More than an app: the Panic Button, one year on

By Tanya O'Carroll London,

One year after the launch of Panic Button, our phone app for human rights activists, we find out how it’s helping them to prepare for attacks, coordinate with their networks, and stay safe.

“We are afraid. We are afraid that the abduction that happened to our parents might also happen to us.”

Ipe Soco's mother and grandfather were abducted from a car they were travelling in and have remained missing ever since. He now works for Desaparecidos, an organization fighting for the victims of enforced disappearances in the Philippines. He’s talking to me as part of a workshop for Panic Button, our app for Android phones which aims to help human rights activists who are at risk of an attack.

Doing this kind of work is really risky, but Panic Button can really help minimize the danger.
Ipe Saco, human rights activist, the Philippines

Launched with our partners iilab, the engine room and Frontline Defenders, the app is a mobile ‘distress signal’ which, when activated, sends three recipients an alert message and location update every five minutes. But it’s much more than an app. It also encourages activists like Ipe to prepare and make security plans with a network of trusted people, so that they can respond quickly if something happens.

“Every day I make sure my sister knows where I’m going and what kind of work I’ll be doing that particular day,” Ipe tells me. “I tell her the time that I am supposed to be in a particular area and what time she can expect me home.”

Developing a plan of action

Ipe is one of more than 120 activists from 17 countries who helped us test the app and integrate it into their plans. These activists often live with the constant threat of being detained or attacked. But by talking about the risks with their contacts and developing a plan of action, they can take back some control over their security. In the Panic Button trial, we call this process ‘setting up a PACT’ (short for ‘Prepare-Act’).

Activists told us that having a PACT made them more aware of security issues, so that they frequently checked up on each other’s situation. They also said it had increased their confidence and made them feel safer, bringing a degree of peace of mind when working in high-risk environments.

Activists test Panic Button during a workshop. Credit: Amnesty International

As a human rights activist from El Salvador told me during a workshop we ran in San Salvador: “It’s a guarantee that if at any time something happens to me there will be companions who will know what they can do.”

In this way, technology is only as useful as the practices of those who use it. The most important thing will always be communication, human judgment and strong communities. Or, as another activist from the Philippines puts it: “Security is community. Having a PACT gives you a sense of security.”

Giving activists the tools they need

Inevitably, using technology brings challenges. In our evaluation of Panic Button, activists also report technical problems, weak network coverage in remote areas and patchy GPS signal. But we are working to keep improving the app and the supporting materials so that they are as reliable and relevant as possible.

Our hope is that human rights activists like Ipe will have the tools they need to respond when someone is in danger. And they’ll gain critical information about time and location so attackers can later be brought to justice.

“Doing this kind of work is really risky,” Ipe tells me. “But Panic Button can really help minimize the danger. Or at least inform the family or community of the victim of their whereabouts.”

“I just wish my family had that tool on the day they disappeared, so that at least we knew where to start to look for them.”