Carnegie Mellon students developing safety apps

Just three weeks after Silje Vallestad launched the personal security app bSafe in her native Norway, the app had 50,000 users. By October 2012, one year after launch, it had 150,000 users in a country of 5 million, and nearly 10 percent of the country’s women ages 15 to 35.

Ms. Vallestad immigrated to the United States one year later, formed a Palo Alto-based startup with 15 employees and launched bSafe in America in January. It’s since been taken up by thousands.

The app is one of a growing set of modern technologies being applied to the age-old problem of security. Applications such as bSafe can automatically alert close contacts and emergency services if a user fails to check in after a set amount of time, triggering silent alarms or sirens, and even surreptitiously recording audio and video evidence for later use by law enforcement.

Buoyed by increased national and international attention to sexual violence, smartphone safety apps have been seized on by users as a simple solution to a daunting problem. A whole cadre of entrepreneurs from Norway to India to Pittsburgh have developed products that can remotely alert friends and family when an emergency is detected.

Two student groups at Carnegie Mellon University’s Integrated Innovation Institute recently developed applications aimed at curtailing sexual assault through a new approach: bystander intervention. The applications, NightOwl and Spot, were developed during a spring capstone course for graduate students in engineering, business and design.

“Both teams, on their own, drove toward the bystander route,” said John Cagan, co-director of the Integration Innovation Institute, a joint initiative from the colleges of business, engineering and design, and professor of the course that spurred the two applications. “Other applications put it on the individual to prepare for something, as opposed to situations, especially college situations, where there’s alcohol involved.”

Spot and NightOwl, which are not yet commercially available, are designed to make it easy for bystanders to intervene anonymously — freeing both them and the potential victims of fears of backlash.

Spot, which is geared toward fraternities and other groups throwing large parties, is described as “an integrated risk management system between a mobile application and wearable technology.” Event organizers can use the application to send invitations and manage guests. Users with the application may anonymously report suspicious activity to a party overseer, who is alerted by both the application and a vibrating wristband.

NightOwl is also event based, embedding intervention capabilities within a music-and-message center for guests that integrates social networks such as Facebook and Spotify. A prototype for NightOwl shows options for contacting 911, the party host or campus services. Those are tucked amid music, photo and message sharing tools.

“Other apps are meant to be used by a potential victim of an attack. This method of prevention is not ideal because the onus is on the victim, which can play into a victim-blaming mentality,” said Michael Bojanowski, a founder of NightOwl who completed his MBA at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business in May.

“Most college situations stem from fairly ambiguous situations, often with alcohol and illicit drugs, and students are often not in the right mindset.”

Both the founders of Spot and NightOwl independently decided to emphasize bystander intervention after reading current research, interviewing college students and talking to psychiatrists and experts. Fear of consequences and social exclusion can lead some partygoers to avoid stepping in, so the services seek to reduce that burden through anonymous reporting.

“Ideally, you would just intervene,” said Mr. Bojanowski. Until then, applications like NightOwl can be helpful, he said.

To be effective, both applications require many people to actively use them. And that could be a challenge, because of competition with other services and the challenges in marketing to a large enough network.

Kitestring, a service that reminds users to check in via text after a predetermined amount of time and alerts emergency contacts if a check-in is missed, currently has 73,000 users.

“It was originally for my girlfriend and female college students,” said Stephan Boyer, founder of Kitestring and a graduate student in computer science at MIT. “I wanted it to be free. Safety should be something you can afford.”

Since Kitespring operates by text message, it does not require a smartphone to use. “Emergency contacts don’t have to be on the app. It also can provide email alerts, so it can be used by people who don’t have cell phones at all,” said Mr. Boyer. Kitestring operates in the U.S. and the U.K., with plans to expand to Canada and India.

Ms. Vallestad’s company, bSafe, is a data-based application and has taken off in India, where a number of gang rapes were prominently covered by Indian and international media. “India is actually our biggest market, with 1,500 new users a day,” said Ms. Vallestad.

Both Ms. Vallestad and Mr. Boyer said their services have been taken up by surprising user bases.

“It was originally for single women ages 15 to 35, but we’ve increasingly seen families use it to locate family members, Realtors use it for private viewings, and companies use it to keep track of their workers. Young, tech-savvy seniors are using this as well,” said Ms. Vallestad.

“Lots of different demographics began using it: Mountain hikers, bikers, online daters,” said Mr. Boyer.

Both NightOwl and Spot have filed for patents, but future development into commercially available products remains uncertain.

Full-scale development of just one of the applications would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Mr. Cagan.

Idrees Kahloon:, (412) 263-2743 or @ikahloon.

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