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Brooklyn filmmaker working on app to help prevent sexual assault


When it comes to creating innovative apps to address municipal, environmental or social issues, the answer increasingly comes down to crowdsourcing. The public problem-solving site ChallengePost serves as a platform for innovative ideas from developers, working in areas as varied as the NYC subway system, the city's data feeds or the Surgeon General's Healthy Apps initiative.

In a recent app challenge on the site, the US Department of Health and Human Services asked developers to address the issues of sexual assault and dating violence among college-age women. With nearly one in five women reporting a sexual assault while in college, effective intervention strategies are critical to make sure that young women can get out of potentially abusive situations -- and reach out for the help they need when they need it.

The competition resulted in two winning apps, both of which are now moving into the development phase. OnWatch, the first winner, is a customized version of the existing subscription-based personal alerts app WatchMe 911. WatchMe 911 is free to download from the App Store and offers different pricing levels depending on the features you need.

OnWatch/WatchMe puts a comprehensive set of assault prevention resources into one app. The app includes options to call friends, alert contacts to your location, send SMSes automatically if you don't cancel them at a predetermined time, and more. The app's design isn't obfuscated in any way, so someone watching your phone will know that you're calling for help (or broadcasting your location); this might serve as a deterrent.

The other winning app, Circle of 6, takes a much simpler approach to the challenge of communication in a potentially dangerous situation. It asks you to select six trusted contacts that you could call on for assistance if you found yourself in trouble. Once they're in place, a tap on the center button gives three clear options: Car, Call or Chat.

The car button means "come get me" -- it sends out an SMS with your location and a pickup request, asking for assistance getting home safely. The Call button also sends an SMS, but asking for a return call to interrupt a worsening encounter. The Chat button requests advice and information, which will also link to resources on sexual assault. Since Circle of 6 doesn't telegraph its function through its UI the way that OnWatch does, the app can be used surreptitiously even in situations where a potential assailant is keeping an eye on the phone.

[In an unfortunate coincidence, the Circle of 6 app shares its name -- but not its subject matter -- with a book about the murder of an NYPD officer in the 1970s.]

Circle of 6 is the work of a four-person team led by Brooklyn-based filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman, who screens her documentary The Line on college campuses and leads an initiative to help end sexual violence. The app project is looking for grant funding now, and the team hopes to have a working version up on the iOS App Store by February, with Android and other platforms to follow. For more information on the project, you can check out the Circle of 6 Facebook page.

If you've spotted an app that you think addresses a social issue or point of concern in an innovative way, let us know in the comments or send in a tip.

[via NY Daily News & the Bellingham Herald]

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