Can safety wearables really stop crimes against women?

Personal safety wearables development and adoption is on the rise with a range of wearable safety devices on the market like NimbRevolar and Siren.

Their common thread is that they aim to enable the user to get help in situations where their personal safety is at risk but sending an alert to pre-selected friends or family, typically a text message which indicates that the wearer has activated their device, along with their GPS coordinates. The underlying premise is not new — panic buttons have been around for some time.

But now they have become smaller, wearable and marketed to women in the case of unsafe situations.

See also: Emergency personal wearables use on the rise

ROAR for Good created its first product, Athena, to create a simple way for women to get help. It’s a discreet wearable that can be attached to a purse or worn as a necklace and has two capabilities: the activation of a loud alarm when the user presses a button, along with the corresponding alert to pre-determined contacts, and a silent mode so that Athena still sends information to contacts, using Twilio SMS, without making a sound.

I spoke with CEO Yasmine Mustafa about ROAR for Good and Athena and learnt that the idea came about while talking to women during an extended period of international travel:

“While I was doing

that trip, I got to know a lot of women and eventually I would learn about some kind of terrible situation where they had been abused or attacked. Then when I came back to Philadelphia, my neighbor was attacked a block from my apartment, she went out and she was attacked from behind. So, the idea was ‘hey, this is what I want to do. I want to use technology to make self-defense tools better.’ Before I started, I asked women about self-defense tools such as mace and personal alarms, if they used them, and if they didn’t then why not. Women were concerned that they could accidentally use them against themselves or that they would going to be overpowered and they could be used as a weapon against them. We also needed something that with one click you could get right away, and then something you can use to get help. We decided text messaging was the quickest way to do that and worked with Twilio to integrate SMS capabilities into Athena.”

Mustafa and her team worked hard at the functionality of Athena, offering the prototype to women in sororities and women’s shelters for critical feedback. Victim advocates, law enforcement and counsellors were consulted. She explained:

“The idea of the first mode, was just alarm mode. But when I started going and talking to women in sororities and shelters, I was surprised at the appeal of the silent mode, more than the alarm mode, especially in a threatening situation. That interested me enough and that’s why we added the silent mode, and also because 80% of attacks to women are from someone that you know.”

The main issue with personal emergency wearables

This is the crux of the contradiction of the personal safety alarm phenomenon.

They are chiefly are marketed for women in potentially unsafe situations like walking the street at night. Their creation is often reactive, instigated by a heavily reported violence crime or personal experience of the founder or their loved ones. For example, pre-wearables a slew of safety apps where created in Indian in 2012 in response to a case in New Delhi, India in 2012 where a young woman was gang-raped and brutally assaulted by six men on a moving bus.

This is at odds with two realities. Firstly, most women face violence in their own home at the hands of someone known to the victim such as a partner, family member or friend. Secondly, the victims of public crime are overwhelmingly young adult males, although the lack of crime reporting let alone prosecution makes it difficult to get accurate statistics. Despite this there are no safety devices marketing to young men, although devices such as Athena are nondescript enough that could be worn by either gender.

Further it is difficult to test the efficacy of personal safety devices. “We never had a circumstance where they had to use it right at that moment, we can’t simulate an attack, it’s not possible,” Mustafa said.

However, Athena’s strength is in its marketing for incidences of interpersonal violence beyond street violence. Mustafa noted:

“Women want to use it in situations where they think they might be at risk. We had women say: ‘I’m going on a Tinder date and I’ve already told my friend she gets a message from me that I want her to come get me out of the date or that I want her to call me’ or ‘I’m on a study date or a study group, and this guy keeps putting his hand on my thigh, and I’m too uncomfortable to say something’ or ‘I’m worried about my safety and I want her to come interrupt the situation’..” The feedback we got about the silent mode was so interesting, either women not wanting to be aggressive enough, or they are and they want to be protected by someone right there in case something happens.”

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Can family and friends really be crime fighters?

It’s worth noting that there are currently no technical capabilities that enable any personal wearable to directly call 911 in an emergency. Even car and motorcycle emergency services much go through a switchboard first. Could SMS alerts result in little more than the ineffectual actions of relatives and friends, who are presumably not trained in emergency response scenarios? Or worse, could they lead to vigilante justice scenarios rather than direct engagement with emergency professionals?

It’s easy to imagine the following scenario:

Friend: “help help, my friend is in trouble!”

911 operator: “What appears to be the trouble?”

Friend;” I have no idea but their wearable device sent me an alert. Hurry!”

Would an emergency services agency take this seriously and respond? What’s the risk?

Could these wearables be used to record evidence?

At present, safety wearables lack the means to record audio or visuals. App developers had had more success. For example the Stop and Frisk Watch App was a response to unlawful “stop and frisk” searches-an incident is recorded by pushing a trigger button on the phone.

Then there’s the award winning eyeWitness app, part of work by international humans rights activists bringing justice to those responsible for war crimes, torture or genocide in conflicts such as those in Syria, Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The app provides a means to record images and videos with the addition of a time-stamp and GPS-fixed location and further provides a safe place to store the material. The eyeWitness team then becomes an ongoing advocate for the footage, analyzing the information and working with the appropriate legal authorities to promote accountability for those who commit the worst international crimes.

Roar for Good is actually an LLC and B-corp certified, involved in work to decrease harassment and attacks against women. including a partnership with the One Love Foundation to address the underlying causes of violence against women. It’s a great case of technology for good, not just for profit.

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