Edmonton partners with Anti-Defamation League on innovative tool to combat hate

The in-house designed software will allow the city to strategically deploy officers and program services to help combat hate. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)
The in-house designed software will allow the city to strategically deploy officers and program services to help combat hate. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)

Peace officers in Edmonton are being armed with an innovative tool to combat hate.

Lighthouse was developed by the City of Edmonton in partnership with the New York City-based Anti-Defamation League.

A first of its kind in Canada to the city's knowledge, the software was developed to identify, track and remove hate symbols in public spaces.

"Everyone within our city has the right to feel a sense of safety and belonging," Jennifer Flaman, deputy city manager for community services, said at Friday's unveiling.

"Words matter. Images are powerful. And these hate symbols can attack our sense of belonging and do considerable harm."

Flaman noted that city council updated the public places bylaw in 2021 to add hate symbols as a form of harassment.

"I see this as another step forward in our efforts to ensure Edmonton is inclusive and a city that condemns hate in all its forms," she said.

How it works

Lighthouse is made up of three interrelated tools — a phone application used to collect data, a web application to analyze the data, and a dashboard designed for decision-makers.

Peace officers use the phone app to upload photos of potential hate symbols to the database, automatically detecting their location.

The image is then analyzed and labelled by experts using categorizations provided by the ADL hate symbol database.

"We have a two-step process here where one person will label the image and a second peer will review it and basically approve whether they agree with it," said Ben Gready, a data scientist with the team that designed and developed the software.

"There can be some back and forth if there's a disagreement. These are sometimes complex images that are not that straightforward.

"Thirdly, there's an option if it doesn't fit into a category that we know about, it can be submitted for external review by some of our partners at the ADL and other organizations that have a deeper knowledge of hate symbols."

The first group of peace officers was trained and given access to the app this week. It's expected 140 officers will be using the tool by the end of February, before its use is expanded to other frontline staff.

The city is currently working on selecting a local team to analyze the symbols.

"As the database grows, it gives us that opportunity for us to be able to analyze, to see the trends. And that allows us to be able to deploy officers and program services in those areas to try and reduce whatever is happening," said Keith Scott, the city's director of complaints and investigations.

Haters unfortunately innovate so it is important that people of good will innovate, too. - Mark Pitcavage

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the ADL's Center on Extremism, said "being able to identify and track hate symbols 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."

In an email to CBC News, Pitcavage said the ADL was pleased to lend its knowledge on hate symbols to the project.

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

The launch of Lighthouse comes at a time when hate crimes and incidents have increased both locally and nationally.

The city's clean-up crews have removed 211 graffiti tags with hate symbols or words over the past four years, officials said. Edmontonians who find hate symbols can report them to 311.

Stacey Leavitt-Wright, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, said hate symbols can strike fear in community members who "just don't know what that means or what might be coming along with that."

She's pleased the tool will allow the city to adjust operations in real time according to current information.

"New hate symbols, new understandings — then it's a much quicker, easier way of adapting," Leavitt-Wright said.