May 3, 2012 | Innovation, Science and Technology, Violence Against Women
Preventing Sexual Assault on Campus: There’s an App for That
NEW YORK CITY -- Appropriately enough, Circle of 6 was born on Twitter.
Nancy Schwartzman, a longtime advocate against sexual violence, first heard about it when her friends and followers started pinging her about a challenge issued by the White House to create an “App Against Abuse.” She called reproductive rights advocate Deb Levine of Internet Sexuality Information Services (ISIS), and over the course of a few phone calls, they dreamed up Circle of 6, an award-winning iPhone app that helps prevent sexual violence and dating abuse and has been downloaded 28,000 times to date. It’s targeted at students, one in five of whom have reported experiencing sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during their time at college, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Circle of 6 works by leveraging the close circles of friends maintained by college students to create a safety net for girls who find themselves in unsafe or undesirable situations. After a user downloads the app, she’ll choose six close friends to be in her circle.
“The circle concept mirrors the tight circles that college students have, where your friends are your family,” said Ms. Schwartzman.
Having six friends on call also serves a practical purpose, said Ms. Levine, if you need immediate assistance. For example, a woman’s date is starting to make her feel uncomfortable at dinner. She can press a button asking her friends to call and interrupt the date, giving her an excuse to leave.
“Nowadays, everyone’s really busy, so if you put together a circle of six close friends, likely one or two will be free to get you out of that situation,” she said.
Ms. Schwartzman noted that the process of selecting and adding friends opens up important conversations about sexual violence and abuse prevention. A friend who is selected will receive an SMS text message alerting her or him that she’s been chosen to be in the circle.
“For example, my friends would get a text that says ‘You’ve been chosen to be in Nancy’s circle with a link to the site,” said Ms. Schwartzman. “So they’ve already had these conversations, and we provide resources for them about sexual assault and dating abuse prevention.”
The pair knew each other from their long experience in advocacy around similar issues. An independent filmmaker and the founder and Executive Director of The Line Campaign, Ms. Schwartzman uses an approach she calls “transmedia,” which engages multiple channels: storytelling, video, social media, and now mobile. Ms. Levine’s group ISIS promotes sexual and reproductive health by reaching under-served communities through online and mobile outreach. They teamed up with developer Christine Corbett Moran and graphic designer Thomas Cabus, working remotely to create the app over the course of a few weeks.
From their experience working with young people, the group came up with common scenarios that their audience would likely face.
“We brainstormed different commands that we thought would be useful, that really came from stories I’ve heard from students. What they could have used, what did they need?” said Ms. Schwartzman. “The philosophy was to prevent it before it happens. Say you stay out late at a party, and then all of a sudden it’s 3 am and there are hard choices about how to get home. Do I walk home by myself at night? Do I stay here with people I don’t really know? Or do I let someone bring me home who I also don’t know that well? None of those are particularly good options.” ...