apps against violence and abuse
The Good Wife has put a fair bit on our plates issues-wise. And amongst all that tightly written wit and too-clever law talk, this season offered up a new tech miracle capable of solving crimes and protecting women – the humble personal safety app.
The question of ‘safety’ of women in party or date situations is multifaceted: issues of class, place, harassment and consent all play a role in this idea that women need to watch themselves when they’re out alone or with strangers. But the notion of keeping safe on the streets is one that affects men too, and concerns have given rise to a new kind of technology. It involves taking concept of the ‘rape whistle’ and the speed of smartphones and uses (often pink) graphics to give the night back to ladies and gents.
Late last year the White House launched the Apps against Abuse competition, in which entrants were invited to submit smartphone application software designs to ‘empower young adults to prevent abuse and violence’. The judging criteria was related to things like ‘Real time check-in’ and ‘Connection to Domestic Violence Resources’, but the White House was leading with this message: young people should be provided with incentives to fight the prevalence of dating violence and sexual assault in the USA.
The competition lauded two winners: OnWatch and Circle of 6, both programs designed for iPhone which allow a user to connect quickly with trusted friends or emergency services if they get into trouble during a date or other situation which finds them alone. Both programs give the option to pre-install emergency contacts, with two taps of your iPhone screen alerting them, or emergency services, of your GPS co-ordinates and what help you require.
These models are not alone, nor is the idea that your smartphone can act as a protection against violence or harassment. Various programs have been in development for the last couple of years, with the publicity surrounding the above two apps cementing them firmly in the minds of many as another tool for safety at night. While many prototypes are geared towards women of university age, there are several options on the market that are more gender neutral, like PanicGuard, which claims to boost confidence for anyone who’s in a potentially dangerous situation.
In a climate that seemingly provides an app for every social problem, GPS tracking by friends and family isn’t always viewed with total confidence. Indeed the misuse of such applications has become a rather predictable trope in the television world, to a point where some may view personal safety applications as a step too far. What these apps might instead point to is an online acknowledgment of street harassment, assault and date related violence, and a willingness to face these issues in a forum that’s simple and accessible to youth.
Critics remain, and their worries look to be about taking risks and the simplification of issues like harassment and sexual assault. What if iPhone applications made people so overconfident that they took risks while out alone, thinking that their phones would prevent unsafe situations? While those on the receiving end of violence and harassment never ‘ask’ to be subject to such things, can a computer program take the place of watching out for friends and buddying up in person in unfamiliar situations?
When it has been reinforced in Australia that girls and women are at most risk of violence at home and from people they know, the idea that an app can fight abuse on a wide scale is perhaps a bit of a stretch.Then there’s the unpredictability of software – could a poor app design cause one to accidentally raise the alarm while using a phone normally, creating a ‘boy who cried wolf’ situation?
Yet for those who’ve adopted the technology, it appears that confidence is the number one reason for signing up in the first place. Reviews of satisfied families and students point to users feeling comfortable in situations that provide minor risks everyday, such as travelling alone on public transport or exercising outside without a friend. “It’s about having that little piece of mind, to know that you can discreetly get help if you need to,” one writer suggests in a review. The idea of alerting authorities of a problem discreetly is particularly attractive to a wide range of age groups – the ‘one tap’ activation of most apps is one-up on mobile phones, which can’t be used without being obvious.
Broadly, the aim seems to be more about alerting assistance quietly should you feel you need it, whatever may have happened. Whether useful on their own or with other tools, the concept of personal safety has well and truly collided with those smart gadgets we spend so much time with. The sentiment that goes with it (Circle of 6′s tagline is “I won’t let violence happen in my circle!”) acknowledges the prevalence of violence and makes raising the alarm acceptable, even if it doesn’t eliminate problems entirely.