At 8:07 p.m. on Monday evening in San Francisco, a man was spotted shooting a gun at streetlights.
Twenty minutes later, an outdoor trash fire broke out in another part of the city. A few miles south, a KFC employee allegedly assaulted a co-worker with a chair, and then 20 bikers were reportedly involved in a brawl.
It’s a typical hour in the San Francisco Bay Area as seen through Citizen, the real-time crime and fire alerting app that uses a smartphone’s location to share updates about incidents happening nearby.
Its alerts ping mobile devices daily in New York City, San Francisco, Baltimore and starting Tuesday, Los Angeles.
Using a combination of human employees and technology, Citizen scans hundreds of public-safety radio bands 24-hours a day in the major cities where it’s deployed, sometimes by playing audio at three times the speed. It filters out what it deems non-essential and sends the information as short, factual alerts to everyone within a quarter mile of the incident. The app updates with a list of details as they roll in and lets people nearby take live video or comment with information.
Some local governments and police departments have their own alerting apps, and sites like Nextdoor are filled with user reports of incidents. But what makes Citizen different are its sources, the volume and speed of its text updates. It’s closer in spirit to police scanner apps.
“What we have done, in essence, is open up the emergency response system from an information perspective,” Citizen co-founder and CEO Andrew Frame told CNN Business.
Because it is drawing straight from sources like police scanners, news of an incident can sometimes reach a neighbor before police or fire fighters are even on the scene. It has earned a reputation as a place to get updates before local news or even Twitter. Frame said the timeliness has helped save lives.
The pull of real-time crime
The app, which launched in 2016, gained attention after major incidents including an evacuation of CNN’s headquarters in December 2018 and a truck attack on New York’s West Side in October 2018. During a fire last year at Trump Tower in Manhattan, 34 simultaneous users livestreamed on the app as the fire blazed, including one from a person inside Trump Tower, Frame said. When a shooting happened at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California, last April, some of the earliest details were from Citizen livestreams.
“Every time a fire happens, we notify sometimes dozens of people that are within the building where the fire is occurring, and this is the first time they’re hearing of fire,” said Frame.
Most updates are for smaller incidents, like car accidents and fights. In San Francisco, a surprising number of alerts begin with the phrase “Naked man.” It’s common for some users to take screenshots of the stranger alerts, like a fight over cotton candy or the citywide search for a white poodle (it was found), and share them on social media.
The company has not yet released user numbers, but incidents with livestreamed video will regularly have thousands of viewers in New York. A recent car crash in Brooklyn included seven separate videos from people at the scene, more than 137,000 viewers and 600 comments in the app.
Frame declined to share how the company plans to make money off of the app but said it will not include advertisements or monetize users’ location information. It raised a $12 million round of funding led by Sequoia Capital in late 2017.
Trying to be a good Citizen
The app originally launched in New York with the name “Vigilante” and was quickly taken down from the Apple App Store over concerns it would encourage people to rush toward danger. At the time, the New York City Police Department spoke out against the app: “Crimes in progress should be handled by the NYPD and not a vigilante with a cell phone,” it said in a statement.
Since it relaunched as Citizen in 2017, many of the early fears about the app have faded. Police departments CNN Business reached out to for comment were neutral about the app.
“The department is still evaluating the pros and cons,” a San Francisco Police Department official said.
Meanwhile, a police department spokesperson in Baltimore, where the app launched in February, was in support of more information.
“Accurate and timely information is a powerful tool for members of the community,” said the spokesperson, before promoting the city’s own crime alert app and Nextdoor presence.
The NYPD did not reply to a request for comment.
“We know when we first came out with this, the police department hated us. I don’t think we’re still there,” said Frame. “I don’t know how much they love us, but they at least don’t hate us anymore.”
CNN Business spoke to two San Francisco police officers who said they used the app themselves and weren’t aware of many issues with residents getting too involved with crime scenes. The app doesn’t encourage people to put themselves in danger other than the red circle that says “Record.”
But it also doesn’t provide information on how to stay safe, offering no tips or advice on what to do in emergency situations.
After a gun was fired at San Francisco’s Balboa High School and the campus was put on lockdown in August 2018, some students used the Citizen app for updates and to livestream the scene. One student was heard warning another that being live on the app could give away their location to a shooter.
Citizen’s co-founder said the app is a neutral source for information.
“We create transparency, and we create situational awareness,” Frame said. “We do not influence the result of that transparency and situational awareness.”
He added that people use it in different ways: “Some people use it to escape a burning building. Other people use it to not turn down a certain road or go into a certain subway station where there might be an active incident or emergency.”
Neighborhood apps like Nextdoor have been criticized for encouraging racial profiling. Citizen tries to avoid this by not including suspicious persons reports, according to Frame. “That’s not a crime, and that’s not something that goes into the app.”
Balancing safety with anxiety
Some of the Citizen users CNN Business spoke with reported a side effect much different from walking into danger: anxiety.
According to psychologist Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, the constant stream of alerts can cause “people to hyper focus on the negative.”
“This can lead to a perception that the world is much more dangerous that it really is since these events are isolated among the thousands of other events that occur every day.”
She said the human brain is hardwired “to notice danger as part of our innate survival instinct” and an app like Citizen can amplify the sensation of risk by giving information on a larger geographic area than necessary.
Of course, users can choose to receive fewer alerts or no alerts unless they open the app. But Frame thinks knowing less isn’t necessarily best approach.
“There’s two things that can make you scared or make you anxious,” said Frame. “One: Knowing exactly what’s going on. Two: Not knowing what’s going on around you.”