Can tech companies act preemptively in the name of public safety? In the wake of such troubling issues as the recent Uber rape case in Delhi, India, the answer seems complicated at best. Julie Markham, however, is inclined to say yes.
Markham is the co-founder of pingWHEN, a Boulder startup that’s developed an app to alert contacts with updates on their friends’ and family’s whereabouts in potentially uncomfortable, unsafe, or less-than-certain situations. While open to everyone, the app was designed with the concerns and needs of women in mind.
“Our team is working to uncover a viable business opportunity that puts a positive dent in the challenge of personal safety,” Markham said. “I was inspired to build pingWHEN for myself, for my mom, and most importantly, for any woman who has ever been fearful for her safety.”
Once inside the app, a user designates a contact and enters her destination location and an estimate of the amount of time it will take to arrive. Tracking her location as she travels, the app notifies her contact with a text upon her arrival (known as a “pingWHEN” she arrives, in the startup’s internal language). If she hasn’t arrived within the estimated time frame, the app texts that contact with an update saying she may need help and a link to her current location. (If there’s no potential threat to her safety, the user can disable tracking before this happens).
But the app’s “smart” capabilities extend beyond location tracking and automated texting, Markham said. pingWHEN detects a set of deviations from normal movements and behavior, which Markham terms “variables.”
“If you’re going out on a journey, some of these variables include if you go backwards from the set location for an extended period of time, if there’s excessive gyration, if a person has been stagnant for an extended period of time, or if there’s an increase of velocity in the journey,” she said.
Of course, some users might view this technology with skepticism. Yes, pingWHEN aims to insure safety by tracking user activity, but can’t it also compromise privacy in the process?
“What separates pingWHEN from other personal safety applications in the market is the fact that users can determine when and who they want to share their location details with,” said co-founder Sam Heather. “The use of the app is initiated by the user and if they don't arrive to a location, or click to say they are safe or need more time, their details [won’t] be shared with the pre-designated contact.”
Currently in private beta, the app is undergoing user testing. Markham and Heather are planning a bike tour across Colorado campuses wherein the app will alert their contacts when they reach all of their destinations. They aim to launch in August.
Markham envisions a number of use cases for the app, ranging from women on college campuses to parent-child monitoring. “We also are looking to launching internationally, specifically with a focus in India,” she said.
In its present form, pingWHEN only detects aberrations from normal behavior and repercussions of unsafe situations, meaning it’s not equipped to stop threats before they start. Markham recognizes this, and she’s determined to figure out how pingWHEN can offer more.
“We want pingWHEN to serve as a call to action and a catalyst for people for a peace of mind and a safety net, but it cannot stop a unfortunate or unpredictable situation from happening,” she said. “We believe this stems for a deeper conversation on how to empower people in safety through education. We want to extend this application into frontier markets and figure out how we can use geo-fencing on feature phones, AKA 'dumb phones.'”
“In the end,” she continued, “if we have built an app that one person tells us made a huge difference in their life, we will feel humbled and that this startup adventure was well worth it and we accomplished our goal to help people feel safer in their communities.”