Over the last few years, one question has loomed large – just how safe are women in India? Be it the December 2012 Delhi rape case or the more recent one of an Uber driver allegedly raping a woman passenger, also in Delhi, a sense of insecurity among women is definitely on the rise. With the government talking about smart cities, the question really is whether these will be safe cities as well.
Perhaps a part of the answer lies in the plethora of new-age technology applications that deal with women’s safety and have hit the Indian market in the last couple of years. From mobile applications to wearable devices or just simple inconspicuous gadgets, they promise to help in case of trouble.
Technology aside, will the law enforcement machinery at the end of these devices be able to protect us? Will we ever feel safe in our own country? Here’s the thing: threats to safety aren’t just for the preservation of general law and order, they rely on every citizen to understand, appreciate and act upon.
Using the right technology-enabled option to ensure personal safety is an option that most of us can exercise. Put simply, if at the end of the day you don’t need a friend to walk you home, you know you are safe.
Help on the radar
In the last two years a number of mobile applications have been aggressively launched in the Indian market. While the basics remain the same – transmission of your location via GPS to a pre-decided list of emergency contacts, and other SOS buttons – it’s the newer ones that are proving to be much easier to use. Some of these apps can even fake an incoming call while others can activate the camera or recorder on the user’s phone.
Whatever the case may be, these apps can be extremely handy. Take, for example, VithU – an app that was launched in December 2014. As soon as it is activated, it sends the message – “I am in danger. I need help. Please follow my location” – to pre-fed emergency contacts every two minutes with an updated location.
The app Scream Alarm keeps shrieking in a woman’s voice, making sure that it draws attention. What is even better is that some of the apps can function without mobile internet as well. The Raksha app sends a location alert to all the emergency contacts without needing to launch the app by merely clicking on the volume button. It can even dial 100 and send an SMS without being connected to the internet.
Keeping the proliferation and popularity of these apps in mind, Delhi police launched Himmat, its own mobile application, at the beginning of the year. The app can be used through any smartphone, and allows women to send a distress call to the Police Control Room (PCR) and relatives at the touch of a button. According to the Rajan Bhagat, PRO of the Delhi Police, over 5,000 women have registered for the service. “So far, we have not received any distress calls,” he says. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, this could just well mean that the successors to mobile apps are already making their presence felt.
The truth is you can only feel relatively safe while using a mobile-based security app. For starters, not everyone can afford a smartphone. With only 28 percent of the total population in India using an Android-OS-based phone, the number drops even further as only half of these are women.
But that’s not the only problem – apart from being far more expensive than average phones, the battery life of smartphones is another concern. Combined with the time taken to launch an app when in trouble, and in sending out distress signals, any action taken will perhaps already be too late.
For emergency response, in particular, mobile devices are not the best option, feels Uday Challu, CEO, iYogi. “They are bulky and indiscreet; can take time to activate and have low battery life. Smartphones, in particular, remain expensive for most of the population. Wearable devices, on the other hand, provide all the functionality needed for an emergency response device, and have none of the limitations of mobile phones”, he adds.
Others feel that phones can just be flung away, turned off or simply taken away before you even get to react to the danger ahead, taking a cue from the more recently-reported Uber rape case in December 2014 in Delhi. The acccused cab driver turned off his phone so he could not be tracked or located through GPS before allegedly carrying out the heinous crime.
What are the other options? Wearable devices that draw very little attention, such those resembling a timer or a wrist watch, are a better bet according to industry sources.
For example, advertising agency TBWA launched Tagsy, a tiny wearable device, in October last year. “In an ideal world, one only hopes no woman ever has to use this," says Parixit Bhattacharya, Chief Creative Officer at TBWA India. He goes on to describe it as a “non-intrusive, smart accessory for women that alerts friends and families of women in danger.”
Born out of a need for a discreet and inconspicuous safety device for women, Tagsy exists outside – and independent of – a phone, thus eliminating the various steps involved in unlocking a phone to call the police or launch an app. It can be easily hung on a bag, or be clicked on to your keys. All that needs to be done is feed the device with contact details for five people and Tagsy will immediately alert them with your exact location via Google Maps and send texts, tweets and email at the click of a button. It even updates the sender’s Facebook status with its location. It also allows you to track people live when its visible mode is on.
There is also the Amrita Personal Safety System (APSS), launched by Amrita University’s Center for Cyber Security in September last year. Apart from being a homing device, it also allows the user to record conversations and will soon have the ability to capture an event on video. It is designed to function in rural areas as well, where connectivity speeds are low. Another wearable device spotNsave, which looks like a wristband, consists of a Bluetooth and an SOS button. Released in December 2013, this device was a pioneer of sorts, allowing gadgets such as Tagsy and APSS to improve upon it.
“Initially, we did an audit of all devices, instruments and apps that helped women in distress and we discovered that only a whole lot of smartphone apps had been launched so far. None of them could offer a real solution if a situation arose, especially since in the real world the phone is the first thing that’s snatched when under attack, “ says Vineet Bajpai, Group CEO of TBWA\ India. “We believe creativity and digital technology can and must come together to create solutions that give back to the society. Tagsy is a small step toward that larger goal, which will enable a smart and safer country.”
Sending the right signals
There is a new wariness of anything that runs purely on a mobile platform. Phones are no longer seen as the most efficient way to safety, and wearable devices may just be the answer to bridge that trust deficit. A small device with a micro-sim or chip embedded in it may just be the way of the future. Sending an alert – in the form of an SMS or an email or just repeated as calls to another number –needs only one touch to activate.
When the price is right
While most of these mobile apps are free, wearable devices currently cost anything between Rs 1,500 to Rs 7,000 depending on how superior the integrated device is. The companies who have launched these devices believe that the price will fall drastically once the government shows an interest. The future of these devices rests in the fact that they can be monitored from any place in the world, especially if emergency services get a dashboard view of all the users.
“The idea is to involve everyone in safety – the police, citizens and even the nearest possible Resident’s Welfare Associations”, says Aarti Munvendra, Managing Director of security portal Safetyfirst. “This way we can all look out for one another and not only depend on law enforcement agencies.”