When a young Malaysian woman, Xin-Ci Chin, was attacked by two men as she entered her car in Kuala Lumpur two years ago, she barely escaped an unknown fate by fighting her abductors and jumping from a moving vehicle.
The episode, which she detailed in a harrowing Facebook post, had a silver lining. At a point in her career where she was looking for new opportunities anyway, it led her to team with a friend, James Khoo, and create a simple but ingenious app that could help other women in the same situation.
Since launching a year ago on iOS and Android, Watch Over Me has attracted 140,000 users all over the world, with the majority so far located in Southeast Asia.
The premise is easy to understand: When a user feels worried about her safety, she sets the app to check in on her in a specified time period—say in the 30 minutes it will take to walk home late at night or drive home in a nasty storm. At 30 minutes, Watch Over Me pings the user three times at one-minute intervals. If the person doesn't respond, it sends an SMS or email with her current location to designated emergency contacts, who can then decide whether to notify the police (the SMS feature requires a monthly fee). On Android devices, it’ll also activate the phone’s camera and take a 10 second audio and video clip.
"When I was attacked, I couldn’t even reach [my phone] or have time to unlock my screen. I was more concerned about getting myself the hell out of the car," says Chin. "I was really afraid that I’d be raped or murdered or something like that. But I was more afraid of the fact that no one would know where I was. I live with my boyfriend, but he might not even know I’m missing until five or six hours later."
Watch Over Me, built on Twilio's SMS platform, adds to a growing number of mobile services that help people reach out when they are in need of help. The Lassy Project, based in Boulder, Colorado, uses mobile tracking and texting to create communities that can quickly respond to child abductions. And the Polaris Project, a group that fights human trafficking and runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, recently added an SMS feature to its hotline service. In its first full pilot year, operators have had more than 1,500 text message conversations reporting tips and interacting with victims reaching out for help.
"The interesting thing that we’ve seen is there’s a much higher percentage of victims that were reaching out on their own behalf, using texting instead of calls," says Sarah Jakiel, chief programs officer at The Polaris Project. She notes the SMS feature helps them reach a different, younger population, and make it easier for victims to feel comfortable asking for help. "Any type of modern crisis assistance needs to meet people where they are."
Polaris is thinking about promoting the SMS tool to increase the number of exploited workers in supply chains that can report grievances to an independent organization. Currently, this is mostly done through complaint mechanisms that are tied to corporations themselves. "What we’re trying to really do is get to the voice of the workers," Jakiel says.