A sex trade worker is picked up by a John. He takes her to a residence where the “date” starts to get violent. She clicks on an app on her smartphone that sends an SOS to a response centre. Minutes later, police are at the door and she is able to use the diversion to exit the home. Officers make an arrest.
Rick Connors, CEO of the Gitxsan Development Corporation (GDC), says this is an actual scenario that may have saved a woman’s life during the initial two-year deployment of an app for at-risk people.
“We believe that this speaks for itself,” he said. “If you can save one life in two years, imagine what you could do with a broad span of support of this application and the services.”
The project is called the Safer Communities Initiative and is a partnership between Aware360, BC Safety Link, Technology Helps and Telelink.
Aware360 and BC SafetyLink (a division of GDC) provide commercial lone worker and journey management solutions to corporations. Technology Helps is an organization that helps not-for-profit organizations build their technology capacity. Telelink is a 24-7-365 response centre in St. John’s, Nfld.
“The idea was conceived between BC SafetyLink and one of our partners, Aware 360, where we were looking to give back to the community in an altruistic way,” Connors said.
“We thought, what if we could take this type of app and make some adjustments to it so we could be providing the same kind of safety services to at-risk individuals all over the place.”
The Aware360 app can be downloaded to any smartphone. When a client checks in, a customized and user-defined escalation protocol kicks in, explained Kelsey Harmse, BC SafetyLink director of strategic initiatives. If the user fails to check in again at a designated time, for example, a BC SafetyLink response centre operator will start calling the user-defined contacts from friends or family to social services agencies to emergency responders.
The user can also trigger an SOS and the app is GPS-enabled so the location of the user’s smartphone can be tracked if they so choose. The app also accommodates photos so, for example, in a hitchhiking situation, the user can upload a picture of a licence plate before they get into a car.
“The idea is we’re giving the power back to end user, who they want to be contacted if they were to not check in on time or if they were to SOS,” Harmse said. “What they would want to do and they can change that [on an ad-hoc basis] as their situation changes.
“This provides them that service, where they can sign on when they choose, when they want to be on the program. They have a check in timer and their check-in timer is defined by their level of risk, which they determine, and they go about their business. If they don’t check in, our agents call them and say, ‘hey, you didn’t check in, is everything OK?’ If they don’t answer we move to their next escalation contact. It could be their aunt, their husband, anyone they want… and that escalation process can go all the way to emergency services… if the user wants it.”
Both Harmse and Connors stressed the program is non-judgmental, it is all about keeping people regardless of their lifestyle or challenges safe.
To that end they have been working with front line agencies, such as the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre to make the program available to at-risk populations including people fleeing domestic violence, hitchhiking, working in the sex trade, or dealing with the effects of mental illness, addictions and homelessness.
Harmse said it is a nationwide initiative with users all the way from Northwest B.C. to St. John’s Nfld, but currently limited in its uptake.
“[The response has] been very positive,” she said. “It’s slow going, it’s an altruistic theme for us so it’s about getting the word out and people understanding how to use it and working with front line agencies.”
Now they want to ramp up the initiative.
“We’re currently looking to fund the mass rollout of the project,” Connors said, adding they are in discussions with major corporations, telcos and governments.
“We do believe this is something that should be supported and carried by all the major companies out there, the government itself, in full support of an application that helps keep at-risk individuals safe regardless of what they’re doing.
“We are ready and raring to go, all that’s lacking is funding to make it happen.”
One Telco has already stepped up, Harmse said. In Newfoundland Telus provided funding for phones and services through the Thrive Blue Door Program, a St. John’s initiative “to support individuals, primarily between the ages of 14-29, to exit sex trade activities, and/or sexually exploitive situations including sex trafficking.”