Social Justice

The problems with BT's £50m 888 app to protect women on their way home

BT has proposed the Walk Me Home app to the Home Office, saying it would cost £50million to develop. It's fair to say it has divided opinion. Here's why.

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The Prime Minister Boris Johnson accompanied by the Home Secretary Priti Patel visit North Yorkshire Police HQ in July 2020. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

BT has asked for £50million to develop a new tool to help women get home safely – and it’s not gone down too well.

The BT 888 Walk Me Home service would allow users to opt in to a GPS tracking system and an alert would be triggered if they did not reach their destination on time. 

Setting out on their journey, users would log their start location and destination with an estimated arrival time. Should they not arrive within the expected parameters, an alert would be sent, potentially to an 888 emergency line which would trigger a blue light or police response. 

The idea has been pitched to Home secretary Priti Patel, who has reportedly said: “This new phone line is exactly the kind of innovative scheme which would be good to get going as soon as we can. I’m now looking at it with my team and liaising with BT.”

It would cost around £50m and could be launched by Christmas.

The murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, two young women who were preyed upon while walking home late at night, have raised the issue of male violence to the point of national crisis.

Campaigners, activists and employers are calling for action, and one Scottish council has taken a stand by making late-night venues have to consider the safety of staff when they leave work

NHS Test and Trace spent £13.5 billion up to April 2021. At only a fraction of that cost, this new app could be considered a bargain. It’s reportedly been backed by Number 10 and Patel, and the Police Federation said it “could be a good thing”.

But it’s generally been panned. Here’s why.

The ‘innovative scheme’ already exists

There are already personal safety apps that alert trusted contacts or the emergency services to your location in a crisis. They are available to download. Right now.

1) Hollie Guard

This free app has been around for six years and was created by the Hollie Gazzard Trust, set up in memory of 20-year-old Hollie who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2014.

Users can set start and end destinations in the app and uses GPS to track progress along that route. The app will automatically trigger alerts to emergency contacts if the user does not arrive at the destination with the parameters set. 

Most similar to BTs proposed “Walk me home” service, it’s been downloaded 300,000 times. Hollie Guard Extra provides direct access to a dedicated emergency response team, but the upgrade costs £79 a year. 

Hollie’s father Nick Gazzard, the charity’s founder and CEO, told the BBC their free app was “tried and tested and proven and has all the functionality which the 888 app suggests they’re going to include”.

Download Hollie Guard

2) Red Panic Button

This simple app allows you to send a ‘panic tweet’ that tells your chosen followers that you need help while alerting them to your location. 

Once the button has been pressed, the app instantly sends your emergency contacts an SMS and an email with your coordinates in a Google Maps link.

Download Red Panic Button

3) Circle Of 6

This app asks you to choose six close and trusted contacts, ideally who are all based in different places, who you would wish to be contacted in an emergency. 

The app lets you send messages to your six with just two taps. The preset messages are set by you with instructions of your choice on what they can do to help you.

Download Circle of 6

4) Shake2safety

In a similar way to Circle of 6, Shake2Safety requires you to set emergency contacts who can be contacted with a preset emergency message when needed. 

Shake2safety also allows pictures, location, and recorded audio to be sent as quickly as shaking the phone or pressing the power button 4 times. 

Download Shake2safety

5) Silent Beacon

The Silent Beacon is a keychain sized button which attaches to keys, a necklace or belt, that pairs to any smartphone or device with Bluetooth. 

When the button is pressed, it automatically calls any number the user has programmed it to, including 999. Simultaneously, it can send any chosen family or friends texts with a current GPS location. 

Download Silent Beacon

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We already have an emergency service for violent crimes

The murders of Sabina Nessa and Sarah Everard have highlighted the police are failing in their duty to keep women safe. 

It therefore seems confusing that rather than address the problems built into the police, the Home Office would invest in another, adjacent service to step in where the police are failing. 

“Instead of spending £50 million on this new fandangled idea – which is really an old idea – 999 needs to work for us,” said Jamie Klingler, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Direct action group Sisters Uncut have launched national intervention training to train women to intervene when they see police conducting stop and search, arrest, or kidnapping.

It’s reactive rather than preventative

Women shouldn’t have to behave any differently than men when walking alone, at night, or in any way they choose.

All of these approaches place the responsibility for women’s safety on women themselves, or on those who may seek to protect them, rather than on stopping men from perpetrating. 

“Or perhaps BT could make an app for men, and if they feel the urge to attack women they can call a special number that tells them to go home, tracks them there, and alerts the police if they try to go out.” suggested writer Paul Davies in a tweet. 

And to really get to the root of the issue, it’s male violence that needs to be addressed.

“It’s not about women keeping themselves safe, it’s not about me dialling 888,” Klingler said.

“By the time I dial 888 that I’m being threatened, I’m dead.”

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