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Israeli Hackers Develop Tech to Combat Domestic Violence

08.06.2020 07:00 AM

A three-day hackathon produced a promising set of mobile apps for helping women in crisis, and for stopping violence against women before it occurs.

פורום מיכל סלה

IN A SMALL country like Israel—the population is less than 9 million people—every murder makes national headlines. But the October 2019 killing of Michal Sela, a 32-year old social worker from Jerusalem, stood out. Sela’s husband allegedly stabbed her multiple times in front of their 8-month old baby before stabbing himself in a failed suicide attempt.


The case puzzled the media and Sela’s family. The excessive cruelty was disturbing, especially juxtaposed with Sela’s seemingly normal life and happy marriage. More unbearable was that the killer’s obsessive jealousy and abusive tendencies, uncovered later by the police, were hidden from the public eye for months.


Since the beginning of 2020, in the shade of Covid-19’s sheltering rules and financial tribulations, 11 Israeli women have met a fate similar to Sela's. But in her case, Sela’s loved ones refused to allow her death to become just another sad headline. Rather, Michal’s sister Lili Ben Ami harnessed her family's personal tragedy to establish the Michal Sela Forum, a nonprofit organization with one goal in mind: to use technology to put a stop to domestic violence.

With famous ventures like Viber, Mobileye, and Wix calling it home, Israel has built a reputation as a “startup nation.” However, while the country has embraced technology to advance fields like cybersecurity, health care, and the military, the lives of women haven’t exactly been on the tech nation’s radar.


It’s this disparity that Ben Ami is aiming to change. Ben Ami is a feminist activist and educator who has a coding certificate from Ort Jerusalem, where she later taught the C++ programming language. Her connection to the tech community runs in the family; both her partner and brother are software engineers. In May of this year, just months after establishing the forum, Ben Ami hosted the Safe Home Hackathon. These big hacker events encourage fast-paced, creative collaboration between technically skilled attendees in order to solve a problem. This hackathon was focused on developing tools and solutions to detect, combat, and prevent domestic violence and intimate partner abuse, from the very early stages all the way up to life-threatening emergencies.

Backed by Facebook, Microsoft, Salesforce, and other tech giants, 1,800 Israeli tech workers were split up into 54 groups and spent three days brainstorming apps, platforms, and services designed to counter domestic violence. Dozens of ideas were born, and the 10 leading startups—chosen by a panel of judges from tech, academia, and politics—have entered an incubator and an accelerator where each product will be developed further. The judging panel awarded the top three entries free legal and strategic counseling, plus monetary prizes. By the end of the process, each startup will present their idea to a panel of potential investors from Israel and beyond, with the intention of propelling these creations into the real world where the public can utilize them.


This is the first time the issues of domestic violence and the murder of women in Israel have been given a technological focus. “Our goal is to take this issue forward, beyond primitive solutions,” Ben Ami says. “Michal’s murder raised a lot of questions. As I was doing my research, it became clear that when it comes to domestic violence, the treatment is way behind.”

Of course, tracking and stopping domestic violence with technology is trickier than it sounds. For one, the proliferation of smartphones and social media have made it easier for abusers to isolate, control, and surveil their victims. Diana Freed, a digital security and privacy researcher at Cornell who works with the Clinic to End Tech Abuse in New York, points to emergency apps as a potential dilemma. With these apps, which are hidden on the victim’s phone and can summon help with a tap of a button, “a challenge can be making sure the client has a safe device and is aware of the factor of security," she says. "We’re always concerned about the safety of the client and what the abuser might know.”


At the clinic, which launched in 2019, women in the process of exiting dangerous relationships are offered a Tech Disconnect checklist, which ensures that no potentially harmful links to the ex-partner are left after a breakup, from a mutual Amazon account to a telltale phone bill. Freed says that such technological tethers are common even if someone moves miles away from their abuser.


On the other hand, technology provides domestic abuse victims with important tools that allow connection with loved ones and the authorities, from anonymous chat rooms to apps like Circle of 6, which quickly (with two screen taps) alerts a group of friends and family that the user needs help.

A Multipronged Approach

The Forum’s hackathon attempted to broaden the spectrum of support that technology can provide to domestic violence victims by dividing the different types of initiatives into three segments.


The first segment focused on prevention. Hackathon projects in this group tap into nationwide databases to search for signs of systemic, unreported abuse in the health care and education systems. One such example from the hackathon is MedFlag, an automated system that analyzes medical records to look for signs of repeated abuse among hospital and clinic patients.


Another segment is for utilities that can be used during life-threatening emergencies. Apps like Stay Tuned, one of the hackathon’s winners, equip abuse victims with ways of signaling an emergency that require even less effort than tapping one’s phone screen. Stay Tuned looks like an innocent recipe or news app, but when it's open, it's listening. Using voice recognition tech and machine intelligence, the app records alarming noises, saving them to the cloud in real time and notifying both the police and a list of predetermined personal contacts when the app detects domestic violence occurring. Another finalist, Safe and Sound, is an invisible app that is operated by voice recognition technology—the app recognizes a predetermined spoken code word, then alerts the user's chosen contacts that help is needed.


Lastly, the hackathon's third segment concentrated on apps that use technology to recognize events that can serve as warning signs of potential future violence—for example, when a jealous husband erases all of his wife’s male Facebook friends. Aware, a smartphone "violence detector," takes this approach. It utilizes an algorithm that learns the phone owner’s daily usage patterns. Then, when unusual activity, presumably done by an abuser, is detected—such as a spyware app being installed or contacts being blocked—trustees chosen by the phone owner receive a text message explaining the risk and providing advice on the best ways to address the issue.


Mind the Gap

It’s impossible to talk about the use technology for good without taking into account the forces that make it less accessible: financial disparity, language barriers, and technological literacy. Not everyone owns a smartphone, has access to a reliable Wi-Fi connection, or knows how to navigate the web of apps, websites, and notifications in their everyday lives, let alone during a stressful emergency.


“What we see is that there are a lot of challenges navigating interfaces and understanding information flows,” Freed says, addressing the issue of navigating app installation. In a country like Israel, with a large population of Arabic speakers and Russian immigrants, and a significant sector of ultra-Orthodox Jews who partially denounce smartphones, the challenges become even more apparent.

“Technology is a localized solution,” says Michal Gera Margaliot, the executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, the leading women's rights organization in the country. “Unfortunately, violence against women isn’t a game of Tetris, in which you place one block in the right place and the whole row disappears. These are elaborate, long-term processes which need to also happen on the governmental level.”


Gera Margaliot mentions a governmental program to fight domestic violence, which was authorized in 2017 but still hasn’t been implemented. The Israel Women’s Network, says Gera Margaliot, “embraces the Forum but doesn’t stop pointing at the government. It’s a new route, an innovative one, but it can’t stop there.” As the government is dragging its feet on legislation and enforcement, the Forum’s biggest achievement yet, Gera Margaliot says, is the way it “harnesses personal tragedy to bring to the table forces who otherwise would have had zero contact with the issue,” meaning leaders in the Irsaeli tech industry and top politicians.


The announcement of the hackathon’s winners took place at the official residence of Rubi Rivlin, Israel’s president, with him and other governmental officials in attendance. “It showed that domestic violence is a key issue,” says Gera Margaliot, “that it’s important and meaningful.”


Ben Ami herself admits that specific needs of the community, as well as the relationship with governmental bodies overseeing the issue, must be addressed.


“There are populations in which the technology will have to adapt to the challenges,” she says. “In the Beduin community, where cell phone reception is sparse, we’ve received a lot of interest in Wonder Jewel, a 3D-printed, IoT-based jewelry collection that sends a distress signal.” The piece of jewelry connects to a companion smartphone app as soon as possible and sends an alert to a community of citizens who subscribed to help, as well as to the authorities.


Ben Ami is planning to expand the Forum’s activities beyond Israel. “Domestic violence is an international language,” she says. An international convention with similar goals is planned in Israel in October, in collaboration with the president of the State of Israel, if Covid-19 allows. Abroad, Gil’ad Ardan, Israel’s newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, has been in conversation with Ben Ami, expressing interest in arranging a hackathon with representatives from UN members.


“We’ve become growingly aware of the way technology can be used against women in the home,” Ben Ami says. “But we believe in harnessing technology for the better. It can also guarantee security and safety. We can turn the weapon into a protective force.”

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