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!

What does the rise of #YesAllWomen mean for social change?

In our last post on #BringBackOurGirls, we examined whether social media activism could free girls who had been kidnapped in Nigeria. With the rise of #YesAllWomen, it’s worth exploring whether social media can improve the lives of women and men everywhere in shifting social norms around gender.

Less than a week after the killing spree at the University of California Santa Barbara, a torrent of more than two million tweets have been shared containing anecdotes, stories, and outcries against misogyny, sexual harassment, and violence against women.

Topsy YesAllWomen

Source: Topsy

Why has #YesAllWomen gained so much media attention? It can be argued that the #YesAllWomen hashtag has built off continuing momentum of other initiatives that have women (and some men) speaking out against misogyny in its many forms. A provocative article from TIME Magazine in April 2014, nearly a month before the UCSB murders, was a critique of the #NotAllMen argument, setting the stage for women to share how sexual harassment and misogyny are frighteningly common experiences that women face on a regular basis. Foreign Policy’s piece on “What do #YesAllWomen and #BringBackOurGirls have in common?” highlights:

“[…]the global Internet has during the last month seen an incredible outpouring of support for the full equality of women. Even if the two hashtags fail to end misogyny and free the kidnapped schoolgirls, they surely represent a step in the right direction in advocating for a better reality for women.”

Here is a heat map visualizing the use of #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter, showing the start of the hashtag in the U.S., in comparison to Nigeria, where the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag began.

Related campaigns using the hashtags #everydaysexism and #rapecultureiswhen have both been used in similar efforts to shed light on misogyny, as discussed in CNN’s article on “Why #YesAllWomen took off on Twitter.” Campaigns across U.S. campuses have also been pressuring universities to address sexual assault on campuses, as mentioned in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

What will be the ultimate impact of #YesAllWomen? Will this social media momentum change ingrained cultural norms of sexism across society? It did, at least for Kenneth Curtis, a man who described his reaction to the #YesAllWomen tweets:

“The courageous voices I saw on #YesAllWomen burst my bubble in all the good ways. They shed a light on my ignorance. They also shed a light on the work we men have to do. This is how change happens. Shed a light on the problem. Now let’s rally to fix it.”

But what about the societies where women cannot speak out as openly on social media due to censorship or lack of access to technology? With #YesAllWomen, social media has succeeded again in being a tool for raising awareness on a social issue, but it will continue to be a long journey to shift entrenched cultural norms.


Interested in this topic and how social media can be used to create social change? Enroll now in our upcoming Social Media for Social Change course.

On May 16th 2011, Washington DC’s Newseum – interactive media museum that instills an appreciation of the importance of a free press and the US’ First Amendment – hosted the Journalists Memorial Rededication honoring the journalists who died covering the news in 2010.

Between 1837 and 2010, 2,084 courageous journalists lost their lives while staying dutiful to their profession – 59 of which died in 2010 – determined to report the truth and inform citizens, regardless of the consequence.