We were intrigued by the concept of FightBack, an emergency alert app that doubles up as crowdsourced map of alerts raised by people in distress. Created by WhyPoll, an NGO working on open governance in India in collaboration with application developer CanvasM, FightBack brands itself as “India’s first mobile application for women’s safety”. A user can send a distress alert to chosen recipients via email and SMS by activating an alert on button on the app. An interactive Google Map on the website anonymously displays the locations of all the alerts logged since the time the app was deployed.
The installation process is overly long, tedious and confusing. Most important of all, the registered information is not verified at any step, leaving the system vulnerable to misuse. You begin by signing up for an account by providing your name and email address or signing up using your Facebook account at the FightBack website. You then log in and fill out your mobile number, which like the email address, is not verified.
The next step is to choose an operating system (Android, BlackBerry or Symbian) as well as a mobile phone handset in order to download the app. We tested the app on a Sony Xperia go, which was not listed. It is taxing to flip through the list of various models; merely selecting an OS (or its version) should be enough. We selected the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini and immediately received an sms with the app’s download link. (The app is not listed on Google Play or other official app stores.) From the settings in either the app or the website, you can enter the phone numbers and email address of up to five recipients who would be notified if you send a distress alert. This information is also not verified. You could submit the number of an emergency response helpline or the police helpline as one of the contacts. If you have linked your Facebook account with the website, you can choose to flash SOS alerts on your Facebook wall simultaneously. Trying to integrate the app with Facebook returned a message that the app was misconfigured for Facebook.
On first use, the app took three full minutes to complete the log in process successfully. The app force closed many times when we tried to enter the details of recipients from the phone. Surprisingly, some of the recipients visible on the website control panel did not show up on the app. The user guide on the FightBack website mentions that the app costs Rs 100 but no payment form appeared while we were downloading and installing it.
Tracking and alerts
The GPS tracking feature called ‘My Location’ on the app shows your location with accuracy. The ‘My tracks’ feature on the website control panel, which is supposed to show a log of all your locations where the app was active and the data connection was switched on, did not work at all.
Email alert with a link to the disressed location on the crowdsouced map. The alert is anonymously displayed otherwise.
An alert is triggered after a delay of five seconds by pressing a button on the app. The alert, if mistakenly triggered, can be cancelled during delay or later. The time of response was impressive. All the listed recipients immediately received the distress SMS and email. The SMS contained the street address of the distress location. The email contained a link that displayed a very accurately placed marker of the distress location on a Google map. Multiple alerts sent in quick succession from the same account from within a radius of 200 metres were logged. A welcome addition would be the ability to view a list of all alerts raised, along with details such as the date, time and location co-ordinates.
SMS alert to sent to a group of predetermined recepients
‘My Alerts’ shows a log of all emergency alerts raised by you on a map, along with the date and time. These alerts are displayed anonymously on the crowdsourced map on the website, ensuring the user’s privacy. The functionality to comment on some of these entries mentioned in the user guide wasn't displayed alongside the crowdsourced map. Comments on crowdsourced deployments provide a way for other people to interact and deal with the emergency situation.
Though it is branded as a women’s safety app, it can be used by anyone. The emergency alert system in itself works extremely well. Numerous apps that are available communicate distress signals or messages with equal ease and accuracy, and are easier to install and use. The app would be more discoverable and trustworthy if listed on app stores. Using an emergency alert system to crowdsource data about crimes and violence is a novel initiative. This data is made publicly available and could be used like other citizen data initiatives to combat social evils. The app, however, is far from perfect for such critical uses.