Coding club designs sexual assault survivor help app

By Leah Nicolini

An NIU-built sexual assault help app will be released in the fall and Safe Passage expects the app to reduce the 6,500 calls it received on its 24-hour hotline in 2015.

Four students from Tech Bark, an NIU coding club, teamed up with Kristen Myers, director of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, and Mary Ellen Schaid, executive director of Safe Passage, to design an app that guides survivors of sexual assault through the options they have to get help.

Tech Bark is an interdisciplinary student organization that connects students to technology, coding and problem solving, according to its page on the Huskie Link website.

“The app would streamline [the] process at Safe Passage,” Schaid said. “One of [the sexual assault survivors’] options would be to call Safe Passage … right now an advocate on the crisis line does what the app would do.”

Safe Passage provides services like crisis intervention and medical advocacy for people who have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence. The crisis intervention center has the only 24-hour crisis line in DeKalb county. The advocates answering calls ask a series of questions, similar to steps the app takes users, to help victims understand their options for getting help.

The app goes through a list of questions to show a user what their options are. The app asks “Have you been sexually assaulted?” and the user can answer either “not sure,” which will show the user legal definitions and explanations of sexual assault, or “yes,” which links to methods of seeking help, according to an email sent by Michael Unger, vice president of Tech Bark.

The methods of seeking help allow the user to choose between confidential help or filing an official report with instructions on the implications of both options and resources for completing both actions, according to an email sent by Unger.

The app includes a link to NIU Counseling and Consultation Services, Safe Passage and services within the KishHealth System.

“This app is going to be really useful and beneficial to young people who are the victims of sexual assault because they’re on social media already and are familiar with it, so they’ll be comfortable using it,” Schaid said.

The promotion of this app will primarily be done through NIU, Schaid said.

Tech Bark is working on developing the app for iPhone usage which requires different equipment than Android usage, Unger said.

The idea for the app came from NIU student Alexandra Futty during the Huskie Hack on Sept. 26-27, said Tracy Rogers-Tryba, research associate for the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development.

The Huskie Hack is an event where students are invited to brainstorm ways to code and help public services like hospitals and schools, according to its website.

“We chose to focus on this [app] because it was heavily NIU-influenced and very important to the person requesting it,” Unger said.