Hackathon seeks to make online space safer for women

40 diverse teams to get 2 months to come up with innovative solutions to tackle problems

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann and Parliamentary Secretary for Communications and Information Rahayu Mahzam at yesterday's launch of the Singapore Together Alliance for Action (AfA) to tackle online harm
Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann and Parliamentary Secretary for Communications and Information Rahayu Mahzam at yesterday's launch of the Singapore Together Alliance for Action (AfA) to tackle online harms, especially those targeted at women and girls. They are co-chairs of the new AfA.PHOTO: MCI

Forty teams will take on the challenge of coming up with innovative solutions to make the online space a safer and kinder place for women and girls.

The community hackathon, which was launched yesterday, is the first project by the Singapore Together Alliance for Action (AfA) to tackle online harms, especially those targeted at women and girls.

This initiative by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) is one of several Alliances for Action formed under the Singapore Together effort to get the public and private sectors involved in shaping policies, tackling challenges and seizing opportunities.

Engagement sessions started earlier this year on the formation of the AfA to tackle online dangers, and it was launched yesterday. The AfA will take on gender-based harassment issues, including non-consensual one-to-many publication of images and personal details online, unwelcome one-to-one interactions online ranging from sexual harassment to online grooming, and online platforms that encourage vice and harm.

The hackathon, a collaboration between MCI, DBS Bank and the Singapore judiciary, will see 40 diverse teams, comprising practising lawyers, law students, public officers and DBS employees, trying to generate solutions over the next two months to tackle problem issues affecting women and girls in online spaces.

Ms Debbie Lam, managing director for legal, compliance and secretariat at DBS, said the issue of online harm "is especially relevant given the unprecedented pace of digital adoption in the wake of Covid-19".

One of the areas that hackathon participants could possibly work on is improving the practicality of the steps victims need to take to get legal action.

Mr Tan Ken Hwee, chief transformation and innovation officer for the Singapore judiciary, said at the launch that new solutions from the participants could be game-changing.

"We're currently working on improving all these things anyway, but if a hackathon participant decides to chew on that aspect of the problem, then I am very excited to see what sort of solutions they can think about," he said.

Participants have to submit their proposals by Sept 17 and will pitch their ideas before a panel of judges on Oct 7. The winners will be announced on Oct 28.

The new AfA is co-chaired by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann and Parliamentary Secretary for Communications and Information Rahayu Mahzam.

Speaking at the launch, Ms Sim said: "Over the past six months, the community, industry and Government have had meaningful conversations on how we can close the digital safety gap for women and girls in Singapore. I am heartened not only by the enthusiasm of stakeholders, but also by the quality of ideas they have put forth."

Noting there is recognition that online dangers are a grave concern to society, she added that there is a collective will to help women and girls close the digital safety gap so that they can enjoy the same degree of freedom and confidence online as they do in real life.

The AfA will focus on enhancing the freedom and safety of women and girls online by providing assistance to victims, creating a safer space online through education, and shaping norms around the responsible use of online spaces and digital devices.

It will start with 48 members across the people, public and private sectors to address issues in five key clusters: public education, research, victim support, youth engagement and volunteerism.

The number of cases involving technology-facilitated sexual violence is on the rise, according to police statistics.

There were 124 cases in 2018, such as those involving unwanted sexual messages and non-consensual sharing of intimate images, up from 46 cases in 2016.

Ms Rahayu said: "These incidents show that the Internet presents a double-edged sword, especially for women and girls. On the one hand, it provides vital spaces for individuals to seek new knowledge and opportunities for self-expression. On the other, it is increasingly a vector for abusers.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened this situation as people spend more time online, therefore increasing the exposure of vulnerable individuals to threats."

Those who are interested in tackling online harm and contributing to the alliance can indicate their interest at go.gov.sg/mciafa

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2021, with the headline 'Hackathon seeks to make online space safer for women'. Subscribe