As the world gets smaller and nearly every service comes in a handset, people want easy access to law enforcement. In the absence of this, the public want someone they can rely on who will reach out to them in an emergency. Personal safety smartphone apps fill this gap and provide people with a means of keeping track of family and friends – but are they really the end-all solution?
In Pakistan it makes sense to have apps that provide access to the complex multitude of state and private emergency support numbers which exist and which often differ from province to province. And then we have the all-powerful panic button.
This is the basic function of all safety apps; to push messages to let your 'in case of emergency' (ICE) and designated contacts know your location and call emergency numbers for help with some secondary features, such as schedule fake incoming calls, sound panic alarms, take photos of the perpetrator and provide detailed Google Map location data.
There are a whole host of such apps in the app stores, and in the current environment in Pakistan, they make sense, but not for the reason one would ordinarily think.
Keep in mind the multiple app flaws and constraints. Is the user's GPS location on or not? What if they are paranoid about personal security in terms of not being tracked? Is their WiFi, 3G or Edge active, or is this one of those ugly moments when all is dead. How is the mobile network's service doing at the moment? Has your balance run out? Will your friends check their phones? Will they respond? How fast and who to?
And the most important question of all – will you make it to the panic button, or even remember in an emergency where you are being kidnapped, robbed, fleeing a fire, earthquake or terror attack?
My money is on no.
The future success of safety apps lies in offering a richer product and increasing awareness about emergency response. A way for apps to step up is to connect users in real time with trained medical staff and offer brief instructional videos on symptoms of medical emergencies and showing how to handle them until paramedics arrive.
Apps can also include a broadcast feature that sends users official announcements regarding natural disasters or security – such as the ban on pillion riding or gatherings of more than four people – so you do not inadvertently get in trouble because you missed the 11:00 p.m. news last night.
Ultimately, as security analyst Norbert Almeida points out, the information collected by safety apps is not useful until it is placed in context through education and awareness about what to do in particular emergency situations, as well as a law enforcement framework.
So let the ol' National Action Plan expand beyond operations against terrorists and spreading information and awareness to citizens, eh?
Jahanzaib Haque is Editor, dawn.com