The Role of Technology in Ensuring the Safety of Women in Corporates

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Sharing my talk at a recent panel discussion organized by Nasscom in Pune.

In the year 2013, there were over 33,000 rapes reported all over the country, and over 70,000 cases of molestation. 

These numbers show that the danger to women in India is very real.

There are about 24% of women in the workforce. Ensuring the safety of these women is the highest possible priority for all of us. None of us would like to have a repetition of some of the horrific cases that are etched in our memories with so much of pain.

In the past few years - a 22 year old lady, a BPO employee, was gang-raped and murdered in Pune, by the driver of her company car, and his friend. A software engineer was accosted when she was leaving work, gang-raped and murdered.

So today’s subject is really very relevant. With India developing technology that is used all over the world, having a space program that all of us are really proud of – we should be discussing how our technological prowess can be used to prevent such horrific incidents of crime against women.

I believe that the problem is a complex one, and therefore there is no one solution, rather many different approaches, that need to fit in, like a jigsaw puzzle, ultimately leading to prevention or at least a reduction, in these horrific cases.

  • On the one hand, there is the question of the safety in our public spaces. Working women will naturally be using the streets, and public transport, so airports, stations and taxis. In larger cities, there are pedestrian sub-ways or walk overs, that can often be deserted, and frankly, creepy. The modern workplace demands long working hours and out of town travel, so a lot of women will find themselves commuting or traveling late at night. I believe that CCTV can be both an effective deterrent as well as an aid to investigation, if a crime does happen. Studies have shown that CCTV installations do have a proven impact on the rate of crime, while there are many well known cases, such as the Boston marathon bombing, that have actually been solved on the basis of footage. 
    In Pune, a project to install 1,285 CCTV cameras at 444 locations in the city is reported as making hardly any progress. This is very disheartening, and it’s important for the authorities and corporates to work together to close the loop on this one. The signal needs to go out loud and clear ‘you are being watched when you are in public spaces’, and of course, the data that is captured needs to be properly analyzed.
  • Another area where technology can act as a deterrent is in vehicle tracking, especially when women are commuting using either company fleet cars, or radio taxis. A GPS in the vehicle sends its coordinates to the central system, which can raise an alert if the vehicle has gone off the defined route, or is delayed. Once again – it’s important to send the message out – that this vehicle is ‘smart’ and its passenger is protected.
  • The third area where a lot of R&D is being done currently is products or apps a woman will have on her person, and she can use to send alerts when she feels threatened – so these are typically mobile apps, or wearable devices with data connectivity. These devices are often designed to look like jewelry, and can communicate to pre-defined contacts through the SIM card.

While a lot of these products are extremely innovative, but as they are recent developments, their effectiveness is not proven. Of course, as many of them are only supposed to be initiated when the user is in danger, in a way we should be grateful that we haven’t seen them in action.

There is one case, that was widely reported, although it’s related to an automobile accident rather than a crime against women – a Californian woman who was trapped in her car for 17 hours after her car fell into a ravine was rescued thanks to a Find My iPhone app.
She had been thrown from the car and was lying face down. First, the OnStar satellite tracking system on her Chevy Cruze sent out a distress call. The police searched for the car but didn’t find it. Then a tech-savvy police officer asked her family if she had an iPhone, and when he was told that she did, he went to her home and used the Find My iPhone app on her iPad, which gave them an accurate location. Apple's Find My iPhone app locates users with a database of Wi-Fi hotspots, cell phone tower locations, as well as the GPS satellite system, and tracks users over time.
In this story, the police officer managed to guess the password of her iPad, after the 3rd or 4th try! Maybe that means that a divine power must want you to live, over and above technology?

A more powerful product has recently been developed to protect students in college campuses in the US, which works on their smartphones, and in times of distress, sends streaming video, audio and GPS data to professional monitoring centers and the students’ families.

As better connectivity becomes available, such apps will become feasible, and should send a strong message to potential perpetrators of crime – that technology is one step ahead of them.

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