Open Citizen and you will see a familiar blue location dot — that’s you! — surrounded by other, often larger dots, in red and yellow. Each represents an incident, either of the “Recent” or “Trending” variety, that has recently been reported in your proximity, and that may even be unfolding at the very moment.
A Thursday afternoon sample from Midtown Manhattan:
PEDESTRIAN STRUCK BY CAB
MAN ROBBED WOMAN OF WALLET
REPORT OF FIREARM DISPLAYED IN SUBWAY STATION
IRATE M.T.A. BUS DRIVERS DISPUTING
TAXI ENGULFED IN FLAMES
Particularly notable reports might have video, sometimes live, as well as a timeline of new developments, and a chat-scroll full of users discussing what they’re seeing. (“This is the second time this has happened in a month,” noted one citizen in TAXI ENGULFED IN FLAMES. “Is it gonna blow up,” wondered another, watching the live video broadcast of firefighters putting down the fire.)
Analia Acevedo, a 22 year-old who lives in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, joined the app during her final year at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale. There, she said, “most of the students would use it.”
“Sometimes it makes me feel paranoid, and afraid knowing that there is a lot that goes on,” she said. “It does give me some comfort knowing my surroundings, but I’m always torn between wanting to know and see everything, or to have that blind eye toward everything.”
Conflicted enthusiasm is a common sentiment among Citizen users: I don’t know if I want to know, but I can’t not know. In any case, it’s free, it’s right there, and it’s always refreshed. It’s a new feed. And as with our other feeds, it can be hard to look away.
Other feeds are full of friends and photos, made for you to see. This one is full of information that feels faintly illicit. To new users, the app itself can feel like a bit of a mystery, too. Where does it come from? How does it work? What … does it want? Here’s what we know.
Before there was Citizen, there was Vigilante, founded by Andrew Frame, formerly of the internet-based phone company Ooma. “Vigilante is a new technology that opens up the 911 system,” said a launch announcement for the app in 2016. “With Vigilante,” it continued, “vital information is unlocked and everyone can do their part.” This sounded an awful lot like, well, a prompt for vigilantism. At the time, the New York Police Department issued a critical statement: “Crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cellphone.” Soon thereafter the app was removed from Apple’s App Store for violating the company’s policies.
But Citizen is Vigilante, redesigned and relaunched, with a less of an emphasis on what it might get you into, and a bit more on what it might let you avoid. The NYPD spokesman at the time the department was disavowing Vigilante, Peter Donald, now works for the company, and was the employee who responded to questions about the app.
Vigilante’s #CrimeNoMore hashtag has been replaced with Citizen’s #ProtectTheWorld. Citizen’s parent company, Sp0n, has raised 13 million dollars from Silicon Valley investors, according to Crunchbase, with seed money coming from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.
Citizen debuted in New York City in 2017, then opened in the San Francisco Bay Area. It launched in Baltimore in February, and Los Angeles last week. The company says it has plans to expand to more cities soon. Citizen has not shared user numbers, but it’s been rated over 19 thousand times in Apple’s App Store, and it displays a tally of notifications it sends: More than 31 thousand phones near Times Square buzzed about the flaming cab, according to the app.
It is not clear, at first, where Citizen’s reports come from or how they’re selected. But they arrive constantly, in an authoritative voice, providing the app’s signature ambient sense of alarm and disorder.
Under the hood, Citizen is essentially a transcription service for emergency radio. The company employs teams of people to listen to police, fire and emergency radio transmissions and to submit certain categories of incident for including in the app. (“Citizen has a detailed editorial guide about what goes into the app and why,” Mr. Donald said. “Citizen does not include, for example, suicides inside a private residence, suspicious people, or vague suspect descriptions.”)
For decades, it’s been possible to listen to emergency broadcasts with hardware police scanners, used by hobbyists, reporters, off-duty law enforcement and neighborhood busybodies. (And, occasionally, ambulance-chasing lawyers. Or criminals.)
Citizen, however, is devoting resources to converting raw scanner traffic — which is by nature unvetted and mostly operational — into filtered curated digital content, legible to regular people, rendered on a map in a far more digestible form. Rich Carlson, a retired Chicago-area police officer, a longtime scanner enthusiast and salesperson for a company that sells scanner devices, compared Citizen to long-gone “notification networks” of three decades ago, in which “operators” would listen to scanners and send out alerts to members’ pagers.
But Citizen isn’t just for listening and watching. The app suggests, in some cases, that users go out to stream and document incidents that are unfolding around them. This is unusual. “Our mantra in the scanner business, and with the clubs, is: listen to it at home, and stay home,” Mr. Carlson said. “We never recommend people go to an incident.”
If you install Citizen, and check it enough, chances are the app will ask you if you’re able to safely stream from a nearby scene. This results in a lot of footage of smoke, and of police cars parked outside of buildings. Occasionally there’s something more gripping or morbid: someone trapped on the other side of an elevator door, waiting to be freed; a raccoon running around a store; a mangled car; a sheet over a body.
Mike Pecchillo, 32, lives in Ozone Park, Queens, and has broadcast on Citizen a handful of times. “I’m kind of like the nosy neighbor,” he said. He checks the app regularly, and subscribes to other scanner feeds on social media. (He’s thinking about buying a real radio, soon.) When he hears about something nearby, he’ll go to the scene. Maybe there he’ll stream to Citizen, where he said he once had over three thousand viewers. “The chats can get wild,” he said.
But he’ll also check Stringr, an app that pays users to record footage to be sold to news organizations, to see if they want a recording. “It really depends on what it is,” he said. “There was a shooting nearby, and I was there in two seconds. Stringr was paying like 60 bucks for that footage.” (Citizen footage, with a logo watermark, is provided to television stations free of charge.)
Mr. Pecchillo’s hobby puts him in the occasional company of other Citizen users, some of whom take the task quite seriously. One user, who works under the name BoyWonder, has broadcast on the app more than 675 times. He can be spotted all around Brooklyn, ending his broadcasts with “catch you on my next scene.” Another popular user has streamed over 200 times under the username “CityStreets.”
“More than 100,000 live videos have been recorded on Citizen,” Mr. Donald said. “The overwhelming majority of these videos have been streamed by organic users on our safety network.”
The company has experimented with modes of production. A former contractor with the company said that, for a time in 2017, he was paid to create video for the app. (He signed a nondisclosure agreement with the company; The Times has agreed not to share his name).
“We had a small crew,” he said. “We met at the office a few times.” The company instructed him how to produce the footage they wanted: to narrate; to record stable footage; to interview people. He was told not to claim he was working for Citizen. He worked in “sort-of shifts,” he said, and compared the job to previous work he had done for Postmates, the delivery app. “There would be all kinds of ways they would pay,” he said. “The number of views when you went live, how long you went live, whether it became a ‘story,’” he said. (“When new markets are opened, Citizen works with a team of ambassadors to meet with key community groups and introduce our technology,” Mr. Donald said.)The contractor said he made about $250 a week on average. A 2017 job listing posted by the company sought a “Freelance Smartphone Reporter” to join “a new kind of street team.”
“Your primary task will be to witness and live stream incidents such as crimes, fires, and other emergency events going on in the city,” the listing said, “all from your mobile phone.”
The company is also quietly testing a new tool called GuardianNet, which makes available a version of Citizen’s internal scanner-listening software to regular users. After agreeing to a set of rules and guidelines for which types of incidents to report — volunteer-produced reports are still vetted by employees before they appear in the app — I was able to log into the app and watch other “Dispatchers” work in a control-center-like interface. In the application’s chat room, a volunteer chatted with Citizen employees about a “code three” nearby — lights and sirens — before telling them that he had to go, because he was running late for class.
“We have been exploring ways to get the community more involved in helping bring awareness to different neighborhoods and help others stay safe,” Mr. Donald said. “We are moving slowly and thoughtfully to ensure we get it right.”
Citizen is just one of a growing number of app-based options for making yourself either more aware of your surroundings or just extremely paranoid. (Or both.) Nextdoor, the neighborhood-based social media app, has long seen its communities become obsessed with crime and the real and imagined threat thereof. It has struggled for years with racial profiling by its users. Ring, the controversial Amazon-owned internet-connected doorbell company, lets users upload videos recorded by their devices to a neighborhood feed, which is supplemented by Citizen-style crime reports.
Nextdoor is a wide-ranging social network, and Ring sells hardware that put a camera on your house. What Citizen says it offers to users is awareness and safety: “Citizen is empowering everyday people to participate in their own safety,” said a spokesman for the company in a statement. The company shared recent stories that emphasized how information in the app could be actionable for users. A Citizen user helped find an abducted boy in Manhattan after the app sent out an alert. Last year, Dan Humphry, a law student at Fordham, was notified by the app of a fire in his own apartment building. “It was about 3 or 4 in the morning, and I wake up, smelling smoke,” he said. “I look at my phone and there’s an alert.”
“Users write to us every day telling us how Citizen is changing how they engage with their neighborhoods,” the company says in its publicity materials. But this is believable in multiple potentially conflicting ways. Apps with maps are among the most powerful on our phones. They show us our world from space and offer at least an illusion of control and omniscience. Filling one with reports of possible crimes and danger, instead of restaurants or friends, is potent. In Citizen chats, some users earnestly wonder what’s happening, and if everyone at a scene is ok. Others simply gawk, demanding a better angle from a streamer, or making guesses at what happened. There’s a lot about decline, and about “bad neighborhoods.” This specific type of awareness can inform. It can also be alienating. Most commenters ignore the open bigots and trolls. But they show up where and when you might expect them, to offer their take on the crime unfolding down the street.
What Citizen wants from its users is less clear. There are no ads, and there is no way to pay for the app. “The company is exclusively focused on growing the safety networking over the next significant period of time,” the company says. Citizen asks its users for full access to their phones’ location data, which is a potentially lucrative resource on its own. It also asks users for access to contacts. But, the company says, “Citizen does not advertise or sell user data.”
There are, however, hints that the company may see a role for itself on the inside of the emergency response infrastructure.
When the app launched in Los Angeles, the company published a conventional announcement: “Citizen Comes to Protect the City of Angels.” It also published a call for users around Greater Los Angeles to contact their police chiefs, fire chiefs and mayors, asking them to grant Citizen access to their radios, which, as is increasingly popular across the country, encrypt communications. That means that in pockets around Los Angeles, Citizen’s operators can’t listen in, and semiprivate, functional emergency communication remains just that, away from the gaze of the anxious public. “Citizen has no formal relationships with any municipalities,” Mr. Donald said. He did say that the company would “welcome that conversation.”
John Herrman covers tech and media for the Times Magazine, and was one of the first three recipients of The Times’s David Carr Fellowship. Previously, he was a reporter for the Business section. @jwherrman
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