“We were just honestly really shocked by how bad the data is. ... How can we understand the problem if we don’t have the data?” said researcher Emily Nicolosi.
The app — called the Hate Incident Report System — aims to bridge the gap between what people witness and what gets reported to police and, later, the FBI, which releases an annual report on hate crimes.
Nicolosi said there are barriers that prevent some people from reporting hate crimes to police, which means the data is notoriously incomplete. For instance, she said, undocumented people may be afraid to report crimes against them to police for fear of being deported.
The gap between reports and reality is demonstrated in FBI data versus estimates from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 2017, the FBI announced a recent high in hate crimes with 7,175 reported incidents, while the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey estimates about 250,000 people are victims of a hate crime each year.
The app also is meant to collect reports on incidents that don’t meet the bar of a hate crime, such as someone yelling a racial slur at another. This goes beyond what the FBI aims to collect.
Nicolosi, a doctoral candidate in geography, has been working on the app alongside geography professor Richard Medina for about a year. It launched in the Google Play store in early April and should be in the Apple App Store soon.
They had been researching hate groups, trying to get an idea of how hate looks in different places. Their goal is to start collecting reports from the Salt Lake City area and eventually gather data nationwide.
“Utah is going to look a lot different than the culture of New York or Maine or the Pacific Northwest," Nicolosi said.
Their initial research found that hate groups are most active in areas that have lower levels of both education and ethnic diversity, in addition to having more people living in poverty and who have conservative political ideologies.
After opening the hate reporting app, a user must first agree to a disclaimer, and then can move to a home screen that offers the options of reporting an incident or opening a draft of a previous, unsubmitted report.
From there, the app asks users to log the location of an incident, followed by the bias motivator (someone’s disability, gender/identity, race/ethnicity, etc.) and what action they witnessed (property damage, verbal threats, propaganda).
It also requires a short description of what happened. If a user chooses, he or she can provide their name and email address and a picture of what they saw, if applicable, Nicolosi said.
She said she hopes people who use the app take it seriously and don’t make false reports. But there are other ways to verify an incident if someone chooses to not leave contact information, she said, such as reviewing a submitted photo, or receiving multiple reports about one incident, or seeing related news coverage.
And, as with all data, she said, there will be a range of error in the accuracy of the information.
The app’s intentions are similar to ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” project, which The Salt Lake Tribune joined in February. Nicolosi said she hasn’t reached out to the nonprofit news organization about joining forces.
The Salt Lake Tribune is partnering with ProPublica and newsrooms across the country to better understand the prevalence and nature of hate crimes, bias and prejudice. You can share your insights with us at sltrib.com/documentinghate and we may contact you for future stories.