Home White House Challenges Developers: Build Apps to Prevent Sexual Assault

White House Challenges Developers: Build Apps to Prevent Sexual Assault

Young women face the highest rate of dating violence and sexual assault, with nearly 19% – one in five – women reporting they have experienced sexual assault while in college. The Obama Administration believes that one way to help combat sexual abuse on college campuses may be through mobile phone apps, and with the Department of Health and Human Services, has announced a contest to help develop these tools to help promote student safety.

The contest is called Apps Against Abuse and its part of the administration’s Challenge.gov program, whereby the federal government issues a challenge and people build apps and crowdsourced solutions.

The challenge, in this case, is to develop apps that will give college students and other young adults “a way to connect with trusted friends in real-time to prevent abuse or violence from occurring.” Noting that these apps can serve a social function – staying in touch with friends, the emphasis should be on being able to let your friends know your whereabouts with frequent check-ins, particularly when in situations that put you at risk. Apps can also be designed to give potential bystanders the ability to get support from friends as well as resources to help them intervene safely and effectively before any abusive behavior happens.

“Everyone has a role to play in the prevention of violence and abuse,” says Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. “This application can be another way to encourage young women and men to take an active role in the prevention of dating violence and sexual assault.”

Of course, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services aren’t the organizations to come up with the idea of using mobile technology to help prevent sexual assault. WiseDame, an app that won the 2010 Techcrunch Disrupt Hackathon provided an easy way for people to share safety information – where you’ll be, when you’re planning on getting home – with friends.

Another example of an app that is using mobile technology to improve safety is Hollaback, which recently completely a successful crowdfunding campaign via Indiegogo. The Hollaback app lets users report places where they’ve experienced street harassment. The harassment can be documented with or without a picture (and the picture needn’t be of a person, mind you) and includes the type of harassment (verbal, flashing, groping, assault, etc). Each report is reviewed and each person who submits a report is contacted by the Hollaback staff and given a chance to “tell the rest of the story.” The full story is reviewed and then mapped on the organization’s website. The aim is not only to build crowdsourced maps where people often experience street harassment, but to help normalize the idea that this is something we should report.

Both the Hollaback team and now the federal government contend that mobile phones – with a camera, with texting, with apps, with mapping – can become a powerful tool for combatting sexual assault. These efforts rely on all of us – women and men, bystanders and survivors – to build and use the social networks and technologies.

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