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50,000 Austin users are getting in on a new app that tracks crime, COVID updates and protests

About 50,000 Austin-area users have already downloaded Citizen, a smartphone app that reports real-time police and emergency medical threats. Austin is already one of Citizen's most popular cities since the company soft-launched here late last year.

"It's one of our top markets after cities like New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago," Citizen spokesperson Lily Gordon told Austonia via email.

The app relies on hired analysts and user-generated content to track every 911 call and public safety dispatch in the city. Users receive alerts about nearby incidents directly on their cell phone lock screen, and reports are updated live with additional details as well as audio and video recordings as they become available.

While there are numerous services similar to Citizen, including the city-built Austin PD smartphone app, Citizen claims to be the most popular since its launch in 2017. In total, the app has been downloaded by 5 million people across 20-plus metropolitan areas.

Citizen has already live reported several notable events in Austin. In addition to daily local COVID-19 updates, the app served as an information resource during downtown social unrest in late May and June.

More recently, Citizen dominated coverage during two September news events: when five boats sank during a pro-Donald Trump boat parade rally on Lake Travis (Sept. 4) and again when two construction cranes collided, injuring 22 workers in the Mueller neighborhood (Sept. 16). During both news events, the smartphone app scooped some local news outlets with live breaking news updates from analysts and Citizen users.

"We were proud that we were able to provide real-time updates on this major story to more than 30,000 Austinites and be a resource for local news outlets," Gordon said via email. "As a real-time safety app, this example points to how we are in a unique position to provide up-to-the-minute updates about developing public safety incidents."

As part of its "official" Austin debut in April, the company hired freelance help to increase activity on the platform. Austin native Brian Smith, who runs @txmobilenews on Twitter as a freelance videographer, helped Citizen cover breaking news events in Austin as part of its "Street Team Program." He posted videos of public safety threats directly to the app, getting paid for each scene he documented.

The street team disbanded after the first month because of COVID-19 health concerns. Smith did similar stringer work while living in New York City. But Austin doesn't have as many breaking news stringers—think Jake Gyllenhaal's character in "Nightcrawler"—as the larger news markets.

"I'm kind of the only one who does the videos for the television networks," said Smith, who works as head of sales for a technology startup during the day. "This market just doesn't support it."

Even though Smith is no longer paid by Citizen for his side hustle, he still uses the app to find breaking news events to cover for the highest bidder. He even posts the occasional video clip from a news event as long as it doesn't compete with his freelance work.

From his experience, the app has proven reliable and accurate, and it's only improving.

"I do believe the people behind Citizen are committed to doing the best they can to put the best information out there to inform the public," Smith said.

Public safety alerts are blasted to Citizen users each time a 911 call is documented. Users can customize the extent they receive alerts.Citizen app

Many users on Citizen promote news from the app on other social platforms, including Westlake resident Dennis Lastor, who posts the occasional breaking alert to Twitter. The city has become less safe since he moved here 21 years ago, he said, and Citizen helps document the extent of the issue.

"I wanted to see what kind of crime was going on and what kind of increase might be going on, and Citizen app was the only direct source showing the reality of what kind of crime was going on," said Lastor, who downloaded the app about three months ago.

Lastor, an engineer, says Citizen provides data that shows a rising crime trend as well as bizarre anecdotes about public safety risks in Austin. For example, there have been reports of multiple people chased by a machete-wielding man in one neighborhood, he said, and more than a dozen 7-Eleven convenience stores have recently been robbed.

According to the latest crime report from the Austin police chief, crimes against persons and property crime are down so far this year. Lastor acknowledges the app has the potential to confirm his own bias, so he also relies on other news sources to balance out Citizen.

Lastor and Smith also both reject any comparison to Nextdoor—another hyperlocal reporting service—which is sometimes ridiculed for its unsubstantiated "suspicious person" posts. In fact, Lastor just deleted his Nextdoor account.

"(Citizen) can be hypervigilant, so you may think it's World War III when it's just an average day, but the upside beats the downside," Lastor said.


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