Can an App Stop Domestic Violence?

A new crop of apps provides resources and emergency help for domestic violence victims.


In February 2014, Greg Anderson murdered his 11-year-old son, Luke Batty, after a cricket practice just outside of Melbourne. This came after years of domestic violence towards Rosie Batty, Luke’s mother. She called the horrific deed “the final act of control” over her.

After Luke’s death, Rosie turned her heinous experience into an opportunity to help other women. She became a domestic violence campaigner, was named 2015’s Australian of the Year, and partnered with community social services agency Doncare to launch iMatter. The app is designed to help young women in domestic violence situations by providing information about abusive behavior and promoting self esteem.

Rosie Batty’s experience with domestic violence is unfortunately common; more than 1 in 3 women in the U.S. have experienced domestic violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime.

A handful of apps have been developed in recent years to educate women on signs of abuse, provide connections to resources, and alert trusted contacts in cases of emergency.

“It was a great process, drawn from years of experience working with students and survivors to come up with an inclusive, broad enough tool,” said Circle of 6 CEO Nancy Schwartzman, on the creation of the app that allows users to alert trusted contacts when in need.

OneLove My Plan, an app that assesses the safety of relationships and creates a usable action plan, was developed through a partnership between the One Love Foundation and Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. Its creators used years of research from Johns Hopkins professors Dr. Jackie Campbell and Dr. Nancy Glass, and direction from domestic violence survivors and experts from the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).

“Safety planning is a widely advocated intervention to prevent and respond to intimate partner violence (IPV), yet the vast majority of women in abusive relationships never access safety planning services in formal settings, such as shelters and safe houses, health care clinics, or the criminal justice system,” researcher Dr. Glass told The Daily Beast via email. “Our goal is to increase women’s access to safety planning by integrating evidence based tools that make use of appropriate technology, such as the My Plan app, a safety decision aid for women in an unsafe relationship.”

Marketing is a major challenge for app creators, having to toe the line between promoting the apps to the targeted audience while maintaining the safety and discretion of users.

Robin McGraw was careful not to reveal what the Aspire News app actually looked like when she appeared on Dr. Phil and The Doctors to promote it. Created with her foundation, When Georgia Smiled, Aspire News is cleverly disguised to look like a news app, with resources and a “get help” feature hidden behind actual news stories. Showing its appearance on widely viewed TV shows could tip off perpetrators to its actual purpose. Instead, the interface was obscured with the shows’ logos.

When Vodafone Turkey developed Easy Rescue, an app that sends a text message and GPS location to trusted contacts when activated, they teamed with advertising agency Y&R. Y&R marketed Easy Rescue in a way that would reach as many women as possible while minimizing male awareness of the app. This meant no TV, radio, or billboard ads. Instead, they used multiple covert tactics.

Vloggers promoted Easy Rescue, burying information about the apps within female-centric topics, like makeup. They created at-home wax strips that displayed information about the app when heated, included messages on lingerie tags, and put displays in women’s restrooms.

Vodafone Turkey even distributed a message to all female app subscribers via an automated voice system. If the system recognized a male voice answering the phone, a generic promotional message was played instead.

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Y&R won the Grand Prix Media Lion at the 2015 Cannes Lions festival for the Easy Rescue marketing campaign. The app has been widely used, with over 250,000 downloads and over 100,000 activations.

But increased awareness of domestic violence apps is pointless if the apps aren’t effective. A study from the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA) examining the use of apps in relation to sexual and domestic violence found that the actual efficacy of some of these apps is unclear.

Sexual and domestic violence practitioners interviewed as part of the study were critical of the alert-style apps like Circle of 6, stating that a simple text could produce the same effect, and expressing concern that these types of apps may increase feelings of victim blaming. Researchers also noted that alert-style apps could contribute towards the commodification of women’s safety by expecting women to invest time, energy, and funds into their own safety, shifting the responsibility of safety to the victims. Practitioners were wary of apps that provided information or recorded evidence, as domestic violence perpetrators are likely to monitor victims’ phones. They stressed that even apps with hidden functions, like Aspire News, could be found by abusers.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) also critically examined domestic violence apps with the App Safety Centre as part of the Safety Net Project. NNEDV cautioned app developers to ensure the app works the way it’s advertised, noting that when alert apps were tested, many didn’t actually send alerts or contact emergency services as advertised. NNEDV also listed potential privacy issues and the danger of relying on GPS (turning off GPS is generally recommended to domestic violence survivors to avoid phone monitoring) along with other concerns related to domestic violence apps that echoed CRiVA’s findings.

Although the CRiVA study and NNEDV reported some limitations, responses to these apps have been positive. Circle of 6 won the 2011 Apps Against Abuse challenge from the the Office of the Vice President and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the OneLove My Plan app has been selected as one of four finalists for the Womanity Award provided by the Womanity Foundation.

In the final phase of the development of OneLove My Plan, researchers received numerous unsolicited emails from participants who had tested the app before it was rolled out. One participant wrote, “The info...has giving the courage, will, and resources I needed to get out of that abusive relationship with my husband.”

See below for more information on the apps discussed.

Aspire NewsAvailable on iOS; AndroidFeatures: Looks like a news app. Help section contains articles on leaving abusive relationships and links to hotlines and resources. When users are in a dangerous situation, they can activate the Get Help feature by tapping the toolbar of the app three times. This sends a text or a prerecorded audio message to a trusted contact or 911, alerting the contact that the user is in danger. Once the Get Help feature has been activated, the app also begins audio recording.

OneLove My PlanAvailable on iOS; AndroidFeatures: Has articles on domestic violence, links to helplines, and a live chat option. The main function of OneLove My Plan is for the user to assess the safety of their intimate relationship and develop an action plan. The app has four sections of quizzes, weighing the user’s relationship health, safety priorities and danger in the relationship to inform the users plan. The last section presents personalized information, including information in various languages and for same-sex intimate relationships, and resources with links to resources to put the plan to action. MyPlan also has a section for friends of women in unsafe relationships, providing users with information on healthy relationships, suggestions for safely discussing concerns, and links to resources for more information.

Easy RescueAvailable on iOS; Android (in Turkey)Features: Disguised to look like a flashlight app. When users are in danger, shaking the phone three times sends a text message and GPS location to three trusted contacts.

iMatterAvailable on iOS; AndroidFeatures: Focuses on prevention and education. This app has videos, blog posts, and quizzes on healthy relationships, as well as one section with Pinterest-esque inspirational quotes on pictures of nature. Users can find links to hotlines and police contacts under the Find Support section.

Circle of 6Available on iOS; Android Features: Allows users to input up to six trusted contacts. It has the Come Get Me feature (sends a pin with GPS coordinates to trusted contacts), the Phone feature (sends a text that says “Call and pretend you need me. I need an interruption”) and the Chat feature (sends a text that says “I need to talk”). Circle of 6 also has the option to send a text that says “I’m ok, I got help” to your circle. In addition to the alert functions, Circle of 6 has links to information about healthy relationships and safety as well as links to specialized hotlines (including hotlines specifically serving LGBTQ populations or available in various languages) depending on personal preferences.