September 11, 2020

Data & tech to make post-secondary campuses safer

A student facing twoards a window in a dorm

By Evergreen

REES, a new online platform for reporting sexual violence launches this fall on campuses across Manitoba.

For Winnipeg resident Mary Lobson, The Hunting Ground – the 2015 documentary about the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses in the United States – was a wakeup call. As a long-time advocate for individuals experiencing sexual and domestic violence, she saw an opportunity to make Canadian campuses safer, free of sexual violence, and to have a positive impact on Manitoban communities.

This fall, she launched REES (Respect, Educate, Empower Survivors) at 12 universities and colleges across Manitoba. At the intersection of technology and gender-based violence, REES is an online reporting platform for sexual violence that is trauma-informed and centred on the needs of survivors. The platform has been developed in collaboration with survivors, students, staff and faculty, community-based sexual assault services, and law enforcement, and will soon be available in French, as well as English, for increased accessibility.

The need for a broader data set

“We know that sexual violence is prevalent,” said Lobson. “1 in 3 women and 1 in 8 men experience sexual violence in public spaces according to the Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces Report issued by StatsCan. Yet, less than 5 per cent are reported to the police. It’s challenging to create change when we don’t have a clear sense of what that data is.”

Available 24/7 365 days of the year, REES functions as a reporting tool, as well as connecting survivors to support resource. The platform allows for Anonymous Reporting, should a victim choose to tell their story and contribute to the data landscape without triggering a formal investigation. There is also the option to report to police or connect to campus representatives. By removing the physical, emotional, and geographical barriers that survivors often face when reporting sexual assault, REES increases the offering of pathways for reporting and provides an opportunity to gather data – a critical component of the project.

Privacy was at forefront of the design and development of the platform.

“We looked at the principles of Privacy by Design as we were building it, and also considered the General Data Protection regulations. We wanted to make sure that survivors have a choice about how their information is being shared and with whom,” explained Lobsob.

Identification information is not required to create account and utilize the platform unless the survivor wants to file a report with law enforcement services or be connected to their campus representative.

Collaboration is key to success

The concept garnered interest from many post-secondary institutions in Manitoba, which allowed for optimal collaboration and effective deployment of the solution. For schools, involving a third-party organization in the reporting process guarantees transparency and accountability, and increases institutional trust from the student body.

In January, at the end of the fall semester, each participating post-secondary institution will receive a report from REES which will allow them to evaluate their campus response to sexual assault incidents and take steps toward bettering their processes. Lobson and her team will also look at the data aggregated from all institutions to help identify overall patterns across the province.

Lobson is thrilled to have had the opportunity to collaborate with several stakeholders on this project: “One of the key successes to date has been the ability to collaborate with all the institutions province-wide, law enforcement as well as community organizations who work in the area of sexual violence, and come together to develop solutions that can support survivors in the campus community.”

Mary Lobson, founder of REES Community

The possibilities ahead

While the platform was originally created for use in post-secondary schools, it may help address the challenges faced by other institutions.

“We believe that REES can be utilized across sectors and industries. It can be adapted anywhere that people live, work and learn,” said Lobson.

Public transit users, for instance, could benefit from the implementation of the platform as there is significant, documented sexual violence with few reporting mechanisms available on public transportation networks.

In primary and secondary schools, REES could be adapted to report bullying and abuse, and monitor mental health in students. As students and faculty have taken to remote learning for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lobson points out that the platform can help administrators stay engaged and connected with their school community on an ongoing basis.

Safety is top of mind for communities and local governments of all sizes. Incorporating transformative connected tools such a REES into city life and daily operations has the potential to make communities safer and smarter every day.

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