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Students develop safety app to combat human trafficking

Five individuals stand in front of a wall smiling at the camera.
Ed Burns, Brandon Roy, Juan Roldan, Man Ching Ngi and Stephanie Atwood (L-R) are the five members developing SafetyNet.

What started as an idea to develop safety plans to prevent students from violence has quickly turned into a tangible app with the potential to save lives.

Nova Scotia has the highest rate of human trafficking in Canada, accounting for nearly one in 10 of all reported cases in the country in 2019. Ed Burns, lead public safety officer at Truro Campus was concerned about the increase in human trafficking in Nova Scotia, specifically in Truro, an area considered the ‘hub’ for exporting human trafficking out of the province. That’s when he had the idea to create an app where those in danger could instantly alert a safe contact that they’re in need.

With IT Web Programming taught at the campus, Ed knew he wouldn’t need to look far to find someone interested in developing the app. He engaged faculty Sean Morrow who presented the concept as a project option to his class.

Students inspired by apps potential to save lives

“This has the potential to save lives,” says Ed, who is also on the advisory committee for community awareness with Elizabeth Fry Society. To receive funding and consulting support, Ed presented the idea to Stephanie Atwood, executive director of ElevateHER and to NSCC web-design faculty. Sean Morrow, IT Web Programming faculty quickly looked for ways to get students involved and presented the concept as an option for a final project in his class.

It didn’t take long for students to see the valuable app development experience they could gain from this project. Brandon Roy, Man Ching Ngi and Juan Roldan quickly joined forces, developing the app as their final project in their program.

“The fact that this could actually save lives really pushed us to develop the best app we could,” says Juan, who graduated in June from the IT Web Programming program. “If it saves one life then it was entirely worth it.” The three students, now NSCC graduates, all plan to continue working on the app, SafetyNet, as it moves into its next stage in development.

The image shows a phone with the browser open to the Google Play Store and the SafetyNet app available for download.
SafetyNet is currently in the beta testing stage with the goal to launch to various app stores in the near future.

How it works

When a user downloads the app, they add their personal information and identify ‘safe contacts’ who will receive alerts if the user signals they’re in danger. When the user opens the app, a text message including GPS coordinates are sent to the safe contacts. Users can share updated photos of themselves and record six seconds of video that also sends to their safe contacts.

With the app open, every five seconds the GPS location is sent to the safe contacts. The automatic updates save to the cloud, removing the risk of losing the evidence if the phone were to be destroyed. It’s designed so the safe contact can call the police on behalf of the user with accurate information, and with the ability to use the images, video and GPS coordinates as evidence in court.

“You don’t need a data plan, minutes or service to use SafetyNet,” explains Juan. “We’re making this app as accessible as possible for anyone who’s in need of help.”

"We’re in talks with the police to have them listed as a safe contact for anyone interested,” says Brandon, IT Web Programming graduate. “The response from local authorities has been incredibly positive.”

Helping those trafficked and beyond

The concept behind SafetyNet originated from Ed’s concern in the increasing rates of human trafficking and domestic violence in the province. It took no time for Stephanie, founder of ElevateHER, to see the value in the concept and jump on board. ElevateHER passionately helps raise awareness and prevention for human trafficking in Atlantic Canada.

“There’s nearly a 50 per cent increase in reported human trafficking cases in Nova Scotia since 2019,” explains Stephanie. “People are afraid to call 911 or ask for help. Often the opportunity to do this just doesn’t exist. The goal of SafetyNet is to fill that gap by being accessible and prompt.”

“The app has turned into something that can be used beyond domestic violence and human trafficking. If you’re hiking, fall and can’t get up, you can open the app and alert your safe contact you’re in trouble. Maybe you’re walking alone and being followed,” says Juan. “The app has a simple premise but it’s potential is endless.”

Trials, testing and next steps

SafetyNet is currently undergoing its first stage of testing, utilizing community feedback to enhance its efficiency. The three students submitted the functional app before graduating from NSCC and have continued working with Ed and Stephanie to move the app forward.

“With time and funding, I’d like to see this app go global for anyone to use,” says Ed. “Human trafficking is a global issue.” The app has been trialed by nearly 70 users so far and the team hopes to launch it to various app stores soon. The SafetyNet team hopes to once again offer this project back to Sean’s IT Web Programming students for the 2023-24 academic year to involve more students in furthering the app development.