WMC Women Under Siege

Safety a click away: The tech industry’s response to violence against women

Every day, women around the world are victims of rape and abuse. The women attacked are of every age, every race, and every sexual orientation. They are dressed either conservatively or scantily, and they are attacked while out late at night or at home in broad daylight. They are attacked in war zones, and they are attacked in countries not at war.

To combat this, advocates and technologists have created new, tech-based apps and services in recent years, all designed to help women protect themselves from sexualized violence and rape. Some recent anti-rape device creations include rape-resistant underwear, female condoms with teeth, hairy leg tights, and even “killer tampons."

But not all of the creations are that bizarre. Some tech-based responses include smartphone apps, GPS tools, and other personal safety services and software that may be useful in the right—or wrong—situation.

Here are some of the apps and other tech-based responses out today:


Circle of 6A free app that prevents violence before it happens

Circle of 6, which is geared toward preventing sexualized violence among college students, allows the user to create a pre-programmed safety network of six people. At the push of a button, a prompt will be sent to that circle with a request for either an interruption, an immediate pick-up (with a map to the user’s location), or advice on healthy relationships. An additional emergency button also provides the user with the option of contacting a rape or abuse hotline or the local police. 

Nancy Schwartzman, long-time activist and CEO of the app, told me that she wanted to avoid sending the message that the world was a terrifying place and that an individual could be safe only with a phone in hand. “We wanted to be very, very careful to ensure that none of our materials—not our ads, or a press release, or even a tweet—could be construed as victim shaming,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to ask why she was out at four in the morning. I just wanted a tool focused on harm reduction.”

Schwartzman credits her team for the app’s ability to successfully navigate this challenge: “We are all survivors, and we were all able to think about the kinds of tools we could have used or would have wanted to use when we were in college.”

The strategy appears to have been successful: Circle of 6 has more than 200,000 active users in the U.S. and additional users in more than 30 other countries. The app’s popularity continues to grow via word of mouth and strategic advertising, she said. One ad in Cosmopolitan magazine brought the team about 7,000 downloads in a few days.

In November 2011, Circle of 6 was one of the winners of the White House’s Apps Against Abuse technology challenge.


KitestringSafety, with strings attached

Stephen Boyer, a grad student at MIT, built this app as a personal safety tool after his girlfriend asked him to check up on her after she walked home from work in a certain neighbourhood in San Francisco.

Users of Kitestring can send out a notice that they are going out and then specify a time that they will check in. If users do not respond within five minutes of the check-in, Kitestring will notify their specified emergency contacts. Users also have the option to password-protect their check-ins.

The app, which launched in February, was built as a Web-based service—instead of a native app—and uses SMS technology: You don’t need a smartphone or an Internet connection to use it.

While a number of the products out there have multiple services and features, Boyer told me that in designing Kitestring, he “wanted it to be beautifully simple. … There are a lot of great apps out there. Part of me feels like the market is a bit saturated, but I still think there’s a lot of space for innovation,” he said.

The app has almost 60,000 users already. According to Boyer, Kitestring has struck a chord with more groups than he anticipated. “There are several demographics using it that I wasn’t expecting,” he said. “Originally, I designed it for college students, but I’ve heard back from a bunch of different groups—the elderly, older men and women, climbers or hikers, bikers, even Internet dating sites. We’ve gotten a lot of traffic from one BDSM site in particular, where people send out a Kitestring before meeting up with someone new. We’ve found that it’s used by a lot of sex trade workers too. There are a lot of different groups using [it] as a personal safety app—it’s really great to see.”


bSafeSafety is in your hand. Everyday. Everywhere.    

Launched in Norway in 2011, bSafe is a multi-functional app that can be used by smartphones or androids. With a live tracking feature, users can locate their friends on a GPS map or invite a friend to “walk with them,” ensuring that someone is tracking their route as they walk.

The personal alarm feature also has the capacity to record audio and video, with the view of providing users with something tangible to give the police in the event of an attack. With the ability to send private check-ins, map the locations of the user’s friends and family, or simply request a fake call, bSafe is one of the most comprehensive safety apps on the market.


NirbhayaBe fearless

Developed in India in response to increasing reports of rape and sexualized violence, the Nirbhaya app—like bSafe—offers a personal alarm that users can trigger if they find themselves in distress. The alarm can be triggered—and geo-locational information sent to the user’s friends and family—simply by tapping on the screen, rapid clicking the power button, or shaking the phone three or four times.

Geo-fencing is another unique feature of the app, which allows users to designate safe areas, ensuring that their selected contacts will be notified when the user has entered or exited this space.


SafeTrekWalk with confidence

One of the simpler tools available, Safetrek aims to put a sense of safety quite literally into the palm of the user’s hand. After downloading the app and creating a profile, the user has only to open the app when they are feeling unsafe and hold down the “safe button” and their path will be tracked using the phone’s GPS.

When the user has arrived safely at their destination, they need only to release the button and enter a PIN number to stop the tracking. In the event that the user is in trouble, local police are notified 10 seconds after the user releases the button.

On its website, Safetrek points out that the app could actually serve to help community police better allocate their resources by tracking where people most often feel unsafe. Ideally, this could create a space where the app becomes a vehicle for behavioural change at the community level.


Global SOSLet’s travel safely

While the other apps focus primarily on risk reduction or personal safety in the day-to-day sense, Global SOS focuses on personal safety while traveling. The app allows users to instantly access emergency service numbers in scores of countries, ensuring that in the event of an emergency a user can immediately contact the closest service.

In addition to emergency contact information, Global SOS has SMS and satellite mapping functions, as well as the ability to program personal contacts so that information, including the user’s exact location, can be sent out immediately. Recognizing how challenging it can be to seek out assistance when traveling abroad—Global SOS has built a tool that should help ease anxieties for even the most seasoned adventurers.

More articles by Category: Science and tech, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Sexualized violence, Gender bias



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