With current population trends of a more transient workforce and move towards urbanism, tight-knit communities where everyone knows each other are growing more rare. With computers, phones, and busy schedules, neighbors don’t sit as often in their yards to talk to each other. VillageDefense CEO Sharath Mekala, speaking from experience, believes that this lack of networking leads to higher crime. After a series of break-ins happened in his neighborhood and no one raised the alarm to the community, he saw the criminals take advantage of this vulnerability.
VillageDefense helps guard residents of a community by bringing them together, no matter where individuals are, with crowd-sourced crime alerts. Users can submit alerts as they see them to contribute to the safety map or ongoing discussion. Unlike simple neighborhood forums, this machine learning app uses geolocation to move with you and lets you search for police data through its crimebot, named Sonya.
“Our initial neighborhoods have seen a 73 percent reduction in crime since adopting VillageDefense,” says Mekala. “We also saw this as an opportunity for criminals to understand that it’s almost as if the city is acting together as one big neighborhood, keeping it safe.”
Mekala talks to Hype about how real-time, crowdsourced updates can keep you safe no matter where you, how their app differs from neighborhood groups like NextDoor, and the importance of customer feedback. After all, it takes a village.
Funding or bootstrapped:
We’ve raised $600k to date from investors like 500 Startups and Extrenext Ventures. We can’t go into any current fundraising details because of the FCC’s General Solicitation regulation.
What’s your pitch?
VillageDefense is the largest community-driven safety network powered by real people. Our free app alerts you when a crime is in progress near your location, with real-time updates from people around you. Communicating in real-time as a network of people right around a live incident helps keep everyone safe, while maximizing the number of witnesses. We believe that wherever you are in the world, you should be able to tap into the network of people around you to stay safe.
What problem are you solving?
When we witness a crime, we’re told to call 9-1-1, and that’s it. Of all the people right around the incident, only you know about it. It’s frustrating when you have urgent information but have no way to let people nearby knows. Criminals love this because it enables them to easily get away.
This process hasn’t changed since rotary phones. Witness, and just call 911. In today’s hyper-connected world, we can’t afford to keep leaving the community out of the equation. VillageDefense re-imagines this equation for the 21st century with a decentralized, networked approach to public safety.
Please describe the market/industry impact:
VillageDefense Atlanta is a movement to bring the community to the safety equation, connecting you to the people around you in real-time. The next time you see a crime and call 911, you can now instantly alert everyone around you, while getting live updates from the community. You’ve just helped everyone else stay out of harm’s way, while amplifying the number of eyes and ears on the incident until the Police get there. Since the police’s effectiveness is only as good as the information coming from the community, this witness amplification creates a feedback loop that helps Police do their job better, while providing transparency for everyone.
In developing countries where police forces are either non-existent or corrupt, people need to rely on each other even more. At scale, we believe we can facilitate a 50 percent reduction in crime overall in cities that utilize VillageDefense.
With crowdsourcing, big data, and machine learning, we are rapidly building a more accurate and granular crime database than what insurance companies or the police have. At scale, we will have the most comprehensive crime data in the world, and we plan on powering insurance companies, police departments, and media companies through access to the VillageDefense API.
How’d you get the idea for it?
I never set out to start a company. I just wanted people to stop breaking into my house, terrorizing our neighborhood. I bought my first house in 2006 on land [where public housing previously stood] on the westside of Atlanta in the West Highlands community. There was a large divide between the people living in single-family homes and people who lived in apartments—the renters. None of us were really talking, so on the outside, it looked like this great neighborhood, and on the inside, nobody worked together, and we had this common problem with crime.
Criminals were taking advantage of the fact that we weren’t talking to each other, playing on the same team. Things came together one morning when I got a call from my alarm company, and came home to find that my door had been kicked in. It was kind of at this moment that I had where I realized, we have to do something about this.
I partnered with my friend Nathan Black who was an engineer interested in solving social problems to create VillageDefense, and we spent the first year working out the bugs in our approach. Our first two years were customer discovery, going to over 250 neighborhood meetings in order to become intimately familiar with the problem we’re solving, how it affects people, and who are target users are, before we starting building a solution.
How does it work — walk us through the process from a customer standpoint.
All you do is download the free VillageDefense app and you’ve joined the community of users around you. Easily alert everyone around you when you see a crime, get real-time updates from people nearby, and keep up with places you care about like your neighborhood, work, or school.
The alert contains a deep link that takes everyone into an incident-specific live chat, where you can post follow-up information, share pictures, and ask questions as the incident unfolds over time. On top of this crowdsourced experience, Sonya the Crimebot is our friendly, helpful data bot that also provides you with near real-time reports from the Atlanta Police for the last 24 hours.
How does this differ from NextDoor and how did you decide to pivot to your current focus?
Nextdoor was build to be a Facebook page for your neighborhood, helping you sell used couches and find babysitters. They are a noisy marketplace for recommendations and services for your neighborhood, and being a message board, it’s passive engagement. VillageDefense is 100 percent focused on crime, real-time communication, and operates anywhere in the city you go (not just the boundaries of your neighborhood).
We decided to pivot after releasing VillageDefense Beta across 3000 communities in 300 cities. Through a maniacal user feedback process, we learned so much. Why, how, when, and where they used VillageDefense and for which purposes. We gained an understanding that our users wanted to take VillageDefense everywhere they went. As they navigated in and out of the city, living, working, and playing, they wanted to always know when crime was happening around them. We saw this as an opportunity to open the city up, instead of creating more boundaries, divisions, and crime data blind spots.
Who are your competitors and how do you stand out?
There are other players in the space trying to solve the same problem we are, but we’re the only ones going about it in a decentralized, crowdsourced way. We cut out all gatekeepers of information. And given that a shocking amount of crime goes unreported to 911, any approach solely dependent on police data will only give you a fraction of a window into what’s really going on. Crowdsourcing is the only real way to solve the problem of valuable information flowing within a community.
Given that cities are interdependent networks of people, the way we communicate has to be decentralized/crowdsourced. We’re “networkifying” public safety. Each human is a sensor, and VillageDefense opens the “crime” communication port on the network.