By Mary Flynn
On a single day in California, nearly 800 requests for emergency shelter went unmet, according to a 2012 domestic violence census. That was far too many left with no place to go for one team of software developers.
They created SafeNight app, now in limited pilot, which uses crowdsourcing techniques to help domestic violence organizations provide victims with temporary emergency shelter, often the first step to escaping a dangerous situation at home. According to one expert, generally that one night can make the difference in being able to connect that individual or family with resources or organizations to find a better solution. Shelters put in a request for emergency shelter, and participating donors can use the app to sponsor a night in a hotel for someone in need.
“What we’re trying to do is to make sure that anybody that is seeking safe shelter because they urgently need to get away from violence has an option, and one of those options can be hotels,” said Marnie Webb, CEO of Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup Global and developer of the SafeNight app.
The SafeNight app is the latest technology geared towards assisting domestic violence victims and their service providers. While the intent behind each of the apps is well meaning, experts warn that users need to be aware of key safety and security information before relying too much on an app’s functions.
Some apps are geared towards educating the public about domestic violence, while others, such as the Safety Siren, a product of the YWCA Canada, are focused on women’s safety. This app provides more generic information like nutrition tips, but has a subsection educating users about domestic violence. Siren Safety also has an emergency button that can sound an alarm while simultaneously sending an emergency email with approximate coordinates, and places a phone call to a pre-selected SOS number.
The R3 app is meant to educate medical professionals in hospitals, doctors’ offices and clinics to make appropriate assessments of domestic violence victims and refer them to resources that can help.
The Aspire News app, a product of the When Georgia Smiled Foundation, looks generic enough: its appearance is that of a news app, containing summaries of the top stories and headlines happening at the moment. But it has added features that victims can access discreetly, to get information, access resources, or call for help.
“All of the apps are being designed with creativity and enthusiasm, so there’s some really exciting apps out there,” said Cindy Southworth, Founder of the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).
Southworth founded the Safety Net Technology Project in 2002 to examine how technology and intimate partner violence interact and address how technology impacts abuse victims.
She warns that not all apps work the way they are intended, and relying on an untested app in an emergency situation could be dangerous. Additionally, users need to be aware of some of the safety and security concerns associated with relying on technology. It is not uncommon for offenders to install spyware on a phone or a computer and be able to track their victim’s location, see what websites they’ve visited, or see the apps they’ve downloaded.
“Inherently it is difficult to educate victims of domestic violence and stalking about domestic violence and stalking on any device that they are holding,” she said.
“We know about rampant misuse of spyware on desktop and laptop computers and we are hearing more and more about spyware on phones. So there’s just an inherent problem,” Southworth said. She pointed out that abusers want to have power and control over their victim, “therefore anything we give to a victim to be downloaded onto a phone may be observed by the offender and accidentally increase risk.”
The Safety Net Project is in the process of developing a website review center where it will discuss the pros and cons of the various domestic violence apps, as well as things for future app developers to consider. They currently publish a blog on emerging technology as it relates to domestic violence, and provide a downloadable handout that gives information that consumers need to be aware of when selecting an app.
The website review center will evaluate various criteria, including how versatile the app is across the platform of phone operating systems: does it work as well on an iPhone as it does an Android? They will consider whether the app successfully works depending on the desired features the developer envisioned and if it performs well consistently.
Southworth said they will also look at an app’s limitations, especially its security and privacy features, such as whether an app has a password or if an abuser could pick up your phone and see the victim had used the app.
In this context, an app like the Aspire News app – one that looks like a news app on the surface, but a victim can use the app to summon help – is useful. “Any time an app has two purposes, that is a good thing, especially if it’s an app that is intended to be used by victims,” Southworth said.
Discretion is key. “We don’t want it to say, ‘I’m a Victim of Domestic Violence’ app, or ‘Turn in your abuser,’ or ‘Collect evidence to prosecute,’” she said.
Southworth and her team are contacting developers to suggest specific tweaks or improvements that could be made to existing apps to make them better, but in the meantime, she is hesitant to point to any one app as a standard.
“Our goal is fabulous, solid apps that help survivors be safe and help practitioners do their jobs,” she said.
Southworth is working with the SafeNight team and a handful of California domestic violence organizations to develop their app. “We want as many tools available as possible to be available to make sure that people have safe shelter and whatever they needed,” Webb said.
Jeanne Spurr is the Executive Director of Alternatives to Violence in Red Bluff, Calif., and her organization is one of the shelters working with the SafeNight pilot program. Since they began, she estimates they have used the app to provide 24 bed nights to victims.
“SafeNight doesn’t solve the issue of domestic violence, but it does solve one whole piece of the problem: it solves, how do you get someone in an emergency bed tonight, and how can we provide that when we don’t have the resources?” Spurr said.
She said by engaging the community it helps them feel part of something important, “and they feel like, ‘I personally helped assure that a family was safe tonight,’ and I think that gives people a really good feeling,” she said.
In addition, Webb said, apps like theirs help educate a community about the scope of the problem. “We understand that a safe place to spend the night is just the first step,” she said, “there are a lot of other services that the individual or that family is going to be able to need on the road ahead.”
By giving the community an idea of the need, she said, they can make better decisions about their resources and how to support this population of survivors.
“As technologists, that’s an outstanding place for us to be, and it’s a contribution that we’re very eager to make to the field,” Webb said.