Mobility

Can tech help prevent violence against women? These tools say 'yes'

Technology can't stop violence against women, but it can change how we raise awareness about it and help prevent it.

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Kitestring is a safety service that uses SMS.
Image: Kitestring

I am a 23-year-old-woman, and when I walk alone, I get scared. Sometimes I'm absolutely terrified, and other times, I'm just slightly nervous. Call me paranoid, call me cautious, call me smart.

When I lived in Chicago, almost every evening I would walk with "911" already punched in my keypad, my thumb hovered over the "send" button. Depending on where I am or how safe I feel, I hold my keys out, poised in defense (like that would do much), carry portable pepper spray, or call my mom, who never minds being awoken at 2:00 a.m. to talk to me until she hears my door lock.

The other day, I stumbled across a service called Kitestring, and when I read about it, my jaw dropped. Because I — as a journalist and a woman, as a human being living in the 21st century — never considered that technology could ease my fears of something unthinkable happening to me while I walk down the street.

"I think we've reached a unique point in history: technology is advancing faster that our ability to dream up ways to harness it. In my opinion, the last one and half decades have seen more technological innovation than any single century of industrial progress that came before it," said Stephan Boyer, founder of Kitestring (and also currently a master's student at MIT). "But what have we done with it all? Blogging, tweeting, liking, sharing, creating and consuming content are all great ways to feel connected, but personal safety has been a bit of an afterthought."

And he's right. It is an afterthought, even for me — the target demographic, a person that thinks about this issue every day of my life.

Kitestring is a SMS-based service. Sign up online, then ask it via text message to check up on you in, say, 25 minutes when you are supposed to arrive in your destination. After 25 minutes, Kitestring will send you a text, checking to see if you made it. You reply via text or check-in online. If you don't (and you haven't extended the time or checked in early), it will send a message you created to your emergency contact, letting them know to give you a call. If your phone dies, you lose it, or something happens to you, it will send the message anyway — it doesn't need your phone to be serviceable.

Of course, this wouldn't be something I would use every time I leave my house, but knowing the technology is available is the important part, and it's good to know it could be use at particularly important or dangerous times. There's also the possibility of missing the message and creating a false emergency.

"Kitestring should have existed a long time ago. SMS has been mainstream for over a decade, and the mass adoption of smartphones began in 2007. I don't think of it as moving forward — I see it as catching up," Boyer said.

Boyer had the idea for Kitestring back in January, when his girlfriend, who walked home in an unsafe neighborhood, asked him to call to make sure she arrived home safe. With a Google search, he found some of the other apps, but noticed how clunky their interfaces were. So he created a new one. Kitestring is simple — it isn't alarmist like some others out there. So far, the service has launched in the UK and US. Low connectivity and SMS delivery rates pose the biggest obstacle for scaling the product elsewhere. Boyer said the team is also exploring the possibility of doing a "Kitestring Teams" version of the service targeted at entire organizations, families, or governments.

So what other safety apps like Kitestring are out there, helping to make a difference? Here are a few more examples (and of course, these are not only for women, they can be used by everyone):

  • Watch Over Me is a subscription-based service that notifies your contacts via text or social media if you haven't told it you're safe. With the free version, though, you can be watched for only five minutes.
  • Circle of 6, lets you pick six friends to alert if you need a ride, help, or if there's an emergency. It's designed for college students.
  • Panic Button sends a location and emergency alert to your contacts, as well as a message on your Facebook wall.
  • Stay Safe is a similar check-in service, but is possibly not password protected, according to some reviews. It costs $6.99.
  • Guardly is a subscription service designed for college campuses or employers. It sends a message and a GPS location to your contacts, campus police, or 911.

It's very difficult to measure how women are in constant fear — or at least, that we always have some looming thought in the back of our minds — when we walk alone or with a group of other women, no matter how close to home or to people we may be. There are studies about violence against women in slightly more concrete terms which are always about actions: one in six women have been stalked. One in five say they have been raped or have experienced attempted rape.

But there is one study by the General Social Survey was recently brought to light that showed women were twice as likely as men to say they were afraid of to walk in their neighborhoods alone at night.

That still doesn't explain how I choose a certain route home, or if that route actually makes me feel any safer, or why we're taught to only feel at ease when a man we know is walking with us. It also doesn't help me understand why I have to think about these types of things every single day, multiple times a day, and it doesn't make it any less frustrating.

Technology can't solve this problem, but it can change the course of how we think about it, and ultimately, how we address it as a society. Technology can make it impossible to ignore these issues. Take the trending topic #YesAllWomen, for instance.

The hashtag was first used after the Santa Barbara shootings in May, when it came out that the alleged shooter promised revenge against the women who turned him down over the years. The hashtag quickly went viral, with thousands of women engaging in an online conversation to criticize the way society teaches men to feel entitled to women, and to draw attention to scenarios that every woman, everywhere in the world, has experienced.

Here are some of the most striking examples related to walking alone:


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Twitter is an engine for activism, and this hashtag was resoundingly effective. Though trending topics are usually fleeting, this one appeared to have a bigger ripple effect.

Policy change doesn't come about very easily, and it's hard to create regulations surrounding these kinds of issues. The closest federal regulation is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which allots funds for programs that strengthen the criminal justice system's response to crimes against women. VAWA was passed and signed by President Obama in 2013 after being stalled in the House for months because of new amendments to protect Native American women, illegal immigrants, and gays and lesbians.

This is where technology comes in — when the traditional system just isn't cutting it, and when we realize that no federal regulation is going to change this engrained cultural issue. Technology allowed Malala Yousafzai to shout her story from the rooftops, making sure the world would stand up against her attackers. Technology is allowing women in India to protest more loudly, to draw attention to the horrific rapes that happen there every day. If we use social media to keep talking about it, and if we use technology as a tool for change to create even the simplest interfaces that make a difference, we're moving in the right direction.

Unfortunately, I'll never have a day where I don't look over my shoulder every time I walk out the door. No woman will. But I do sleep a little easier knowing that there are people out there in the world — and in the technology industry — that want to change that.

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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