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AN APP TO YOUR AID

Circle of safety

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ON CALL: The one problem with the Circle of 6 app is that it needs six peoeple to make it work

Apps that send alerts to selected contacts during an emergency have been gaining popularity after the Delhi gang rape.

Caught in a dark alley and a creepy man is advancing towards you. You wish you could call your friends. Now you can because there is an app for that. Circle of 6, an app for those vulnerable to sexual abuse which won the White House's stamp of approval in 2011, is fast gaining popularity in India.

The app was launched in US in March 2012 and subsequently in India in December. User interest in India spiked after the fatal gang rape of a young student aboard a Delhi bus, and the Circle of 6 team decided to customize the American app for Indians. Documentary filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman, one of the three developers who worked on the app, says they "went from a few hundred downloads to nearly 7, 000 in weeks". Circle of 6 has recorded 15, 800 downloads on Android and 46, 200 on iOS. After the US, India has downloaded the app the most with 8, 500-9, 000 hits. UK, Canada and Australia follow.

The app allows a user to notify six contacts in an emergency. With two taps, you can discreetly text them to pick you up from where you are. The app sends them a Google maps link with your location. Two more taps and you can ask for relationship advice. The third function is a request for an intervention. It sends a message to your circle of six saying, "Call me and pretend like you need me" - something we've all tried when in a sticky situation. The app was designed with American college students in mind.

Customising the app for Indian users - in this case, users in Delhi - meant a few small changes. A Hindi translation for the user interface was one. The other was the programming distress dials into the app. Of these one is a women's rights and advocacy helpline and the other is a 24x7 women's helpline.

Anupriya of Jagori, the advocacy group that helped Circle of 6 identify helpline service providers in Delhi, feels access is still an issue. Only a limited set of people use smartphones in India, and app developers have their own problems. "The demand for such apps has grown. Four or five Indian developers have approached us for help to create apps, but none of them has the resources to provide it free, " she says. There are other free apps available on most mobile platforms.

As for Circle of 6, many have complained about the problem of having to add six people to make the app work. "What if I don't have six locally available people that I trust?" is a question that comes up frequently. "We've released a solution so a user can choose fewer people than six. For future versions, we'll test and determine if six is the best number, or if the interface should be more flexible from the start, " says Schwartzman, who is also looking develop the app to include alerts for stalking and harassment.

AN APP TO YOUR AID

TOI-Crest puts four popular safety apps through the paces, and figures out which ones you can count on.

SMART SHEHAR SAFETY - 4/5

This fairly simple app allows you to share your location with a set of trusted contacts, similar to other apps in the category. It helps you locate the nearest police station and hospital in an emergency. The list is generated with a single tap and supplemented with driving directions on Google Navigation. The winning feature, however, is the emergency picture clicker. Tap the red beacon and your listed contacts are sent a text message, notifying them that you are in trouble. It then lets you take a picture which is emailed to your contacts. If it comes to a physical struggle and you lose or break your phone, the picture remains on record. Your contacts can follow your movements via GPS if you tap the 'Walk with Me' icon. Not much value addition there, since it is already possible with Google Latitude. But a thoughtful feature, nonetheless.

bSAFE - 3/5

This was developed by a Norwegian mother. Silje Vallestad had earlier developed an app to track her children's movements around the neighbourhood. Later, she developed one that women could use in potentially threatening situations. It sends location alerts and notifications to up to 20 selected contacts. It also has a fake call feature, where the phone rings for a designated amount of time to help wriggle out of a sticky situation. You can even configure the contact name that appears on the call. Curiously enough, another Android app called 'Fake Call Me' does just that. In the case of bSafe, the display is different from what it looks like when a regular android phone receives a call. If you're going for discretion, this could give you away. Otherwise, a decent enough app that works.

SUSPECTS REGISTRY - 3/5

The app works on the same principle where it sends alerts to a designated set of contacts when you wish to. The user has to press a "Panic" button. Ten seconds after that your contacts will receive a message from your number saying you are in trouble, along with a Google Maps link to your location. You also have the option of taking a picture to report a person or a vehicle. These pictures are uploaded to the Suspects Registry Facebook page, where the wrongdoers can be named and shamed. Exiting the app after pressing the panic button was a bit of a problem, but overall, the app seemed to work just fine.

SCREAM ALARM - 1/5

Most apps in the women's safety department serve the function of a one-touch template text deliverer. This one has a simple, single-touch function. The app screams for you. And it won't stop until you press the button again - the only thing on the sparse user interface. Something like this could come in handy when the user is alert enough to have the app open for immediate use. It may be best to rely on a natural scream since that is usually louder than what an average mobile phone speaker can emit, especially in a crowded, noisy place.

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