Last summer, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services posed a challenge to app developers across the nation – to create an app designed to help prevent domestic and sexual violence against women. The winners of the Apps Against Abuse challenge were announced last November, and, after further development to be in compliance with privacy standards, are set to be available for download sometime early this year.
Circle of 6 is laudable for its clear presentation and ease of use. Circle of 6 gives users six contacts represented by pictures that can be pressed easily from the app’s home screen. Users can select six of their most trusted people from their address books to add to their circle. The people are represented by six icons on the home screen, while a large button in the middle brings up a menu for actions. Users can ask members of their circle to pick them up, call them to provide an escape outlet from an uncomfortable situation, or let them know they are seeking more information about violence prevention. The information referred to in that last option comes from ISIS, The Line Campaign, RAINN, and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The first feature sends the Circle of 6 GPS information from the phone, a feature that can be enabled and disabled by the user at will. The key feature for all three options is that the communication is handled through ready-made SMS messages – two taps and the user can call for help silently and quickly. Lastly, an emergency button links users directly to the Love is Respect and RAINN crisis hotlines.
OnWatch is packed with more functionality, and is directed at planning and reacting to crisis situations. The Watch My Back feature lets users create timed alerts that will notify trusted friends of any trouble. Before going out at night, the user can compose a message detailing where they plan on being for the night. The user sets a time limit for the alert that can be cancelled later if the user doesn’t run into trouble. If time runs out, trusted contacts selected by the user will receive the composed message and GPS information from the user’s phone. The Panic button is for immediate crises. The Panic button can be brought up on the phone’s home screen in advance if the user thinks they might be in a dangerous place. If the user feels threatened, he or she can double-tap the panic button, which will automatically call 911 and send a distress message to trusted contacts. Again, GPS information will be transmitted to those contacts. Alternately, users can choose to only contact 911 or campus police, if the campus police phone number has been programmed into the app ahead of time. I’m Here is a check-in feature that keeps friends updated on the user’s location throughout the night, but is controlled by the user, rather than automated. Audible alarms and a flashlight round out the features of OnWatch. Access to domestic and sexual violence resources is also built-in. If the user chooses, alerts can be published publicly on Facebook and Twitter.
Both apps are solid contributions in the effort to address the scourge of sexual and domestic violence, but it should be noted that both apps, for the most part, apply to a very specific at-risk demographic. Potential victims of random violence may find the app useful, but it is estimated that 77% of all cases of sexual violence are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. It’s hard to imagine this app being useful in those kinds of crisis situations, though it’s not outside the realm of possibility. For those who find themselves in danger of random or spontaneous acts of violence, though, both apps are tools that could be crucial for the user someday – reason enough to warrant their existence. At the very least, they do no harm, and the inclusion of links to resources and educational information about sexual violence is key in getting potential victims to understand the risks they face.
That said, the Watch My Back feature of OnWatch could backfire, if not used carefully. Many college students who frequently go out to parties don’t stay in one place for the whole night. And, with alcohol and excitement, it could be all too easy to forget about that alarm ticking away until it’s too late. It’s a well-intentioned feature, but it needs to be used carefully. False alarms recall the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and that could create a different kind of danger to the user. Trusted contacts could start to take alerts less seriously, or the user could choose to give up on the feature altogether – neither of which represent a good result. It’s still a useful feature, but only if used with forethought and restraint.
Neither app is perfect, but both could prevent a tragedy from happening in the future to the hands of the right user, which is justification enough for their existence. If the apps succeed in educating more people about the risks of sexual violence, so much the better. Keep tabs on the links below to both apps’ home pages for release information, initially for the iPhone.