Women in Science

Phone App Puts Friends and Safety a Tap Away

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Location-based technology allows smartphone users to instantly tell friends when and where something is going wrong. Developers have been concentrating on college students but some are starting to aim at younger ages, when abuse often starts.



Two safety apps, Bipper and Circle of 6

Two safety apps, Bipper and Circle of 6

 

 

Credit: Images courtesy of Bipper; Circle of 6.

(WOMENSENEWS)--Ask six friends to be your safety team. Enter their contact information by selecting their names from your smartphone's address book.

Then hope to never have to use this software application. But if you're feeling threatened or even just a bit leery, tap one of three icons.

That will send a text message to the half-dozen friends with a link to your exact GPS location. Depending on what you've arranged, your message could summon a ride or spur someone to make a call to interrupt an uneasy situation.

"Preventing violence is a community effort," said Nancy Schwartzman, one of the developers of Circle of 6, an iPhone app designed for college students who might feel apprehensive while walking home late from the library, leaving a party or in the middle of a bad date.

Since its launch in March, the app has been downloaded more than 30,000 times, free of charge.

"We feel it's important to not monetize safety," said Schwartzman, a New York-based filmmaker and activist who has been working to end gender-based violence for over 15 years.

The prototype won first place in November 2011 in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' national Apps Against Abuse Challenge, designed to bolster mobile telephones as safety devices.

The app was developed by four individuals from around the United States.

Schwartzman, who lives in Brooklyn, got the team going. After hearing about the State Department contest that previous summer, she called up Deb Levine in Oakland, Calif., founder and executive director of Information Sexuality Information Services or ISIS.

Levine brought in developer Christine Corbett Moran, an M.I.T. graduate who codes mobile apps and was studying in Zurich at the time. Schwartzman then brought on Thomas Cabus, a colleague in San Francisco with whom she'd worked on film project to design the user interface.

After winning the challenge, the team worked on a prototype for release, which was launched earlier this year in March.

Rescue and Prevention

The app isn't just about getting rescued.

It's also about preventing problems and providing information. One quick tap sets up a text to a user's circle linking them to a site on healthy relationships and also gives easy access to sexual assault and relationship abuse hotlines. Users also have the option to send the text to one or a select few in their circle before hitting send.

All the developers of the app were women, an example for Schwartzman of why it is "so critical that women are in the coding field."

The developers are releasing an Android version of the app on Sept. 6, aimed at college students who are getting back to campus.

Circle of 6 developers are hoping to develop a mobile app for younger users who are less likely to have smartphones.

Among adult victims of violence by an intimate partner, 22 percent of women and 15 percent of men first experienced some form of partner violence when they were between 11 and 17 years of age, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Range of Apps

Circle of 6 is one of more than 40 iPhone apps designed to enhance women's personal safety. Apps range from a safety alarm that can set off with a simple tap to providing links and resources on dating safety.

For Bipper, an app developer based in Bergen, Norway, a safety tool for women evolved from an existing design for kids.

Bipper's founder, Silje Vallestads, began looking for a safety solution for her child after she realized there wasn't one. Having no experience in the technology sector, she entered a business plan competition and won $20,000 seed money to start the project.

Her creation, BipperKids, launched in 2010. The app includes a safety alarm button that calls the primary guardian and sends a text with the user's GPS location. Instead of texting a friend and relying on him or her to make a call--the community-minded basis of Circle of 6--this app simulates a fake call directly.

"[Mothers] liked the safety alarm as a security feature if they are going to go for jogs or for walks or out at night and they actually encouraged us to look at that as a separate product altogether," said Nils Knagenhjelm, Bipper's executive vice president of business development, in a phone interview.

Knagenhjelm said developers used feedback from young mothers, older mothers with college-aged children and female staff members to create bSafe for women. The app launched last summer and has 100,000 downloads. It is available for iPhone, Blackberry and Android phones. It allows a user to check in with key contacts when arriving home safely and lets guardians follow you via your GPS location. Most features on bSafe are free but a few are available for a monthly or annual fee.

Mixed Uses

Knagenhjelm said that both men and women use the app. He uses the app on long bike rides, to ensure he can be located in case of an accident or emergency. He said couples with elderly parents are starting to use the app, especially if a parent has Alzheimer's, to ensure they can get home safely. The company is designing a similar app for seniors.

Both of these apps advise users to choose guardians carefully to ensure this location-based technology isn't used to harm instead of help.

Developers of general location-based apps are also often safety conscious.

FriendThem, an app developed in 2010 by a New York-based team, deploys location technology to show Facebook users other users in their vicinity. A key safety feature is "hiding spots." This allows a user to suppress her location when she is somewhere she might not want widely known.

"The safety and privacy issues were a main concern to us at FriendThem from the beginning of the design process," Liron Fishman, the developer of the app, said in an email interview. "Minimizing women's exposure to others, while using our application was very important to us."

Sadiya Ansari is a Pakistani-Canadian freelance journalist, currently reporting from New York.

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