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Protecting women’s safety: The use of smartphone apps in relation to domestic and sexual violence

by Nicole Westmarland, Mariann Hardey, Hannah Bows, Dawn Branley, Mehzeb Chowdhury, Katie Wheatley and Richard Wistow.

Increasingly, smartphone apps have an influence everyday life from live updates with friends, to finding out when your next bus is due. The download and use of apps has been invaluable for users – but can smartphones and their data also be used to protect users as well as entertain? Research undertaken by a team from Durham University’s Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA) partnered with the Institute for Advanced Research in Computing (iARC), is one of the first projects to analyse the impact of the development of smart phone apps in relation to protecting users from domestic violence and abuse.

Violence against women – both in a domestic setting from their partners and from strangers – is increasingly perceived as a serious and global problem. Recently, the development of digital programs has extended into the realm of personal security. Against a background of increasing technology use and familiarity researcher’s found that there are benefits in terms of safety as well as possible risks for victims of abuse.

Evaluating the Apps: the Research Process

Setting out to evaluate how smartphones are used in the context of domestic and sexual violence against women, the researchers adopted a threefold approach, beginning with an online search to identify relevant apps. They followed this with programmes of interviews with both app developers and with bodies involved in dealing with such violence.

The two interview stages covered different areas. For the ten app designers who participated, they focused on motivation and concept. Questions for agencies and organisations (who included the police, support organisations and campaign groups) related more closely to awareness of apps and responses to them.

Smartphone Apps and the Impact on Domestic Violence

The review of available apps identified 80 such programs, of which just under half were primarily intended as panic alarms, with provision of information being the main function of around a third. More disturbingly, a small number of apps also functioned to assist the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of abuse – most notably ‘Track Your Wife’, which can be installed and run on a smartphone, allowing a third party to track its location.

Those organisations dealing with violence ‘on the ground’ didn’t, however, see even well-intentioned smartphone apps as universally beneficial, with most feeling they brought no added value to existing methods of alerts (such as texts). While accepting that access to information is generally positive, these respondents raised concerns which included the potential for enhanced risk (especially where a woman was still living with the perpetrator). They also felt that developing these apps places increased responsibility on female victims, rather than on society, to keep them safe and that they therefore have the potential to place increasing blame on victims who ‘fail’ to protect themselves. Overall, the research concluded that great care should be taken, not just in the development of such programs, but also in the claims made for them.

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