Weekly Trend: How Tech is Fighting Back Against Sexual Assault

(This story was originally published on 1776dc.com. 1776 is a startup incubator in Washington, D.C.)

Sexual assault has long been a problem—illustrated here during the Victorian era—but new tech aims to help prevent it. (Image courtesy of Paul Townsend, Flickr / Creative Commons)

Every two minutes, another American is sexually assaulted. And while there’s no quick fix to a problem this massive, many innovative companies are brainstorming ways to take fear away from people’s everyday lives.

Walking home alone at night can be terrifying for many people. “Text me so I know you got home safely” is a prevalent parting message. Kitestring, a web-based app, takes away the need for that. Users text Kitestring with how long they think it will take to travel from point A to point B. After that amount of time, the app sends a text to ensure safe arrival. Users can then respond with “Ok” to confirm, or if Kitestring doesn’t hear back, it sends out an alert message to one’s emergency contacts.

Kitestring is free, and its basis in text messages means that it does not require a smartphone, making it accessible to a wide audience. Of course, there’s the chance of a false positive if a user forgets to reply or if his or her phone dies, but considering the alternative, it seems worth that risk.

But gender-based violence doesn’t only happen at night. Street harassment—which can refer to catcalling, flashing, groping, following someone and so on—is experienced by at least 65 percent of women at some point in their lives. Founded in 2005, Hollaback! is a national nonprofit and blog combatting this epidemic. Their blog is a place of open dialogue in which women can share their personal stories of street harassment.

In 2013, Hollaback! released an app in New York City as an extension of their movement. When users are faced with street harassment, they can use the app to plot their location on a map with a description of what transpired, as well as a picture of the harasser. Users even have the option to submit the report to the city council and mayor’s office. The app is still only available in New York, but Hollaback! leaders hope to expand to other cities soon. While reporting incidents of street harassment through the app is unlikely to lead to criminal prosecution, it can embolden women by serving as a reminder that they have the right to feel secure wherever they go.

“The main goal of creating our Whistl case was for people to have a digital way to issue a cry for help,” said CEO and Cofounder Jayon Wang in their Kickstarter video. “We want people to be able to say ‘I need help, I need it now, and here’s where I am.’”

Another startup,Lifeshel, has invented an iPhone case called theWhistl, which is designed to aid in self-defense in the face of immediate danger. With two clicks of a button—no passcode necessary—the Whistl emits an alarm “as loud as being front row at a rock concert” and a light bright enough to temporarily blind an attacker, the website states. It also alerts emergency contacts and the police, and starts recording audio and video immediately upon activation. The case is designed to be easy to use—without being easy to accidentally set off in a handbag.

The Whistl phone case, shown here, will ship in July 2015 if it reaches its Kickstarter goal. (Photo courtesy of LIfeshel)

Of course, technology is no substitute for education and policy initiatives that fight to end sexual violence. Ninety-seven percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail, and still many people believe that a large number of victims lie about being raped (false accusations actually only account for about 2 to 8 percent of reports).

However, tech can—and will—help keep many people safe. There’s a whole world of possibility for these kinds of new technologies: more innovations created specifically for people without smartphones, as well as ideas to support survivors in seeking treatment and streamlining the reporting process.

We will never live in a world where everyone is free from the threat of violence, nor should a startup expect to achieve that. But if these innovations help to make any person feel safer and more empowered in his or her everyday life? That’s true startup success.

Weekly Trend: Health Technology That’s Not Just for the Young and Hip

(This story was originally published on 1776dc.com. 1776 is a startup incubator in Washington, D.C.)

Senior citizens and technology don’t always mesh too well. After all, the Internet can be a mystifying place for a generation that grew up without it.

However, a few innovative companies are looking to use technology to improve quality of life for the elderly. Let’s take a look.

1. Safeguarding wandering Alzheimer’s patients

Alzheimer’s disease is a growing epidemic, currently ranking as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Over half of affected people are prone to wandering, and the fear of a sick loved one going missing can be especially taxing for caregivers.

Google Science Fair finalist, 15-year-old Kenneth Shinozuka, knows this all too well—his grandfather has Alzheimer’s and frequently wanders. In order to keep his grandfather safe and take stress off of his family, he invented a sensor that can detect wandering and notify caregivers. Worn in a sock, the pressure of a patient’s foot hitting the floor when they should be in bed instantly sends an alert to the caregiver’s smartphone.

The results are impressive. Out of the 437 times Shinozuka’s grandfather wandered in a six-month period, his invention sent alerts within a second 100 percent of the time. There were zero false alarms.

2. Taking fear away from tablet use

It may seem like we’ve been using tablets forever, but they really only gained widespread popularity when the Apple iPad was released—just four years ago. Technology this new can, understandably, feel unapproachable to senior citizens. The solution? A tablet made with the needs of technophobes in mind.

The RealPad, created by AARP, meets this need. Apps are simple and streamlined. Users can reach 24/7 troubleshooting support from a real person on the phone. And for those who avoid technology because it’s too expensive, the RealPad retails at just $199. It’s tablet technology, uncomplicated.

3. Keeping seniors on their feet

A nasty fall can change an elderly person’s life in a second, possibly immobilizing him or her permanently or leading to death. A third of people aged 65 or older fall each year.

ActiveProtective is disrupting this epidemic. This Philadelphia-based startup has invented a wearable airbag for senior citizens who are at risk for falls. Worn as a belt, it detects a fall as soon as it’s happening, causing the airbag to inflate and cushion the impact.

This healthcare innovation could allow older adults to live safely, independently and without fear. Still, ActiveProtective will have to keep in mind the aesthetic of the airbag belt. If it is too bulky or unsightly, it may have difficulty catching on with potential customers.

4. Paving the way for future innovation

Aging 2.0 is a startup hub with a focus in innovations that assist older adults. Based in San Francisco, the entrepreneurs are thinking up the freshest ideas to make life a little better for the over-50 crowd. It was founded in response to the lack of new ideas the founders noticed among products and services targeted at the elderly.

“The past products for seniors have been what we call big, beige and boring,” said Aging 2.0 founder Katy Fike on PBS NewsHour.

Aging 2.0 recently launched a one-year accelerator program, called Aging 2.0 Academy. It is the organization’s second such accelerator for startups “revolutionizing the experience of aging, and using scalable technology and great design to transform areas such as ‘activities of daily living’, memory care, end of life, fall prevention, mobility, care transitions, caregiver support, social engagement and later-life health and wellness.”

Out of Aging 2.0, many businesses have formed. For instance, they’ve helped to launch Sabi, a company designing more visually appealing canes, pill boxes and more.

Most people may think of startups as hip and flashy, but innovation is more than just a young persons’ game. These companies are grabbing a huge market opportunity by reaching a demographic that tech hasn’t reached before.

Fingerprinting Technology Could Boost Global Infant Vaccination Rates

(This story was originally published on 1776dc.com. 1776 is a startup incubator in Washington, D.C.)

Each year, 2.4 million children die as a result of diseases they could have easily been vaccinated against. But that’s easier said than done in developing countries, where most of these child mortalities occur.

A Michigan State Professor, Anil Jain, has a plan to disrupt this crisis. He’s developing a fingerprint scanner that will monitor infant immunization schedules to ensure they receive the right shots at the right time.

“Without a high vaccination coverage in a country or geographical region, these deadly diseases take a heavy toll on children,” said Jain in the study. “Therefore, it is important for an effective immunization program to keep track of children who have been immunized.”

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is that paper records frequently get lost, and many people (especially children) in low-income countries do not have any form of legal identification. When your medical history is quite literally at your fingerprints, that problem vanishes.

Another major challenge is that in some developing nations, the vaccine wastage rates are remarkably high. According to VaxTrac, a nonprofit that focuses on improving immunization practices around the world, “for every $100 in new vaccines purchased, $50 will never go into the arm of a child in need.” With better ways to track who has or hasn’t been immunized, fewer supplies end up being wasted.

Previously, most biometrics scientists didn’t think accurately documenting young fingerprints was possible. Small fingers means tiny, difficult to read fingerprints, and wet fingers from thumb sucking can disturb the recording. Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s no small task to get a small child to keep still for more than a few seconds. But Jain’s scanner, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was made specifically with these young patients in mind.

To test his innovation, Jain went with his research team to Benin, West Africa. They scanned the thumb and index fingers of small children at a rural health clinic and used the collected data to create immunization schedules. The information is then stored in a vaccination registry system for easy accessibility. Just one swipe of a finger, and a patient’s medical history is at the ready. This will save lives, simply because it makes medical care simple and streamlined.

The ability to keep track of children’s fingerprints has broad implications. If the technology can help to store vaccination schedules, there’s nothing stopping it from keeping track of other medical information, birth certificates and more. There’s no end to the possibilities.

“Vaccine-preventable diseases continue to take a heavy toll on children in geographical regions and countries without a high immunization coverage,” said Jain. “For improving the immunization coverage, an effective immunization program needs to keep track of the vaccination schedule of children.”


How Do Utilities Innovate?

(This story was originally published on 1776dc.com. 1776 is a startup incubator in Washington, D.C.)

Clean energy such as solar power benefits a lot of people—plants and animals, too, for that matter—but it has long posed quite the threat to the existence of utilities companies. Now, as more people make the switch to powering their homes the Earth-friendly way, utilities must find new ways to incentivize customers to stay on the grid.

Some of the smartest solutions are the simplest, such as helping customers understand the cost of their energy use—both financial and environmental.

Opower, a software-as-a-service company, does this in a particularly inventive way. They provide households with detailed reports that compare homeowners’ own energy-consumption levels with the levels of their neighbors. Conserve more electricity than the family across the street, and you just might get a smiley face on your report.

“In most places, utility regulation hasn’t changed much since Thomas Edison,” Opower founder Alex Laskey said in a TED Talk. “Utilities are still rewarded when their customers waste energy. They ought to be rewarded for helping their customers save it.”

The idea came from a behavioral science study conducted at Arizona State University and California State University in which students hung a sign on every door in the neighborhood. All of the signs encouraged citizens to limit their air conditioning use, but they weren’t all the same. Each sign had one of four messages: One cited the specific amount of money they would save; one said it would protect the Earth from greenhouse gases; and another invoked responsibility to conserve resources for future generations. The fourth one employed social pressure, saying that most people in the neighborhood were already doing their part and switching off their air conditioners.

Guess which one made the impact.

As it turns out, keeping up with the Joneses is quite the motivator when it comes to conserving power. Rather than lose ecologically-minded customers, utilities companies are tapping into companies such as Opower to keep them around.

Of course, that might not be enough to convince the most environmentally conscious individuals who are choosing to go off the grid entirely. As solar panels go up, utility sales to those houses take a nosedive. So, how do utilities companies still profit off of these people? That’s where electric cars come in.

1776 explored this trend in depth last week, but here’s a great case study: Sempra Energy, a utilities company in San Diego, wants to bolster sales by installing 5,000 electric car chargers around the city. This project would increase access to chargers considerably, thus encouraging Californians to drive electric cars. It’ll cost $100 million, a bill that customers will foot for about 40 cents per month.

Eco-friendly citizens and utilities companies would both win—air quality would improve, and Sempra Energy would bring in more money. However, the project has received opposition for ignoring a key population. Electric cars are owned almost exclusively by high-income individuals, yet those who earn less would still pay for it in their electric bill.

As clean energy disrupts utilities, opportunities arise for savvy startups to step in and help large companies. Partnering with utilities can be a big step for a small business.

FCC Chairman: Broadband Competition Is Key for Innovation

(This story was originally published on 1776dc.com. 1776 is a startup incubator in Washington, D.C.)

In a speech yesterday at 1776, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler announced new plans to push for more competition between broadband providers, calling the current environment “lacking” of “meaningful competition.”

“Americans need more competitive choices for faster and better Internet connections, both to take advantage of today’s new services and to incentivize the development of tomorrow’s innovations,” he said to a packed room of policy makers and entrepreneurs.

During his speech, Wheeler expressed strong beliefs that public policy should protect consumers and accelerate innovation, not stifle it. Incentivizing competition will set the bar set higher for broadband quality. It should also precede government regulation, he said.

“This is the country that invented the Internet,” Wheeler said. “The future starts here in the United States of America.”

According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 75 percent of Americans have two or more choices of Internet providers if they want 4 Mbps access. Although this is the FCC’s definition of high-speed Internet, Wheeler criticized it as hugely outdated, calling it “yesterday’s broadband.” For comparison’s sake, a single high-definition video requires at least 5 Mbps to download.

 (Source: FCC.gov)

Most Americans only have two choices of network providers, though urban-dwellers are significantly better off. They are three times more likely to have access to high-speed broadband than those who live in rural areas. With a technology gap that wide, education and business can take a serious hit.

“As bandwidth needs increase, we cannot tolerate the broadband digital divide getting larger,” he said.

To start moving forward, Wheeler laid out a four-point action plan, which he called the “Agenda for Broadband Competition.”

“First, where competition can exist, we will encourage it…Second, where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it,” he said. “Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it … Fourth, where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband.”

The effects of improved bandwidth would be felt across the country, but they would be especially advantageous for tech startup founders such as Tyler Feret. Feret is the founder of Meridix Webcast Network, a business that provides schools and organizations with the tools to broadcast their own sports games, in essence, a do-it-yourself ESPN.

“If you look at the way that our business has grown, it’s basically been exactly in parallel with the way that broadband has grown. We’re audio-video, so the faster that gets on the customer’s end, the more services we can provide,” Feret said. “Any competition within that market, it gives people more choice. It increases the speed. If we had to be locked into an office to get these speeds, we probably wouldn’t exist as a company.”

Feret had the chance to meet with Wheeler following the chairman’s speech to discuss how increased broadband competition would help startups such as his.

Wheeler acknowledged his goals are lofty, though he said he feels confident they are achievable.

“The work of the Commission to implement this Agenda will never be done,” he said. “New technologies, innovation, and market developments will continually redefine the reality of broadband service. Our goal is that whatever the new realities may be, competition is the North Star.”

Binge-Watching Guilt Is Self-Fulfilling

(This story originally appeared on New York Magazine’s “The Science of Us” blog.)

So, that post-work Netflix binge — you know, the one that feels so good until you’re shame-spiraling into your eighth consecutive episode of Orange Is the New Black? You can stop feeling guilty about it. Or that’s the takeaway from a new study published in the Journal of Communication, at least.

Previous studies on the psychological effects of media use as a form of relaxation have often contradicted one another. Some have hypothesized that they facilitate mental recovery from stress, while others have found that they cause people to feel guilty, depressed, and frustrated. The new study adds a bit of nuance.

“We are beginning to better understand that media use can have beneficial effects for people’s well-being, through media-induced recovery,” said professor Leonard Reinecke of Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in a press release.

The researchers found that watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the web can help you psychologically unwind, but the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to see it as procrastination rather than innocent battery-recharging. The guilt that follows can deplete the positive effects of your media use, thus rendering the chill time less beneficial. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy — the more you think watching TV is a waste of time, the more it will feel like a waste of time.

“Our present study … demonstrates that in real life, the relationship between media use and well-being is complicated and that the use of media may conflict with other, less pleasurable but more important duties and goals in everyday life,” said Reinecke. “We are starting to look at media use as a cause of depletion. In times of smartphones and mobile Internet, the ubiquitous availability of content and communication often seems to be a burden and a stressor rather than a recovery resource.”

So go ahead, click that “next episode” button. You might still be stressed afterward, but if there’s nothing you can do to fix that, might as well finish season two.

Why We Love Drunk Food

(This story and accompanying video originally appeared on New York Magazine’s “The Science of Us” blog. This was also my first published video.)

Chicken nuggets are delicious. Chicken nuggets, when you’re drunk, taste like hearing “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time. But what explains the power of these insatiable drunk munchies, a.k.a. “drunchies”? Why, regardless of our best dietary intentions, do we so often find ourselves headed straight to the Easy Mac or doughnuts when we’re under the influence?

Plenty of sober people crave junk food, of course, but booze ratchets up these cravings by messing with your blood-sugar levels. When your liver is all tied up processing excessive alcohol levels, it can interfere with normal blood-sugar production, resulting in a dip in your blood-sugar level (kind of ironic, considering how sugar-packed your cranberry-vodka is) that causes you to crave foods that will bring it back up. Doing so with an apple rather than buffalo wings is challenging under the best of circumstances, but when your inhibitions are lowered, you’re even more likely to choose whatever’s quick and satisfying in that moment.

Researchers at Northwestern University demonstrated this in one particularly delicious experiment. They left two groups of subjects, one drunk and one sober, with unlimited ice cream and told them they could eat as much as they wanted. The drunk group ate a lot more of the ice cream, and this held true even when the subjects ingested the alcohol unknowingly (quite an experiment …), suggesting it wasn’t simply about social or cultural norms pertaining to alcohol and food. Rather, the researchers argued, alcohol simply makes people more relaxed, and when people are relaxed, they’re more likely to indulge. The blood-sugar thing and the lowered-inhibitions thing, then, are a potent one-two punch straight to the face of healthy eating.

There’s also the simple fact that post-drinking food consumption tends to be strongly associated with fun. If you have happy memories of a post-party visit from Domino’s, you’re more likely to call again the next time you’re in a similar (drunken) situation. This phenomenon is best explained by operant conditioning, a type of learning in which a stimulus evokes a behavior which leads to a consequence, thus reinforcing the behavior (think lab rats, levers, and sugar cubes).

“The stimulus is a party environment including intoxication, the behavior is ordering pizza (a few times) at or after a party, and the consequence equals a good time socially (since the party continues, plus pizza is simply the food of the gods),” said University of Wisconsin-Whitewater psychology professor Meg Waraczynski in an email. “Therefore, ordering pizza or whatever in the party environment is reinforced. Do this enough times, and being intoxicated becomes a trigger for ordering pizza.” Or for dollar slices, or McDonald’s, or whatever else.

Of course, you can only analyze this stuff for so long before you want to go directly to the source: drunk eaters themselves. So Science of Us approached a bunch of revelers in Times Square at 2 a.m. on a Saturday and asked about their drunchie habits:

(Watch the video here.)