Content warning: This story contains depictions of domestic abuse that may be triggering to some readers.
For individuals facing high-risk situations within their own homes, often at the hands of their own partners or family, calling the police is not the safest option—it could escalate the situation. In addition, authorities often cannot help until a crime has been committed.
Brisbane, Australia-based nonprofit Commsync seeks to solve that vexing—and dangerous, sometimes life-threatening—problem with an innovative solution.
The company uses technology to create tailored personal safety plans for individuals. They provide a wearable device to women and children affected by domestic abuse to alert their safety network in dangerous situations.
In partnership with the Australian Commonwealth Government Department of Social Services’ National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, Commsync deployed devices to 100 women in at-risk situations.
In the three months prior to receiving the wearable, this group of women made 900 calls to the police. In the three months after they were given the device, they made none, and instead used their personal networks to create a safer environment, granting themselves freedom and autonomy in the process.
Chris Boyle, co-founder and CEO of Commsync, has 25 years’ experience in social work. During his time as a social worker, he met with countless women and children exposed to family violence. Chris helps people create a safety plan as one of the first steps in creating a safer environment. The plan typically consists of a sheet of paper with a few phone numbers taped to the fridge.
“As soon as an individual feels their heart start to race because their partner walked in with anger, or they hear the car door slam in the driveway, they have an idea of where the night is going to go,” Boyle said.
Unfortunately, when they call the police at that stage, law enforcement is unable to intervene as no crime has yet been committed.
And, when these individuals call domestic violence hotlines, the organization will facilitate an escape plan for the individual to leave immediately—but many partners are not able to leave due to children in the home or a lack of independent finances.
Commsync found that many individuals weren’t looking to escape; they were just trying to feel safe. Safety meant knowing they had people who cared about them at the other end of the line who could intervene if necessary.
So they would grab their sheet of paper and start making phone calls. However, getting to a phone and making a call during an emergency situation proved untenable to many individuals, and often aggravated the situation.
Jane, Boyle explained, is one of the many women who was looking for a safer and more appropriate solution. When Boyle met her, he learned that her husband did four tours with the Australian army in Afghanistan and suffered from PTSD upon his return, occasionally turning to violence against her.
She used to self-manage by keeping their two kids awake until her husband fell asleep on nights she expected him to lash out, as he would never hurt her with them around. If she called the police before a violent incident, they informed her that there is nothing they can do. She also did not want her husband arrested. Jane was attempting to keep her family together while the Department of Veterans’ Affairs was working to get her husband the support and counseling he needs to get better.
In addition to these challenges with calling the police, Commsync found that many people like Jane in early to severe domestic abuse situations felt more comforted in knowing they could call someone they knew, rather than having an anonymous emergency responder at their door.
“Safety is not a gadget, it’s the people. Safety is not a technology, it’s a feeling,” said Scott Norrish, Head of Strategy & Partnerships at Commsync.
To create a safer alternative, Commsync set out to create a way to connect individuals with people they know. They started with the question: how do we connect them to people that really care about them and can provide the appropriate intervention?
The ability to leverage the Twilio SMS toolset on demand, provides our organization the confidence to scale rapidly across multiple geographies. We also knew we found the right partner based on their mission to use technology for good.
Commsync’s first ideation of the technology was an app that resided in a mobile phone. Once women started attempting to use this alert app, though, problems arose.
People using the app often had their phones smashed or broken, and they didn’t have the finances for data plans or top-of-the-line smartphones. Commsync decided to take the best of their application development and apply that safety work flow into a discrete form factor. They started by incorporating their previous technology into the Android application of a watch that could send an alert.
When an individual presses the SOS button on their Commsync watch, Commsync alerts their safety network with their location and the words “SOS” in an SMS using Twilio Programmable SMS.
When a user presses the SOS button, it also triggers a phone call that connects all supporters and that records the situation. To power the call, Commsync paired Twilio with Mobicall, a technology that allows them to unify voice communications in one place.
Jane was one of the first to receive the Commsync wearable. She set up her watch to alert her sister, her father, and her neighbor.
At the end of January, she sensed a night was escalating when her husband started raising his voice. She alerted the system, and all three members of her safety network were pooled into a conference call where they could hear the context of Jane’s situation and align on support options. They discussed who was physically closest to intervene. Her father then decided to call Jane’s husband and invite him over to watch the cricket game to defuse the situation.
Before they developed the wearable with listen-in technology, responders would call the individual’s phone, often inflaming the situation. Or, responders may choose to physically walk into an unknown and quickly unfolding situation, creating safety concerns for the responders in the safety network.
The recording and conference line gives the safety network the information they need to decide how to intervene and a safe space to create a plan. If they press 5, they can escalate the call to police and bring the authorities into the conference call as well.
Commsync is currently working to bring their communications under one house by migrating to Twilio Programmable Voice. “We believe migrating will provide us a significant uplift in capacity for all of our call orchestration and control needs, which will allow our organization to truly provide our services in all corners of the world,” says Norrish.
Commsync implemented Twilio Programmable SMS in less than a week into their app workflow.
“The ability to leverage the Twilio SMS toolset on demand, provides our organization the confidence to scale rapidly across multiple geographies,” said Norrish. “We also knew we found the right partner based on their mission to use technology for good.”
“Through all of this, we knew we had found the right partner to support us both today and through our future growth,” he added. “Our future migration to Twilio Programmable Voice will provide us a significant uplift in capacity for all of our call orchestration and control needs, which will allow our organization to truly provide our services in all corners of the world.”
In his profession as a social worker, Boyle gets to hear firsthand from women and children what truly works.
“Escape is not safety. It’s often a point of higher risk for many of these individuals. Safety is through connections. Connections change lives,” he said.
Boyle said he met a 6-year-old girl who felt so much safer with a device in hand, that she called Chris the “Safety Watch Avenger.” To match Chris Pratt, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth in the Avengers, she made Chris a cape to wear.
After seeing the success of the device with women and children in at-risk situations, Commsync began to deploy the wearables to social workers, care workers, and other frontline workers who were at risk responding to violent situations.
StandbyU Foundation, the social impact arm of Commsync, has now deployed 700 watches to individuals in need. With a 2 year goal of helping 2 million people around the world, they plan to continue expanding into other wearables like brooches and pendants as the wearables and IoT sector continues to expand.