When Twitter user @MindofAndre sent filmmaker and activist Nancy Schwartzman a message on Twitter alerting her to the Apps Against Abuse challenge, her first thought was “I don’t have time to make an app … I’m a filmmaker!”
After further consideration, however, Schwartzman, who initiated The Line Campaign with Deb Levine of the Internet Sexuality Information Services, created Circle of 6. The innovative mobile app takes advantage of GPS mapping, group SMS messaging, and pre-programmed resource hotlines to help college students keep themselves and their friends safe. With Circle of 6, you choose six close friends or relatives who you can instantly text when you are feeling unsafe. It also can quickly dial emergency services if things go bad.
Here’s a great video explaining how the app works:
In November 2011, the app was chosen as one of the winners of the challenge and has been downloaded 30,000 times since its launch in March.
Schwartzman spoke with the Center for Social Media about the inspiration for the app, the upcoming Healthy Relationships Toolkit, and plans for the future. The following is an edited version of her answers to our questions.
On Building an App as a Filmmaker
Schwartzman: I don’t have a mobile background, but I had been working on mapping projects using GPS in tandem with the first film I did, The Line. I was mapping the urban landscape and its relationship to women’s safety and getting home late at night, and harnessing people’s sixth sense about where they travel and at what hour. So I’ve always been interested in the intersection of new media and new tools like Google Maps and GPS tracking, and mobile technology to link people together and provide critical information around issues of gender and safety.
My partner on this app, Deb Levine of ISIS, has done a lot of work in the mobile field with sexual health, so I knew to call her when this White House challenge came up. @MindofAndre, a public health/tech pal on Twitter, actually pinged me and said, “Hey, this has your name on it,” and I thought, “I don’t have time to make an app; what are you talking about? I’m a filmmaker!” But then on a more careful read, I was like, “Oh, this is awesome. I should totally do this.”
I called Deb in Oakland and said, “Check this out — is this something you’re interested in?” Combining her mobile experience with mine on discussing sexual boundaries in college, we were a great fit to make the project happen.
On the Functions and Design of the App
Schwartzman: Deb had read a piece in the Stanford Review about the healing power of circles, that it’s great for conflict resolution, and all these dynamics of the circle. And I’d done a lot of studying of restorative justice and justice that works outside of the criminal system where circles are used, like healing circles or community circles, so we loved that idea. Six seemed like a number big enough that if you were in trouble, someone would be able to respond, and small enough that this is intimate and these are people you actually know.
During college screenings and conversations with students, I would hear over and over the circumstance where you’re separated from your friends and it’s late at night. And we wanted to create something so that a young person would never have to make the hard choice of “OK, do I leave this party at 3 a.m. and walk home by myself? Do I crash here at this house where I don’t know anyone? Or do I accept a ride home with someone?”
title=”The Circle of 6 app is now available on both iOS and Android.” />
The other thing is that young people go out in groups, so we heard from a lot of people with informal buddy systems, where you’re at a club and like “don’t leave me!” That’s something that’s already innate, that you check in with your friends and look out for each other, so we thought with the mobile version, why not create a mobile tool that mimics what people already do? So the Getting Home Safely button has a GPS function where you can alert your friends without having to fumble around and say, “I’m near a bodega and a gas station?”
The second button with the phone we call “the bad date button” — someone’s cornering you at a party, or you’re stuck on a bad date, you’re desperate for an interruption and hoping your phone will ring but you can’t text to a friend “Call me right now.” Everyone’s been in that situation where you’re like, “Give me an out, please.”
And the third one addresses the shame and isolation of someone who’s in a violent or potentially violent relationship. Especially with young people, you hear so often, “I have a friend and they’re in a bad relationship, and I don’t know how to bring it up. I don’t know what to do.” We all know if you get aggressive about it, you might turn your friend away and you don’t want to isolate your friend. So those are basically some resources but also a way to passively reach out and say, “I’m just looking this stuff up FYI. It’s not, “I need help” or someone saying, “You have a problem.” It’s also really great just having it be part of the app in that it puts it on the table, that this is a reality and this goes on and to provide resources.
The fourth one is the emergency button, which can be programmed to your campus, campus police, the women’s center, etc. Two national hotlines are programmed in for you, and the third is of your own choosing, and that was really important to me because I can’t imagine American University students wanting to hang out with the D.C. police, for example; they want to go to wherever they feel safe. This lets the user choose what feels safe to them and what feels best for getting help.
On the Judgment-Free Nature of Circle of 6
Schwartzman: The essence of the app is meeting people where they are, no victim-blaming and no judgment. We were very careful every step of the way to check all the language, and in our statements to the media I never wanted it to be like, “Well, why would a girl put herself in that situation,” because that’s the rhetoric you hear so much around sexual assault with this age group, and frankly, any age group.
Girls are out late. College students party. College students drink. And the bricks really fall down hard if a young woman is sexually assaulted under those conditions. And having been raped in a similar way, in a very college-y situation (it was someone I knew, we had been drinking a bit), that doesn’t take away that it was totally and utterly a rape. So much of risk reduction has this undertone of victim blaming, so we wanted to be very sensitive.
This app is preventative. It functions from a harm-reduction standpoint, and that’s something I think the health community does really well. Needle exchange, HIV awareness — you know, it’s not about judging. It’s about seeing the behavior and addressing at least one part of the problem. Or course, the larger issue is addressing men’s violence through educating men, which needs more attention, resources, and mandated programming on campus.
On the Healthy Relationships Toolkit
Schwartzman: A study was published this summer where 550 high schools in America were polled and asked if they had any dating violence resources or any of the counselors had any training, and 81% had no training. The CDC has put this as a high-priority issue — adolescent dating violence is a big problem with teenagers, and this study was kind of horrifying; teachers, educators, school nurses don’t have training or tools or any way to talk about it.
So when we created the app, I thought, “Great, we have a tool and people are going to get it on their phone and use it.” But when I did a big Tweet-up about mobile apps and safety with the Women’s Media Center after our iOS launch, we heard from teachers via Twitter, “Oh, I want to use this as a teaching tool,” and I was like “It’s an app; it’s an actual tool,” because my film is a teaching tool, and this is an extension of a way to prevent the problem.
It made me realize that the 90-second video we use to promote the app, they’re using it in a classroom to even talk about what dating violence is. “Here’s how the app works — is this happening in your life?” I was kind of shocked to hear that, so this summer we wrote a Healthy Relationships Toolkit, which is just four pages and really simple, for teachers so they can use it in their classroom. It has questions like “What’s the difference between drama and danger?” We wanted to use teen-friendly words to keep it an approachable, realistic assessment of how kids date and interact with each other and to unpack what is violence. With the help of a professor at Ball State (who did the research that inspired us) we’ll be disseminating that widely in mid-September.
On the Future of the App
Schwartzman: We launched in late March on the iPhone platform and got 30,000 downloads, and on September 6 we released on Android. That’s all Version 1, and we have a list of exciting ideas for Version 2, but we’re just in a fundraising part and trying to grow in a responsible way.
We’ve had some great financial support from Motorola and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, but otherwise it’s pretty much pro-bono for the whole team right now. There are lots of great conversations going on right now, though, about customizing it for specific campuses, working with international partners to create international versions, customizing it for communities outside of college — there’s so much potential with this app, so it’s very exciting.
More information on the Circle of 6 app can be found on its website.
Katie Bieze received her M.A. in Film and Video from American University’s School of Communication in 2012 and has worked for The Center for Social Media at American University for over two years. She graduated from Duke University in 2009 with a B.A. in Literature and certificates in Documentary Studies and Film/Video/Digital (now called Arts of the Moving Image). Prior to attending American, Katie worked as a development intern for three production companies before working as the assistant to the head of the literary department at Luber Roklin Entertainment. Since 2011, Katie has contributed both print and online articles to the International Documentary Association’s Documentary Magazine, including the cover story of the Summer 2012 issue.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Center of Social Media website.