On June 3, as protests decrying the murder of George Floyd gripped the U.S., safety app Citizen surged passed Twitter, Nextdoor, CNN, Fox News, The New York Times—and every other news app on the Apple charts. What made its jump more extraordinary: unlike the other apps which are available worldwide, Citizen operates in just 18 U.S. cities—New York, L.A. San Francisco, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and more.
Citizen has become a critical tool for protestors and residents alike—offering real-time alerts, live data, and videos of nearby emergencies—as peaceful demonstrations, violence, and looting overwhelmed cities across the nation. “People are using the app for transparency, accountability, safety, and situational awareness,” Citizen founder Andrew Frame told Forbes on Friday.
Since the protests began, Citizen has added more than 600,000 users according to sources within the company. It now has more than 5 million active users. (As of this story, Citizen is the fourth most popular news app on IOS according to mobile analytics company App Annie). The spike has stretched the startup, both its tech stack and the team that monitors 911 calls across the country 24 hours a day. “We’ve been around since 2017. Our engineering and backend are pretty mature, and this has fully tested our architecture and infrastructure,” says Frame. “Our cloud service bills have skyrocketed.”
Citizen listens to thousands of police, fire, and energy service radio calls and, using your smartphone’s GPS location, alerts you to emergencies nearby. With Citizen, you can see ongoing emergencies on a map, receive live updates on the situation, upload videos of the event, and post comments. During the last week of protests, residents have used the app to avoid violence, protestors to stay updated on police activity, and the media—and spectators—to track and follow the action.
“All of these protests are because of the transparency created by the [George Floyd] smartphone video,” says Frame. “We’re empowering individuals with information and tools to create accountability.”
In July of 2019, I published in Forbes a feature about Citizen—how it works, why it started, the controversy it faces, and how it plans to make money. Below some key takeaways about what Citizen does and how it does it.
How Citizen collects, verifies, and shares emergency data:
Citizen gets all its info by eavesdropping on the same public radio transmissions that hobbyists, journalists and criminals have monitored for decades. It operates without help—or permission—from authorities. The R1 radio, a core of Citizen’s proprietary tech, acts as a supercharged police scanner, simultaneously monitoring and recording up to 900 public radio channels across a city’s first-responder network: state and local police, fire and EMS, transit and airport security. The small size, high efficiency and wide range of the R1 lets Citizen expand into a new city without investing in new real estate or a local team. Meaning Citizen covers all of Baltimore with a device not much larger than a can of Old Bay.
How Citizen organizes the thousands of hours of daily radio calls and reports into usable and accurate information:
Citizen’s custom-built AI promptly processes the radio clip, cutting static and dead air, transcribing the audio, pulling out key words (male, shotgun, Wanamaker Street) and pinning to a digital street map a feverish red dot where the man was last seen. From there a communication analyst takes over, listening to the 911 dispatch, writing a short notification and sending it to Citizen app users within a quarter-mile of the incident (different events have different warning radiuses: say, a half-mile for a fire, an entire city for a terror threat). Citizen employs 38 analysts who, to provide around-the-clock coverage, work in three eight-hour shifts. Thanks to Citizen’s AI software, on a normal shift, a single person can cover multiple cities.
How Citizen plans to make money:
The answer isn’t clear. The app is free to use and does not run advertising, nor does it sell or share user data with any company. For Frame, privacy is core to the company. “We will never earn revenue or build our business by selling personal data. Our entire business is built to protect users, and that includes protecting their privacy.” As for revenue:
Sources in the company hint at a model in which Citizen charges universities, airports, stadiums and other places with lots of people to allow authorities to send notifications to users—either to blast out emergency instructions or quell panic after a false alarm. There’s also the potential to let users message the officials about safety concerns, a mobile-powered “See Something, Say Something.” Investors note that billions of dollars are spent every year on security. If Citizen hit massive scale, it could be an essential addition to current safety systems and grow into a lucrative, utility-like business. Former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton says that many people, fearing that authorities will track their location and habits, will never download an official law enforcement app. He’s betting that Citizen, as a trusted, independent app, can be a powerful tool for emergency services to quickly and efficiently deliver critical information to the public.