City of Edmonton partners with ADL to identify hate symbols

The City of Edmonton has announced a partnership with the New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to develop technology for identifying and reporting hate symbols locally.

The city announced the partnership on Jan. 6 - the two-year anniversary of the Capitol riot in Washington, D.C. that sought to overturn the results of the 2020 U.S. election prior to President Joe Biden’s inauguration, in which white nationalist groups participated.

The Lighthouse tool, which the city is currently piloting, consists of three components: An app for people to take photos of suspected hate symbols; an online gallery that analyzes the symbols through the ADL’s Hate on Display symbol database to see if there’s a match; and

A dashboard that shows the symbols, and where and when they’ve appeared to assist policymakers in making informed decisions.

At the launch announcement, deputy city manager for community services Jennifer Flaman said the city is motivated by the rising tide of anti-Black, anti-Asian, anti-immigrant, anti-Indigenous, anti-Muslim, antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ+ hate.

“Words matter. Images are powerful, and these hate symbols can attack our sense of belonging and do considerable harm,” Flaman said.

In 2021, city council approved an update to its public places bylaw to include hate symbols as a form of harassment.

Flaman said Lighthouse will provide a valuable tool to assist law enforcement in enforcing the updated bylaw so symbols can be “identified, tracked and removed.”

Ben Gready, a data scientist with the city who helped develop Lighthouse, provided a demonstration of how the technology works for media in attendance.

He emphasized those who use the app “don’t have to know it’s a hate symbol, they just have to have an inkling that it’s a hate symbol.”

In addition to taking photos of potential hate symbols, the app provides the option of drawing them.

Once an image is sent to the database, it’s peer-reviewed by an expert to see if there’s a match.

The app is only available to bylaw enforcement officers by design, said Keith Scott, the city’s director of complaints and investigations.

“The [ADL], in discussions with them, suggested it’s not a good idea to release this kind of database out to the public,” said Scott.

Flaman said the ADL was selected as a partner because their database is the “largest in the world.”

At this point, the app is only designed for symbols seen in public, not social media, where many hate symbols proliferate, because social media posts don’t include specific, local location data, Gready explained.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the ADL's Center on Extremism, told CBC News that the group’s database can “help a community understand when a new extremist threat might be emerging, identify trends and tactics among hateful extremists, and to better protect the community."

"Haters unfortunately innovate so it is important that people of good will innovate, too," he added.

Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Alberta Native News