Navy testing app for sexual assault prevention

Sailors start their Friday morning using their cellphones during a cellphone approved period aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan on June 24, 2016 in the waters south of Japan.


By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: November 29, 2016

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — In the wake of the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech that killed 32 and wounded 17, one of the injured students developed a crowdsourcing application to report suspicious activity that’s used by colleges, businesses and professional sports teams around the country.

Now the booming Arlington-based company has another major customer: the U.S. Navy.

The service launched a six-month pilot program this month for sailors in Hampton Roads and Rota, Spain, to use the LiveSafe app in an effort to prevent sexual assaults and combat other destructive behaviors before they happen. If the Navy likes the outcome, it could roll it out to installations around the world.

The mobile application is free to download and allows sailors to send their location to someone else so they can see them walking home, provides contact information for emergency and counseling services, and allows sailors to anonymously report suspicious or criminal activity, among other things.

The Navy says the application is targeted at young, junior-enlisted sailors. There are about 45,000 people who fit that category in Hampton Roads. The Navy paid $150,000 for development and use of the app for one year.

“When you think about what it costs to respond to one sexual assault – you think about providing medical services, doing the investigation, doing the legal processing, providing all the victim advocacy services, the amount of time the chain of command spends in reviewing and overseeing these cases and then executing the potential disciplinary action – that one case is significantly more than the cost for the pilot,” said Capt. Charles Marks, U.S. Fleet Forces Command’s sexual assault prevention and response officer.

Marks said the Navy would conduct focus groups throughout the pilot period to see if sailors have any stories about how the app may have helped prevent an incident, which is the Navy’s ultimate goal.

The application works based on geography. It provides a list of resources that vary depending upon where a sailor is stationed. But that list changes if a sailor moves from one base to another. Hampton Roads was chosen as a pilot location because there are so many installations here.

“We actually chose this because this is our most complex, largest fleet concentration area with the most junior sailors. And we said if we can make this work in this really complex environment where people are going from base to base, we can make it work anywhere,” Marks said.

In the event of an emergency, Navy officials also can send out a geographically based alert that tells sailors they’re in a forbidden zone.

“When a sailor pulls into a port like Naples (Italy) or Bahrain, if they have the off-limits locations … that’s really powerful,” Marks said. “So a sailor wouldn’t go into an area where protests are happening in Bahrain, for instance. Or they wouldn’t go into the high-crime areas in Naples where people are getting robbed or pick-pocketed.”

The app is already widely used by colleges in Virginia, including Old Dominion University, James Madison University and Virginia Tech. Kristina Anderson was one of the most severely injured survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings and is one of the company’s founders. She became an advocate for campus safety after graduating in 2009. The company launched in 2014.

LiveSafe President and CEO Carolyn Parent said the app is frequently used in one area that’s of common concern for colleges and the military: suicide.

“We’ve seen suicides having been prevented because of early communication from concerned friends,” Parent said.

The app is tailored to each institution’s needs.

ODU officials say the app allows students to text police instead of calling, submit information anonymously and attach video clips and photographs. It also provides users with escort options, including the university’s SafeRide van, which has seen ridership grow from 12,500 to 92,000 per year since the app launched in 2014, according to the university.

ODU police also have received hundreds of tips through the app, which people in nearby neighborhoods who aren’t affiliated with the school also can download.

“The campus community is very comfortable communicating via text message and many of these tips have assisted the police by providing an opportunity to intervene before an incident escalates to something more serious,” ODU Police Chief Rhonda Harris said in a statement.

For the Navy, unique content includes a section about “myths and misconceptions.” It lets sailors know that chaplains aren’t required to report anything they’re told, among other things.

Marks is confident in the app’s potential, in part, because his own children have used it as students at Virginia Commonwealth University and New York University.

He said he’s personally tested out the feature that allows them to let him see them walking home. But he also notes that the user decides what information to share and the Navy has no intention of tracking people through it.

When the Navy was testing which app to devote to a pilot program, he said participating sailors quickly got over fears of being tracked.

Parent said the app guarantees anonymity unless the user doesn’t want it.

“This gives them a very simple way to help protect each other. In as little as two clicks, three clicks on their phone, can make all the difference in the world,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to make the world a safer place and I hope we make an impact to the Navy.”

LiveSafe is available for download on Android and Apple devices.

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