Photo source: Amnesty International

In the latest session of TechChange’s “Tech for International Crisis Response and Good Governance” class, I learned about the Panic Button, the emergency Android app recently launched by Amnesty International. The app is a step in the right direction for emergency alert applications, and may prove to be useful in other types of emergency situations. It was initially designed for activists working abroad, and essentially turns a cell phone into an alarm. While the app is running, the user can send pre-programmed SMS and GPS coordinates to three trusted contacts by hitting the phone’s power button multiple times. This simple process can be executed while the phone is located in the activist’s hand or pocket, and with minimal effort. With beta testing in 17 countries, this open source app was developed through an iterative process by networks of developers and activists, with two critical factors in mind: security and speed.

Pros. The speed of sounding an alarm is a major benefit of Panic Button, triggered by the power button on a user-friendly interface. This trigger allows users to be discreet in sending out an S.O.S. before their phone may be taken away by an adversary. Also, the GPS functionality provides trusted contacts with detailed information of where the person (or at least the phone) is located. This notification assumes that the activist has prepared ahead of time to both discuss with their contacts what to do in the event that an S.O.S. is received, and that they have turned the app on.

Cons. Security – particularly the interception of texts – remains a major concern. The app may reveal information about one’s location and contacts that could put all parties at increased risk. One of the major benefits of the app is sharing GPS coordinates, which need to be manually enabled. In an insecure environment, these may typically be switched off. The app needs to be switched on to work, which also means that the user needs to anticipate that they may be in a dangerous scenario – something very hard to do. These stipulations, as well as its learning curve, are potential stumbling blocks that need to be addressed.

Implications for sexual violence prevention. Despite these kinks, the Panic Button is a powerful tool. In its current state, Panic Button is specifically designed for activists, but its technology has the potential for use in other emergency situations, notably for women and girls at risk for sexual violence. Panic Button is similar to the award-winning and widely-used Circle of 6 app, but appears to be easier to use in an emergency situation. The ability to trigger Panic Button’s alarm without having to open the app itself is a critical differentiator and timesaver when an abduction or act of sexual aggression is occurring (similar to a scenario a Panic Button user would face). Circle of 6 is already being used in India, where not only sexual violence occurs on a far-too-frequent basis, but also where users are already comfortable using smart phones, and thus could also easily use Panic Button.

Panic Button is useful in environments that are dangerous and highly variable. With the open source nature of the app, one can only hope that the app will be adapted further to better address more specific challenges presented by additional contexts, and save both activists’ and women’s lives worldwide.

About Jessica Soklow

Jessica Soklow

Jessica Soklow is working toward her Masters in International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School and is alumna of TechChange’s “Tech for International Crisis Response and Good Governance” course. Her concentration at the Elliott School is on international development, with an emphasis on developing and implementing programming with a gender-specific lens. Jessica has conducted extensive research on gender-based violence in international contexts, with a specific focus on prevention mechanisms in both India and the United States. She is optimistic about how technology can be used in the future to help prevent violence on a global scale.

Learn about tools like Panic Button and other technology in our upcoming online course on Tech Tools & Skills for Emergency Management, which has an early bird discount that ends Oct 31!

In the last decade, social media has spread quickly across the world and has grown not just in terms of number of users on popular platforms, but also in terms of new niche platforms tailored for specific populations.

With Facebook’s 1 billion active users, the 500 million tweets that flood the Internet daily via Twitter, and the 6 billion hours of YouTube videos available online, it is clear that social media has been integrated into the daily digital lives of many people globally. Combine that with the fact that 85% of the world’s population has access to the Internet – and to many of these social networks – and you’ll find a tool that has revolutionized the way groups around the globe interact with each other.

As popular as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are, the diversity of social media platforms and the way people interact on these platforms are as diverse as the different cultures of these users. According to the social media API aggregation company, GNIP, 49% of tweets in 2013 were in a language other than English. Facebook is also available in several dozen languages.

Twitter languages

Source: GNIP / New York Times

This “World Map of Social Networks” from shows how the dominant social media sites have changed since 2009.


Facebook has clearly become a global leader, but its prominence can be deceptive – many more country-specific social networks have grown rapidly with extremely active user bases. In countries like China, where Facebook and Twitter are banned, sites like RenRen and Weibo, which have similar user interfaces and features, have sprung up. According to a recent article by Forbes magazine, Tencent, the parent company of China’s leading social media platform, is poised to overtake Facebook in terms of average monthly users.

wearesocial-social-media-penetration-worldwide-e1389183989165 wearesocial-social-media-penetration-worldwide-2-e1389184630143

Source: We Are Social /

Alternative social networks are also popular in countries in which Facebook is legal. ZingMe, for example, is extremely popular in Vietnam among teenagers and young adults and Yookos is an emerging network in southern and sub-saharan Africa; the amount of existing social media platforms worldwide is in the thousands.

Social media is designed to bring people together in different ways; it connects governments and organizations with the public and allows for the diffusion of information across the world quickly and efficiently. The limits of social media and its uses are still being defined; issues such as privacy and freedom of speech – and the lack thereof – have been repeatedly debated around the world.

If social media is used differently across the world, what does this mean for social media campaigns for social causes? How do we know what the best tools are to use for targeting specific audiences? Defining and understanding who your target audience is is one of the first steps of designing an effective social change campaign. The ever-evolving social media landscape will be important to understand in order to communicate the right messages, on the right platform, for the right people, and in the right way, to be effective.

How is social media used in your country? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet us @TechChange.

Check out some of the additional resources we’ve come across that visualize the global diversity of social media:

Come and join us in our discussion about the global diversity of social media and more in our upcoming Social Media for Social Change online course, which begins this Monday!

With social media technology changing daily, it can sometimes be challenging to keep up with the latest platforms and their newest features, and the seemingly endless stream of content, information, and campaigns.

Recently as we’ve been preparing for the Social Media for Social Change course, we’ve been focusing on the power and limits of “hashtag activism” by examining examples such as #BringBackOurGirls and #YesAllWomen.

Check out the Montreal-based CJAD news radio talkshow interview from last week featuring TechChange’s Director of Marketing, Nancy Ngo, on hashtag activism here:

Hashtags aren’t the only way social media users are advocating for causes. We’ll be analyzing a variety of campaigns and social change movements that have used various social media tools in different ways in our second round of our Social Media for Social Change online course, which begins on Monday, June 16. A very dynamic group of guest expert speakers will join us from organizations such as, the Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative, Uber, and more. Lawrence Grodeska from who will share how has revolutionized online petitions in campaigns such as advocating justice for Trayvon Martin. Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative’s Michael Poffenberger will share his experiences from the Kony 2012 campaign to capture Joseph Kony and draw comparisons with the recent BringBackOurGirls campaign. Alex Priest of Uber will discuss ways that Uber utilizes social media in optimizing urban logistics.

Several participants from many countries including Czech Republic, Jordan, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand, and across the U.S. have already enrolled in this round of this course, representing organizations such as World Bank Group, USAID, ICRC, World Green Building Council, Oxfam, AARP International, Cornell University, Abt Associates, Chemonics International, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and many more. All of these participants will be bringing their own perspectives as both social media users and social change advocates for their respective organizations and initiatives.

What’s your take on hashtag activism and social media advocacy? Do you agree with Nancy? Join the conversation with these social media experts and participants across the world to learn more about social media’s role in catalyzing social change. Enroll now in our Social Media for Social Change course here.