Geolocation and Personal Safety

I had the privilege of facilitating a session on Geolocation for PodCamp Boston 5 last weekend. The conversation was excellent, and I met a lot of great people there. The slide deck is available on SlideShare.net.

A couple weeks ago, I had a great conversation with Gene Blishen, President of Mt. Lehman Credit Union in BC, near Vancouver, on the CU Water Cooler on the potential uses of geolocation in the financial arena.

With Gowalla and Foursquare becoming increasingly popular, and new services such as SCVNGR and Topguest coming into their own, it’s easy to get caught up in the check-in mania.

But at sessions such as PodCamp, and in private conversations, it’s easy to lose the voice of many people who declare, “I will never even sign up for a check-in service because it feels too unsafe.”

Feelings such as these, which are far from a minority point of view, often get overlooked or dismissed by those in geolocation for whom personal safety is not a consideration. These feelings, combined with the recent tragedy of the murders of two real estate agents in Ohio got me thinking about geolocation from the reverse point of view: What if we could use geolocation to make people SAFER?

So I did some research (okay, I looked up “Personal Safety” in the iPhone app store), and discovered that there ARE a handful of iPhone apps that are doing just that, making people MORE safe, and using geolocation technology for that purpose.

Here’s a quick rundown of four:

iWitness – This app appears pretty robust. Not only can you use it send either a safety alert or medical alert, you can also set up a group of up to 16 friends and colleagues who will get an email when you activate the distress call. Your location is automatically included in the distress notification. Another feature is record mode where it will send video and audio of your current situation to the company’s servers. This could be potentially useful in locating the owner in a kidnapping situation.

Rescue – This app is also robust, offering a number of safety features such as auto-detecting what country you are in so that the emergency phone number (911 in the U.S. but different in other countries) is immediately activated with use. Your GPS location, including Google Map link, and phone number is sent to emergency responders when activated. Rescue also puts the iPhone into an alarm state, setting off an audio and visual alarms on the device itself. This company’s web site features two videos which explain how to personalize and use this app.

Silent Bodyguard – Is similar to Rescue, except that instead of the device going off, it remains silent and innocuous while sending out distress emails, texts, tweets and Facebook updates, informing the contacts that the owner is in trouble, and sending the location information as well. I’d be interested if folks in law enforcement have opinions or research on whether silent or full-alarm is the way to go. I bet it probably depends on the situation. My guess is that it’s best to DETER people with harmful intent by making them aware that should any harm happen to the owner, a slate of people including police will be instantly notified with the owner’s current location. Perhaps a big obtrusive lapel button could be worn that says something along the lines of “Don’t mess with me, police and friends know exactly where I am.”

Safety Button – For times when someone is feeling unsafe while out and about, he/she can launch this app, and the user’s location and steps are then transmitted to the company’s servers. If the owner is then met with a dangerous situation, he/she can press the help button alerting one chosen friend with a message that includes the location.

I look forward to the GeoM conference in Boston this Monday. I hope some of these issues are addressed, but I have a feeling they won’t.

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