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 Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She writes about the people behind some of tech's most creative innovations and in-depth features on innovation and sustainability.

9 comments
kquinnIDC
kquinnIDC

As they say, ' The best defense is a good offense.'  ALWAYS be prepared.  ALWAYS be vigilant.  ALWAYS plan ahead.  These apps can be helpful backups to alert folks if you're assaulted or abducted but they will not stop an attacker.

planm
planm

Disagree with some of the pessimistic comments below. These apps will make a difference in some situations, some of the time and that's enough to make them worthwhile. No-one is making the claim that they will guarantee your safety. No security measure is going to be foolproof, it's about a combination of tools, skills and awareness to improve your safety.

And I don't think more and bigger weapons is the answer. Changing the attitudes that teach men it's OK to hurt women would make a big difference.

a.portman
a.portman

Your subheadline contradicts the headline, and all of these tools do nothing to prevent (the events to happen) attacks, they are all response tools. Perhaps attaching your iphone to the sling of an AK would work.

A technology that would teach that women alone are not targets, would be prevention.

Until then, these will have to do.

mirono
mirono

I used Familia (familia.ognius.com) for my wife and kids. Works great and also has a panic feature.

Rick Lowe
Rick Lowe

Tech has its limitations, and this is one of them.  You're trying to use technology to get you help in five or ten minutes when you have five or ten seconds - at best.  When you only have a couple of seconds to determine whether you will be a victim or a survivor, fooling around with a smartphone isn't going to do it.  Assuming the predator who has targeted you is going to let you make that call to start with - or stay near the phone if you do make that call.

The uncomfortable truth is that with only a few seconds to act, nobody you call, no kitestring, is going to get there in time to protect you before you're raped, murdered, robbed...  At best, it's a victim retrieval service.


That means your survival or failure will almost certainly be all up to you.  And unless you're a skilled mixed martial artist capable of going one on one or one on two... the technology that can make the difference is called a weapon, not a smartphone.  That weapon can be your dog, pepper spray, energy discharge weapons, a handgun... what's legal and what you're comfortable with.  The alternative is choosing to take part in the victim lottery.


It's a choice, but communication devices aren't much of a choice.

nickyA
nickyA

I lived 21 years in "communist" country, prior to Berlin Wall fall.

One of the few things I miss was the security. We could walk anywhere anytime without even thinking that we might be robbed or girls raped. Yes , there were incidents but they were very , very few. You might say also that there was possibly media blackout on crime or propaganda, but the word of mouth could not be stop by the officials.

Since so called "democracy" came there is no more save place to be, All houses have burglar protections, People live in fear as you feel. Now I live in "western" country, but I am afraid my kids will never have my childhood, Playing on the streets until late without we to worry that some perv or psycho will stalk,abduct or molest them.Walking to friends or granny's house and back alone.


I don't condone the old system at all, but the "freedom": had its price - out of control Crime, Lower education, Moral decay ...

We always discus(old friends that have been living in both systems)  that the West propaganda did its job very well to portray the western lifestyle as desired one  and "perfect" when the truth is very far. We see that the truth is far from Hollywood portrayed  images that were smuggled in East..


I think technology will not help us change but just giving us false since of security , or if I may say just shifts the solution in time.

How effective apps in real time will be, Send message or GPS location of your last known position is just comforting feeling to the possible victim . In my opinion 90% will be to little to late, Maybe just to give idea where to look for body or passed out person. It will not repel the potential perpetrators..


Not to feel save walking back home is terrible feeling. Why people don't stand together and eradicate the cause of the problem, so girl don't have to walk home with her keys ready or pepper spray, teaser.

From my point of view , no matter how "politically incorrect" might sound, we have now just too many "human" rights or may I say "anti" human rights , The people that make us feel unsaved know how to manipulate the "law" and stay out of detention because they have more rights than law abiding citizen. They have countless bails, objections, appeals for years before they can face the "might" of law ... and in between they still make us feel unsafe.

That's my 5c....


billfranke
billfranke

"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."


The world always has been and still is a dangerous place. People are no different from dogs: sometimes they're friendly and loving, and sometimes they're vicious and in the mood to attack.


Technology has evolved, but humans haven't. Maybe you've been reading the news lately? Nothing's changed in the past half century+. We still kill, rape, steal from, betray, and lie to each other each other for the same reasons we always have, and still lie to ourselves by saying that "We shouldn't have to live this way". We have no other choice. Humans are just as amoral as the rest of nature's cast of living organisms. And if you believe in any religion, we're all born evil or sinful and need to be saved from ourselves.


The idea that technology like this will help change the world is ironic. All it'll do is force us into smaller cages. Most of us don't seem to mind that, though. Especially since 9/11. So many fearful humans are willing to sacrifice whatever freedoms life used to seem to offer (I never really felt very free half a century ago before the Internet and all the high-tech toys we now have) in exchange for a false sense of security that's merely another version of  the tyranny of power that the world has to offer everyone.


Kitestring and all other programs like it are no different from carrying a crucifix to ward off vampires, It works when there are no vampires around. But, hey, if it makes you feel better, use it. That's what opiates for the masses are all about: the mere perception of personal safety, not the reality of personal safety. Anything possible can happen, but the chances are that probably nothing will. Unless you now live in Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia or northern Nigeria or Uganda.


I make a living and otherwise survive because of the benefits of technology. I'm daily frustrated and thwarted by its limits. But I would never trust technology to save my life in such a situation, just to notify someone else that I'm having an emergency. By the time they arrive to help me, I'll probably already be dead.


The fearful and the paranoid will pay anything for peace of mind, but they will never find it. 

Joe Wojciechowski
Joe Wojciechowski

Articles that are just about 'the technology' are too common. I love seeing how technology directly helps people and affects society in ways we wouldn't think. Raising awareness is a a great example.

darudmon
darudmon

@planm While I really want to agree with you on principle, and Rick may sound pessimistic, he's right about the limited amount of time a potential victim has to act before becoming a victim. I'm no security expert, but I'll just throw an idea out there. Maybe a 2 pronged approach of pepper spray or stun gun(to buy some time), with a smartphone app that immediately sends your location to the cops using the GPS on your phone, BUT activated with, say, a smart watch. Because the perpetrator might make knocking that smartphone out of your hand the first thing he does.

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