Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
Nicole Bradick wants to arm people with a simple tool that can help them make sense of an utterly senseless act.
Bradick, a former civil rights attorney in Maine, had been watching news of mosques vandalized, immigrants bullied, and Jewish communities enduring bomb threats. She wondered how someone who had just experienced such an unnerving incident, and who might not have much money or understanding of the law, would find help.
Later this month, a group of lawyers, Internet designers, and victims advocates will gather in Boston to work on a solution.
They aim to create an Internet site, and perhaps an app for a smartphone, that will help users figure out whether something they’ve experienced is considered a hate crime. The tool would also help them collect and preserve evidence, such as photos and audio, and show where to report the incident to authorities, and how to find counseling or other services.
A move to harness technology against an apparent rise in hate crimes may be taking hold. The Boston project — to be held March 20 at Suffolk University Law School — comes as a New York nonprofit tests a new app that allows users to report anti-Semitic acts from their cellphones.
But Bradick said she has found it difficult to find a central place online that simply explains hate crimes, and includes detailed, useful advice for victims.
“I navigated the Internet as if something just happened to me,” said Bradick, now chief strategy officer at CuroLegal, a company that designs computer software for lawyers.
But what she found was like Swiss cheese.
“You can find checklists, or you can find a few resources, but there’s nothing centralized that we could find, and that’s very frustrating for an average person who is trying to figure what they should do,” Bradick said.
Enter Andrew Perlman, dean of Suffolk’s law school.
Perlman, long a champion of new technology, also is a leader of an initiative at the American Bar Association — the ABA Center for Innovation — that uses new technology to make the legal system more efficient.
Bradick brought her idea to Perlman and the bar association, which is cosponsoring a daylong event on March 20 dubbed a “design sprint.”
The gathering is expected to produce a prototype for a website or app by the end of the day. Then Bradick and her team hope to launch a completed product within three months. The initiative is funded by a grant from Cisco Systems, a California technology company.
Perlman said the idea for a hate crime website is trickier than it sounds, because laws regarding hate crimes differ from state to state.
“I come at this from the angle of seeing the importance of technology in helping people get the legal services they need,” he said. “The time is right, the place is right,” for Bradick’s idea.
Participants of the invitation-only event say they are designing the website knowing that some victims of hate crimes might distrust police because they have previously been racially profiled, or might be an undocumented immigrant afraid to step forward.
“It’s unfortunate that we seem to be spiraling backwards in this day and age,” said Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York. “But at least we have new tools at our disposal to address these issues in a new way.”
Nelson, who plans to attend the event remotely, via computer, said the planned website or app could help in creating a useful database, in near real time, for tracking crimes.
“It allows there to be an analysis to see if there is a concentration of crimes in an area,” Nelson said.
Robert Trestan, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, which has also been invited to the event, said hate crimes in general are notoriously under reported.
“So an app that actually provides information that may aid people in reporting may be very helpful,” Trestan said.
An Anti-Defamation League analysis of federal hate crime data found that 88 percent of police agencies that report crime statistics to the FBI reported they had zero hate crimes — raising questions about whether victims are routinely reporting such incidents, and whether the system is sufficiently capturing the data.
In New York, Community Security Service, a nonprofit organization that trains volunteers nationwide in security techniques for Jewish institutions, already is testing a cellphone app that might help bolster reporting.
The software has been distributed to volunteers who are using it to communicate with each other, log suspicious activity, photograph anti-Semitic graffiti, and receive security alerts from Community Security Service, said Jason Friedman, the company’s executive director.
The app, which was in the works long before the latest wave of threats to Jewish centers, also includes a “panic button” that allows users to instantly communicate with local authorities in an emergency, Friedman said.
The plan is to start distributing the app for free in April to synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
Friedman said he learned while serving as a reservist in Afghanistan that an effective way to counter the lurking sense of fear in such tense situations is to do something proactive. He said that’s the thinking behind the new app.
“This will allow people to be the eyes and ears for the Jewish community,” he said. “It will allow us to be proactive, rather than reactive.”
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