Citizen expands its crime-tracking alert app to Baltimore

Depending on who you ask, Citizen is either a useful urban safety tool or a menacing glimpse into a self-surveilled police state, but either way, the app is coming to Baltimore. Citizen, formerly known as Vigilante, is a crime-tracking app that offers geo-targeted alerts that notify users of dangers lurking nearby, from carjackings to kidnappings and every mundane horror in-between.

Citizen launched first in New York City before expanding to San Francisco in 2017. The app pulls in public safety data, sifts it through its own editorial team and dispenses it out to relevant users based on their location. Citizen’s founder and CEO Andrew Frame told The Baltimore Sun that Citizen is expanding to the city both because its team has connections there and due to Baltimore’s reputation for crime. The city’s reputation for a deeply corrupt police department with sometimes fatal results was not part of that calculation.

“Given the escalating crime and lack of public safety resources, Baltimore was a great place to try something new,” Frame said of the new market. “Citizen can now help Baltimore residents in the way it has helped New York and San Francisco, with real-time notifications that let a user escape a burning building or rescue a four-year-old from an abductor. Citizen, with its real-time information, may be just what Baltimore needs.”

Considering the popularity of services like Nextdoor, it’s hard to argue that people don’t want to know what’s going on around them just for the sake of knowing. The problem is that there’s no evidence this state of hyper-awareness does any quantifiable good, and at least some evidence that it can actually put people, specifically people of color, at more risk due to implicit bias and racial profiling. For better or worse, that fact paired with the collective lack of concern over the demonstrable ills of asking untrained individuals to assess and report threats explains Citizen’s apparent popularity. “How to Record Great Live Video on Citizen: By broadcasting live, you can help Protect the World,” the company implored in a blog post for users last October.

Still, given that its first iteration got banned from the app store for actually encouraging regular people to intervene in crimes in progress, the company could be said to have matured, if by no choice of its own.

As we wrote when Citizen expanded to San Francisco, “People who get off on local crime updates on the evening news will probably love Citizen. So will catastrophists, or anyone else rapt by what feels like a hastening pace of global disaster. Nextdoor-lovers who thrive in a state of hypervigilance will feel right at home.”

Update: In a conversation with TechCrunch, a spokesperson for the company noted that while users can add information to and interact with vetted reports already in the app’s systems, they cannot create those reports themselves through Citizen without going through formal law enforcement or emergency channels.

The net effect of all of that crime-watching is basically impossible to measure, but Citizen nonetheless revels in tackily taking credit for anecdotal success stories that mean little without proper outcome tracking or data sets to back them up. The whole thing is sort of the inverse of something like RideAlong, a software suite designed to help law enforcement and emergency workers provide more compassionate, longitudinal care for the individuals being policed instead of showcasing those incidents as faceless red crime dots on a map.

Unfortunately, contextual data isn’t quite as sexy as real-time threats unfolding all around us in every direction. People want the red dots. And investors are happy to throw money at the red dots. So, for Baltimore, red dots it is.