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