A Kenyan student launched a 'panic button' app that could improve public safety

Edwin Inganji may have figured out a quick fix to alleviate at least part of Kenya’s public safety problem.

Inganji is a computer scientist and co-developer of Usalama, an app that alerts law enforcement and nearby app users about dangerous situations with a few shakes of the phone.

The app was recently shortlisted for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa prize for engineering innovation.

Kenya’s crime rate is extremely high compared to other countries. In Nairobi, the country’s capital, passersby are especially vulnerable to violent attacks and theft. Back in 2013, Inganji happened to be one of those victims. He says the emergency response at the time was hardly comforting.

“Reaching the emergency services when you need them is really difficult — the toll-free line just doesn’t go through,” the 22-year-old told the Guardian. “Either you have to take yourself [to the police station or hospital], or have a witness take you. If no one is around to help you, most of the time you’re screwed.”

Usalama tries to close that gap by making ordinary citizens the safety net.

When a person feels threatened, they can shake the phone three times to open the app. Then they either press the emergency button or hold down the volume button. The phone quickly dispatches the local police and fire departments, and alerts every Usalama user within a 650-foot radius.

Ideally, the police will be nearby or enough app users will band together to ward off the attackers.

Inganji’s app follows in the footsteps of a number of public safety apps, many of which have been released in the US and are targeted toward women, including bSafe, Guardly, and one simply called Red Panic Button. The apps offer instant 911 dialling, video recording, location tracking, and other safety features.

Usalama also keeps a record of where each alert was sent, in the hopes that police officers could watch those areas more carefully.

Inganji and his team are developing a feature that will give users the ability to find one another when they don’t want to walk alone, and they can set a timer that sounds out an alert if they get home when they say they will. The app also offers the ability to call off the alerts by pressing the “Recant” button.

In a country where nearly 90% of residents have cell phones, using the technology for safety appears to be a smart step.

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