Written by Chelsea Petersen
There are many Android smartphone apps that allow you to send distress messages quickly and discreetly to friends and family. IT company, Ever After, has piloted South Africa’s first panic button app, Namola, that is directly connected to a police response unit. The app was launched soon after the creation of the community -built StellieSafe app, based on the same concept, though it partners with mainly armed- response security companies.
The app is being piloted in Monument Park, Tshwane, where Namola has partnered with one of their Metro Police Departments, as a way to keep residents safe by simplifying communication with the police. The app demonstrates the use of new technology and how it can be incorporated into crime fighting in the future, should it prove successful. It has been compared to the app run by a taxi service, Uber, due to its use of GPS location to find the user.
Once the app is opened, all the user needs to do is tap the panic button, aptly labelled “get armed response”. Once the button has been tapped, it sends an alert to the three closest patrol cars. The cars are fitted with dashboard smartphones, courtesy of the project’s partnership with Chinese tech company, Huawei. Once the first responder indicates their availability to the phone, it will use GPS technology in order to direct the responder to the user’s location. While the app may not prevent crime, and relies on its user not being in any direct danger, it is incredibly convenient and has the potential to simplify police response as well as reduce response time exponentially. The Namola trial will indicate whether it can be introduced as a feasible system to alert the police.
Using new mobile phone technology, as a way to fight crime, has become increasingly popular, and the trend could well be setting the tone for the future. Life in South Africa poses many dangers, for women especially. As a result of this, anti-crime initiative, Blow the Whistle, has also looked to technology for prevention. The initiative recently launched an anti-rape app, directed at women for when they find themselves feeling vulnerable. Though not connected to police or any armed response team, the app sends out a distress message with the phone’s GPS location to a set list of friends and family. Additionally, it addresses the problem that other panic buttons, including Namola, do not: there is no time to launch the app in the event of being attacked.
Aside from the panic button, when travelling anywhere, the app can be programmed with the details of the journey, including estimated time of arrival. The password- protected details can be reprogrammed for changes along the way, but if the arrival time is not met, the distress messages are sent automatically.
Anti-crime apps, however, are not the only ones used for distress calls. The Automobile Association (AA) launched a free rescue app that sends immediate road-side assistance to the user’s location. It seems smartphone apps may become a major feature for response services.
A future where such services are run on smartphone apps is not difficult to imagine. Wireless internet has made huge bounds in recent years with regards to penetrating the South African market. Wi-Fi, in both public and private places, has almost become an expectation. The use of smartphones amongst South Africans has also seen a huge increase, owing to the availability of contract purchases. Both of these factors mean that the success of the Namola panic button app trial is highly likely, as widespread smartphone use and internet availability allows the app to be accessed almost anywhere. If the trial is a success, the app could be systematically introduced and integrated into the police response systems in all major South African cities.
With more and more areas of life moving online, police services should too, especially with the conveniences of modern technology. The combination of mobile, internet, and GPS technology could see a huge improvement in the efficiency of the South African police force in terms of investigations and responses.