his appendix burst. A friend’s mom mentioned the app in passing, and Anthony grew fascinated with it as he recovered from his surgery. One day, after he was able to get up and about again, he smelled smoke and realized that a neighbor’s house had caught fire. He was home working with a tutor at the time. He begged them to take him outside to film the blaze.

Since then, Anthony has reported on incidents nearly nonstop. He listens to the police scanner from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed. He’ll go out on reporting trips multiple times a week, sometimes multiple times in a day. Sometimes Anthony’s dad or grandparents chauffeur him to scenes. If the incident is in the neighborhood, he might ride his bike. But most of the time, his mom drives him.

“He prefers when it’s me because I leave the house much more quickly than my husband,” Hope says. “I usually am barefoot and running out the door like we’re some kind of tag-team news team.”

“It works much better when it’s Mom and me,” Anthony says.

The duo’s dynamic sometimes draws ire. In the comments under Anthony’s videos, people have yelled at Hope, called her a terrible mother, and questioned her parenting. One Citizen commenter threatened to report Hope to Child Protective Services. Anthony has been bullied and harassed, most notably by a pair of Citizen users who went on a two-month-long campaign against him before being banned from the app.

It’s tempting to rush to similar judgements, to label Anthony some kind of young, wanna-be Nightcrawler. But he isn’t irresponsible or a sociopath. He’s just a kid who’s interested in the excitement around an emergency response. His favorite incidents are ones that require hazmat crews to show up, simply because those guys have the coolest response vehicles.

“His sisters always say, ‘That’s so bad Anthony, you want bad things to happen to people,’” Hope says, “and he’s like, ‘It’s not that I want anything bad to happen to people, it’s that I just find everything interesting, and I like to see how they respond.’”

Anthony is far from the only power user on Citizen. Users in cities from New York to Los Angeles to Indianapolis have each posted hundreds of videos on the app. Some of them do it just for kicks. Others use the app to supplement efforts to track and share info about local crimes in Facebook groups and other anti-crime organizations online.

When the app moves into a new city, Citizen hires locals to film incidents and create content as a way to kick-start local interest in the app. Members of these unofficial “street teams” are paid per video, as long as the videos run a certain length and meet a reasonable standard for quality. Street team users aren’t identified within the app; former paid contractors I interviewed for this story said they were explicitly told to avoid giving any indication that they were being paid by Citizen to post content. The company wanted the videos to feel organic, they were told.

Before the pandemic, Kevin Powell worked full-time as one of Citizen’s street team contractors in Indianapolis. He’s recorded 747 videos at the time of this writing, all of them uploaded in the time since Citizen established a presence in the city in January. Powell says the work appeals to him. He runs a Facebook page dedicated to local breaking news and hopes to gain a job as a photojournalist, or as a stringer who shoots photo and video directly for local news outlets. Powell says he prioritizes incidents that garner the most attention on the platform. These also tend to be the more brutal incidents, the shootings and stabbings.

“When I’m behind that video screen, it’s almost like I’m watching a movie,” Powell says. “You basically have to turn off your emotions to do this work. If not, you’re not going to be able to do it. I try not to think about what’s actually taking place. I’m trying to think about what I’m there to do.”

“There is some sort of a thrill going out and doing it,” says Logan Williams, a former contractor who filmed videos for Citizen in Los Angeles. “It’s a rush, it releases endorphins.”

In March, Citizen suspended its street team program and stopped all payments to its contractors, citing pandemic-related safety concerns. A Citizen spokesperson said the company hasn’t made any decisions about when the program might resume.

Thrilling and Chilling

Hobbyists and hyper-concerned civilians have monitored police radio chatter for decades. There are whole internet forums and communities on YouTube dedicated to following the communications of law enforcement, fire departments, and other first-response agencies. It’s an activity that attracts a certain personality type, curious and discerning. Citizen isn’t the first app to give these enthusiasts the ability to livestream, but it is the one that’s completely dedicated to it. It’s no wonder amateur stringers flock to it.

“Everybody wants to be the hero, or the source, or a key player in a situation,” says Andy Frakes, a former Citizen employee responsible for sending out incident alerts. “For better or worse—unfortunately, it’s usually for worse—people want to be involved, or to just get that catharsis that for whatever reason they need more than anyone else.”

For someone like Anthony, it’s a kick just to get a look at the action.

“Seeing the lights and sirens just brings out the little kid inside of me,” Anthony says. “I don’t know. I just kind of like that stuff.”

It’s not all motivated by childlike wonder. Anthony’s time responding to hundreds of emergency calls has molded his aspirations. When he grows up, he wants to be a cop.

“This obviously is not a good time to be in law enforcement with everything going on,” Hope admits. “But my heart goes out for the majority of law enforcement officers. So I feel like, if this is what he really wants to do when he gets older … I mean, he’s 12, so it could change. He could change his mind 10 times, but as of now, I think you let your kids follow their passion if it’s something they like to do.”

Thin Blue Line

The relationship between Citizen and law enforcement has always been uneven. When Citizen first launched in New York City, NYPD officials were overwhelmingly against it, frustrated by the idea that the app might encourage aspiring crime fighters. Bill Bratton, the former NYPD commissioner and co-architect of New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, staunchly opposed the app when he was in office. In an unexpected turn of events, Bratton has now become an adviser on Citizen’s board.

It has the potential to be a techy breakthrough in community engagement for emergency agencies. But for those not inclined to trust law enforcement, Citizen feels like yet another tool of mass policing.

“What the Citizen app is doing is empowering people as law enforcement, and we already know that’s a problem,” says Nicol Turner Lee, the tech policy advocate. “Not everybody can be a vigilante in a country that is already skewed when it comes to race relations. We don’t need people, particularly in this highly partisan, highly polarized environment, to have additional means to be able to further discriminate against vulnerable populations.”

In March, Citizen added features that have become staples of any standard social media platform: activity notifications, private messaging, the ability to add friends. Around the same time, Citizen reintroduced a feature that lets users create their own incident alerts, instead of waiting for the incident to show up after it’s been broadcast on a scanner and added to the app by Citizen’s employees.

Last August, Citizen’s then head of product, Keith Peiris, likened the next expansion of Citizen to a “global safety network,” which would allow users to push a button to signal to nearby users that they need help. Your own personal Bat Signal.

This isn’t some speculative cyberpunk future. The demand for a service that provides instantaneous safety is there, and multiple services are already shouldering their way into that space. PulsePoint, another app that tracks emergency scanners and pinpoints response locations, has long had a CPR alert feature that notifies users when someone nearby signals that they’re having a cardiac arrest. Life360, a location-tracking app for families, features an SOS button that allows users to call for help from people their immediate network. In July, the company launched a subscription plan that lets paying users send a similar alert to emergency dispatchers.

In the right hands, these kinds of collaborative services can be a tool for good. Volunteers at Life Camp, a New York-based organization dedicated to preventing street violence, use a modified version of Citizen to pinpoint locations of fights as they’re happening. Life Camp founder Erica Ford has been an adviser to Citizen since the Vigilante days. According to her, Citizen alerts come through five to ten minutes before the police can notify Life Camp.

“By the time police respond, we interrupted the incident, broke up the fight, the kids are gone, nobody’s arrested, and police are just pulling up,” Ford says.

But Life Camp is an organization of trained, dedicated volunteers embedded in their community and prepared to protect it. Enabling that kind of capability for everyday civilians carries with it an inherent risk. Letting users call for help is a much different proposition than merely providing them with information. It requires an explicit endorsement for active participation. And exactly what level of participation that entails is up for interpretation.

“When you use a can opener, it’s a can opener; it never changes,” Lee says. “When you use an app, that app can be whatever people want it to be. That’s the nature of this fluidity in technology today. That’s where we have to be a lot more careful. Companies have to be a lot more consistent in ensuring that their technology is not being changed in ways that it produces unequal outcomes for different populations.”

As this country evaluates its relationship with law enforcement, communities will have to decide how much they’re willing to trust the private companies that seek to move into that space. We already live in a world where unequal policing fuels disparities in Black and lower-income communities. To put a price tag on personal safety risks perpetuating those same inequalities. If Citizen is going to ask people to trust it, it has to be willing to do more than just acknowledge the problems that exist on its platform. It has to articulate how it plans to fix them.

“If you’re doing those things, then you need to talk about it and be transparent about it,” Lee says. “Let people know how you’re trying to listen to them and change things and not impose what you think is the right way to do this.”

Image Conscious

At the end of May, Anthony G. abruptly stopped posting to Citizen. He cited frustrating technical glitches—videos being cut off, audio dropping out—as the reason he gave up on the app. That’s not to say his output has slowed down. Instead, he created a YouTube channel, where he continues to upload videos of emergency responses and the occasional police tribute video. Moving off of Citizen has brought a newfound focus to Anthony’s videos; freed from the live-only format, he can now spend more time on editing and composition. He’s also gotten more careful about what he posts, taking care to blur the faces of juveniles and take down videos when he has second thoughts about whether they’re appropriate. In a way, he has outgrown Citizen.

But there’s another reason Anthony left the app. The San Mateo Police Department had been tracking his Citizen activity. One day, two officers came to Anthony’s house. They wanted to talk to him about his videos.

“It was just a kind of mindfulness conversation,” says Michael Haobsh, one of the officers who visited Anthony. “Be careful about who you’re videoing, because you don’t want to get dragged into court on a civil suit for broadcasting this kind of information.”

Anthony took their words to heart.

“My thinking was, I want to be in law enforcement when I’m older,” Anthony says. “They don’t let just anyone in, so I want to be on their good side.”

On June 10, Anthony popped back onto Citizen for the first time in over two weeks. There was a strong-arm robbery in San Mateo, the app said. Commenters clamored for Anthony, asking for him by name. So he gave in, turned on his mom’s camera, and started reporting. Of the dozens of user comments on the incident, easily half of them were about Anthony himself. “Anthony G is back and I’ve never been happier!!!!” read one. Another: “What the heck is happening to our town? On a side note, Anthony G is a better reporter than the Channel 4 news team!”

The excitement didn’t last long. Anthony soon remembered the house call—and the talking-to he got—from the local cops. “Halfway through the report I thought, oh shoot, I’m not supposed to be doing this,” Anthony says.

So he stopped, for good this time. He hastily gave one last sign-off and shut down the video. The Citizen incident Anthony reported on has since been deleted.

Correction July 21, 2: 00 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify the SOS feature in Life360. The ability for users to contact people in their network is available for free, but the paid version also allows users to request help from emergency dispatchers.

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