Harnessing Mobile Tech to Prevent Sexual Assault

On December 16, the violent rape and death of a 23-year-old woman from New Delhi galvanized the local, national and international community to rise up against sexual violence both in India and around the world. The protests began on December 21 and filled the streets, villages, cities and nations while images and stories captivated the international media and online community.

We got involved when Google alerts for "Circle of 6" started flooding our inbox, and download numbers rose in India as Circle of 6 appeared again and again in the Indian press as a tool for Indian women to combat sexual violence.

From the beginning, our international team developed Circle of 6 to serve a global population -- though we come from different corners of the world, the issue is personal for all of us. Our UX designer and creative director, Thomas Cabus is from Paris and experienced first-hand the bullying and sometime danger of being queer in public spaces. Christine Corbett Moran, our engineer, is based in Zurich and wrote the code for Circle of 6, in part, because she was stalked while a student at M.I.T. As a filmmaker and activist, I bring my own story of sexual assault while living abroad to the work, and together we remain committed to meeting women and young people where they are, and bringing a judgment free and mobile approach to the prevention of sexual violence.

We knew that we were on the radar of smartphone users in India, as only two days after the Vice President announced that we were one of two winners of the Apps Against Abuse challenge, we were mentioned in the Indian press. However, our download numbers from India were modest until December. But, as protests shook India, breaking the silence on rape and sexual violence, our downloads spiked making India have the second highest amount of downloads in the world, only after the United States.

We realized this was a powerful moment and that people needed more tools at their disposal, so we hopped online for a quick Google + chat. We hatched a passionate and somewhat naive idea. We decided to customize Circle of 6 for India. I made an appointment with the offices of UN Women in New York. There, our idealism and goodwill were met with a very complicated reality: India is a country with 28 states, seven territories and about 152 languages and dialects. What was our plan to most effectively serve Indian users? What language to choose? Were there national hotlines in place dedicated to rape and sexual violence that could operate effectively across the country? Where was the greatest need and did that intersect with smartphone usage?

Circle of 6 was created with the intention to empower the user (our target was American college women, where is it is likely that 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted during her time in college), to connect them to a circle of people they trust to have their back in potentially dangerous situations. Stories culled from hundreds of students about being separated from friends, lost, or needing an easy way out of a situation, informed the development of the functions. The app uses GPS and SMS technology. Pre-programmed U.S.-based hotlines were plugged in for dating violence and sexual assault. We created a customizable third option, so that the user could choose what number they wanted to reach out to in an emergency.

With research and support from colleagues at SayNOUnite we decided to localize the app to New Delhi. New Delhi is the capital, with a high concentration of women's advocacy organizations and is also one of five cities in the UN's Safe City Initiative. Over one hundred NGO's on the rights and safety of women are based in New Delhi, including respected advocacy groups like Jagori, Partners for Law in Development, Lawyer's Collective and the YWCA.

New Delhi is also a symbol: It is the city where the dam broke and the silence of the masses on gender-based violence was shattered.

With the release of Circle of 6 - New Delhi, the user can choose between English and Hindi language. Men and women can download and become instantly linked up with each other and join each other's circle of trust and accountability. The GPS function has always worked internationally, but users on the ground have tested it for New Delhi specifically. The language of the app remains gender neutral, a specific translation note for the Hindi, which uses gendered nouns and objects. The app will continue to speak to users of all genders and sexual orientation. Hotlines are now pre-programmed for the newly formed 24/7 women's hotline of New Delhi and the Jagori advocacy helpline. As a suggested third number, the user is directed to the Lawyer's Collective, if calling the police feels unsafe, which for many women it does.

As of this writing, Circle of 6 has over 55,000 downloads in 26 different countries. We are hoping that this number will only expand as more and more people from around the world harness the Circle of 6 platform to create circles of accountability, and to aid them in fighting sexual violence in their communities.

Follow Nancy @fancynancynyc and @circleof6app