How Trip-Planning Apps Use Data to Keep LGBTQ Travelers Safe

With marriage equality increasingly becoming the law of the land in many countries, and with cities throughout the world acting as bubbles of LGBTQ acceptance, it is easy to think that world travel should be safe and simple.

But just this year, a French couple was attacked in St. Petersburg on the eve of the World Cup, and a study in January found that 2017 was the deadliest year yet for the LGBTQ community in Brazil, where more than 300 queer or transgender people were slain as a result of targeted violence. The United States is not immune either; as recently as 2016 a UK government travel advice website warned LGBTQ travelers against visiting parts of the U.S. that had passed homophobic laws.  

Despite all this, signs point to an increase in LGBTQ travel as more companies look to tap the queer market. This makes safety a top priority in the queer travel industry.

In September, GeoSure, an app that provides safety data for travelers, introduced a new LGBTQ category. With coverage for over 30,000 neighborhoods around the world, GeoSure’s LGBTQ ratings help queer travelers can get a sense of how safe it is to be open about their sexual orientation and gender identity around the world. Now TripIt, a master itinerary and trip planning app, has incorporated this data into its platform.

The International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA)  has a fairly comprehensive website aimed specifically at the LGBTQ traveler. Last year, the IGLTA published a lengthy report on the state of global LGBTQ tourism compiled in conjunction with the World Tourism Organization, but it is not easy to see what places are safest at a glance.  

“We always encourage LGBTQ travelers to do their homework into the laws, cultures and prevailing attitudes of the destinations that they are visiting,” John Tanzella, president of IGLTA told INTO. “And so the more tools that are available to assist in the data-gathering process, the better.”

“Information and safety go hand in hand,” Tanzella continued. “It’s important to remember that there are still more than 70 countries in the world that criminalize same-sex relationships; and of course, even having positive laws doesn’t mean that prejudice toward the LGBTQ community has been eliminated.”

Though the IGLTA has plenty of information on its website, it can be overwhelming. The report itself is well over 100 pages, consisting of recommendations and a comprehensive compilation of case studies submitted by tourism stakeholders who have benefited from their outreach to LGBTQ travelers. But it does not distill the resources into individual neighborhood safety ratings.

When asked about accuracy, Jen Moyse, director of product for TripIt, says that while the app is too new to have much user feedback, she has found it to be “quite accurate” and that feedback from social media has, so far, been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s been nice to see people tweeting like crazy, especially this week with the LGBT safety scores,” Moyse tells INTO. “It feels unique.”

Michael Becker, CEO of GeoSure, the company compiling the safety scores, tells INTO that the company began as a “data science and predictive analytics company.”

After partnering with statistical scientist Don Pardew, Becker asked the question, “Can you risk-model and boil down to a quantitative exercise this notion of traveler safety? [Pardew’s] answer was yes.” Becker continued, “We take all this data and put it into a statistical meat grinder, our algorithm. [It’s] based on years of experience of risk modeling. They change over time and by location.”

Becker tells INTO that GeoSure compiles safety scores based on information from “hundreds of sources,” including international law enforcement groups like the CIA and Interpol, and health associations like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control.

Sometimes the scores can be unexpected. In one instance, Portland, Oregon does not score as well as nearby suburbs of Gresham or Vancouver, Washington, despite its large LGBTQ population. Perhaps the historical data of these rapidly changing neighborhoods has not caught up, the infrastructure is not as robust as the community, or more individual metrics need to be put into GeoSure’s proprietary algorithm. For example, Becker didn’t mention aspects such as numbers of LGBTQ community centers or queer-owned businesses included in their safety calculations.

Further complicating matters, said Becker, “You can have an LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood within a high crime district, but as an LGBTQ community member you may feel safer; you might be safer. Of course the opposite may be true as well.” Though data scientists see these metrics contributing to risk levels, the user cares more about safety, which is harder to quantify.

User feedback is essential for that reason. It may even help GeoSure identify the more vulnerable members of the LGBTQ population such as trans people or people of color, which are currently not a separate category in either app, though they are more likely to face assault.

It’s easy to submit a positive or negative experience from within the GeoSure app, but TripIt has no way to give feedback on how safe a neighborhood feels or whether you’ve experienced any discrimination. Lack of an easy reporting tool within TripIt could skew crowd-sourced information towards individuals seeking out a data-driven company like GeoSure rather than casual travelers. It is something to consider as GeoSure continuously updates what Becker calls their “secret sauce.”

Although they don’t use GeoSure’s quantified analytics, there are some LGBTQ-specific travel apps out there. An app called Wimbify got a lot of attention when it launched in 2015 as a queer version of Couchsurfing, but it has not gotten any press since and the version currently available from Apple was buggy and available only in Italian. Man About World is a digital gay travel publication, but you cannot plan or book directly from it, nor is it integrated with public transportation or other real-time features that TripIt provides. This modern version of a more typical guidebook a la Damron, Lonely Planet, or Fodor’s, is also aimed almost exclusively at gay men.

There are accommodation-specific apps that cater to the LGBTQ community, whether you’re looking for a hotel, a B&B, or a homestay. Purple Roofs, “The best place to find small, ‘family owned’ and gay-friendly accommodations” has been around since 1999 as a website, but there is no app. misterb&b is much slicker; it has a website and app that both closely mirror their more famous counterpart, Airbnb. Airbnb does not have any way to search for LGBTQ-friendly accommodations specifically, but it does offer diversity training on its website for new hosts that includes an LGBTQ and gender-bias specific section. This was implemented after a string of racist and homophobic incidents made news in 2016. So, in theory, every booking should be queer-friendly, although that says nothing about the surrounding neighborhood.

It is easy to see how safety ratings from GeoSure could be incorporated into travel apps, city guides like Yelp, transportation apps, publications and more. “It enhances the experience for their end users,” Becker noted. “[The LGBTQ community spends] over $210 billion annually. It’s a massively powerful market.”


.Alley Hector

Alley Hector

Alley Hector is a writer, journalist, poet, spoken word artist mashup who writes about adventure, technology, and culture while creating radical history in Portland, OR.

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