If you’re out on a date and feeling threatened, a new mobile application now makes it possible to discreetly message friends for help on your smartphone.

Called “Circle of 6,” the app was designed to prevent sexual assault and dating violence. The program — which won the White House’s “Apps Against Abuse” Technology Challenge last November — enables users to choose six trusted friends from their address book who can be notified in “two taps” if that person is caught in a potentially dangerous situation.

Officially released to the public on March 20, the free app is available for the iPhone. Once the program is open, a user selects a friend from her pre-determined circle, and then chooses one of three primary message commands that are immediately transmitted to that friend.

The first message, represented by a car icon, sends a contact the user’s location via GPS with a request to pick them up immediately. The second is a phone icon that sends a text to a friend asking for a phone call to interrupt a situation. The third option is a chat icon, which when selected sends a message to a friend knowing the user needs some advice on a situation and is seeking information on healthy relationships.

Nancy Schwartzman, co-creator of Circle of 6, and executive director of The Line Campaign Inc., a nonprofit organization that works to prevent sexual violence, said winning the Apps Against Abuse challenge lent credibility to the app, particularly the endorsement by Vice President Joe Biden.

The vice president’s office tweeted a congratulatory message to challenge winners, saying that through their creativity, “young people have a new line of defense against violence.”

“He’s been talking about rape in an intelligent, realistic way for years,” Schwartzman said of Biden. “From him, it does not feel like lip service. He actually cares and has made a good chunk of his career supporting women’s rights, penning the Violence Against Women Act, so it’s huge … that they think this is a valuable tool.”

Development History

The Circle of 6 app was built in approximately two months. Schwartzman said her co-creator, Deb Levine, founder and executive director of Internet Sexuality Information Service (ISIS), a nonprofit focused on sexual and reproductive health, called her last August with the idea of competing in the Apps Against Abuse contest.

The idea for the app stems from an article in The Stanford Review about the use of social circles, and others talking about Google Plus and how people are using circles in social media.

Levine and Schwartzman came up with the idea behind Circle of 6’s functionality and Schwartzman wrote the text that appears in the app. Thomas Cabus, a freelance art director, graphic designer and photographer, and Christine Corbett Moran, a freelance iPhone developer, worked on the design and coding, respectively.

Circle of 6 cost approximately $10,000 to make. Seed money for the app’s initial creation came via a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Schwartzman said the team agreed to work “almost pro-bono” absorbing all the labor costs. She added that normally it would cost approximately $35,000 to develop the app.

Levine and Schwartzman submitted the prototype app in October. Since winning Uncle Sam’s challenge, a few changes to the program were made. GPS functionality was improved to ensure accuracy, and some adjustments were made to the text messages that go along with the notifications.

Future Use

The app targets college students and young adults. Schwartzman said she initially set a goal of having 30,000 college students download the app in the first year. That number could be surpassed shortly, however. As of April 8, the program had been downloaded 23,662 times.

According to a press release provided by Schwartzman, several colleges already are onboard to promote Circle of 6 on campus, including the University of Texas at Austin, Longwood University in Virginia and others.

Schwartzman plans to expand to those college populations, and hopes to “brand” the app with skins reflecting individual universities. In addition, other groups have contacted her about the usefulness of Circle of 6 as a communication tool in niche communities.

“I’ve heard from lots of different groups, parents, educators, parents, younger kids, people who work in industries where their safety may be on the line,” Schwartzman said. “I’m hearing positive feedback about how they are already using the app without it being geared specifically toward them.”

To reach maximum exposure, however, the app needs to expand to platforms beyond the iPhone. An Android version of Circle of 6 is on the drawing board, but is being held up chiefly due to a lack of funding needed for the coding work.

In the meantime, the app also will serve as a conduit to further education regarding sexual violence and how to prevent it. Plans are in the works to develop Webinars aimed at a broader audience in public schools, based on feedback Schwartzman has received from teachers.

“They are finding just having this app is a great way to talk to young people about what sexual violence looks like and importantly for young men, what accountability can look like and what prevention looks like,” Schwartzman said. “So what we are going to do this summer is design some Webinars for younger kids, parents and teachers about not just how to use the app, but sneak in some conversations about accountability violence prevention.”

Watch video of Circle of 6 app:

Circle of 6 Anti-Violence App for iPhone from Nancy Schwartzman on Vimeo.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.