iWitness: This iPhone app fights crime by recording incidents and dialing 911

It’s happened to all of us. You’re walking alone and you get that creepy feeling that someone is watching or tracking your movements. You feel unsafe, and you’re not sure what to do, so you clutch your mobile phone.

Greg Heuss wants to turn that fear into a situation of empowerment with iWitness, an iPhone application that not only quickly notifies 911 but records audio and video of the events taking place. The Seattle upstart, which plans to release the iPhone app later this month, has been flying under the radar for some time now. But the company, which just landed $600,000 in seed capital, is starting to share more of what it’s up to.

Heuss — a veteran of Amazon.com, PerfectMatch and EyeAlike who was recently appointed as CEO — shared the idea behind iWitness with GeekWire.

Here’s how it works.

“Any time the user feels endangered, the user simply touches the screen of their phone,” explains Heuss. “At that point, the phone begins capturing video and audio of the scene … a steady light is emitted from the phone, and the user’s GPS coordinates are recorded. If a ‘threat’ feels imminent, the user touches the screen again, triggering the following: 911 is called, an SMS/email notice is sent to six contacts previously authorized by the user, and a loud siren begins to sound.”

The iWitness iPhone app costs $30 per year, with the company planning to work on an Android version in the coming weeks. It is also developing a standalone device that could be provided to children or seniors who don’t own smartphones.

“The space is wide open, the team is assembled, and the technology is built,” says Heuss, adding that focus groups, including those with law enforcement agencies, have responded positively to the concept.

Heuss

“No one out there is using video and audio in an app like this so we separate ourselves immediately there,” said Heuss, adding that they plan to market the application to women.

“It is tough for males to really understand the fear that exists out there with women. My wife, for example, calls me every night for those 30 seconds she is walking across the parking lot to her car from her office — just so people know she is talking to someone. Gals in our office actually dial 911 on their phone and walk to the bus stop with their finger on the call button until they safely get on the bus.”

I asked Heuss how the company plans to deal with ill-intened 911 calls, and he said that they worked hard in focus groups with law enforcement and dispatchers to make sure the app only sends out notifications if someone is truly in danger.

“There is a 5-second delay after the ‘panic’ button is activated before 911 is called,” said Huess, noting that ill-intended calls are typically encouraged by law enforcement over individuals carrying a taser or gun. He added that law enforcement like the fact that the app records video and audio file of the perpetrator — something he said was “much better than a vague description that most victims give to the police now.”

The company was founded by David Remer, and is currently being incubated at advertising and branding firm Remerinc.

  • http://eyejot.com/users/davidg davidgeller

    Good idea but challenges likely persist – poor cell coverage could prevent simultaneous uploading of the captured images, sound and video. And, if those things aren’t sent off the phone then the bad guy can just grab the phone. They’re likely to do that anyway. There are also challenges faced with having to unlock the phone, find and start the app. On iOS you can’t tie any of that to a hot-key activity. The $30/year fee sounds high. A competing app might just utilize Dropbox for storage.

    • Dremer

      They cannot just grab the phone… iWITNESS has anticipated that issue and the other you raise. Grabbing, struggling or any sudden movement dispatches the 911 call sends a secure copy off-site and notifies up to six of your closest contacts.

  • Guest

    While there may be a few areas/jobs where people would benefit from this, the practicality is questionable.  My wife doesn’t feel this paranoia when walking to her car or waiting to get on the bus.  Maybe there should be an app that helps you make good decisions about the risks you are actually taking rather than providing a false sense of security.  I would guess that his wife is statistically in far more danger of injury while driving the car home than while walking to the car.

  • Michael Baker

    Not to be a negative noodge, but this sounds like a good way to alert your mugger that you do, in fact, have an iPhone.

    • Dremer

      He’ll have to want a phone bad enough to have himself “filmed” committing a crime.

      • http://eyejot.com/users/davidg davidgeller

        Within close proximity it would be really easy to grab the phone and hang-up, even of a call to 911 had been cooperatively initiated by the owner. Taking over phone calling functions (to the point of preventing a hang-up) isn’t possible in iOS.

  • Greg Heuss – CEO iWitness

    Thanks John for the coverage. 

    davidgeller: fair points – we have designed the app. to actually send the data (audio/video.gps local) off the phone every 3 seconds, those clips are sent to a secure cloud server.  So the data is in a secure location which is one thing the authorities love – an unfettered copy of an incident.  The “perp” could grab the phone from the victim but the data will already gone. This is what our patent covers. We also have a “hot” button on each page of the app where the user can immediately dial 911.  We advise our users to open the app when they are walking or alone so they are just a tap or two away from triggering.

    To “guest” – I was shocked when watching focus groups and talking with women about some of the fears they have – we’ll never understand it as men.  Our minds do calculate like your thought “his wife is safer walking the parking lot than driving home and risking an accident” -  statistically maybe, but that doesn’t at all negate the fear a majority of women may feel when walking alone.  I would challenge you to ask women what they think – you might be surprised.

    We actually have incorporated within the product recommendations and tips that we will send to users advising them of some of the habits they have formed i.e. walking home the exact same way each night, parking their car in a high car prowl zone, etc. We in a sense can/will form our own version of “Crime Reports” to alert/advise our users.

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Greg Heuss
    CEO – iWitness

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=94500172 Kyle Kesterson

      Greg, I’d love to grab coffee with you. Email me: kyle@freakngenius.com

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=94500172 Kyle Kesterson

      Greg, I’d love to grab coffee with you. Email me: kyle@freakngenius.com

  • http://twitter.com/TomKurke TomKurke

    I had a very similar idea – in addition to sending texts, when the 911 operator comes on, in many instances the person who has made the call cannot communicate with the operator (incapacitated, fearful of doing so, etc.).  Upon user selection, or after the call is connected and no voice is recognized, the app would vocalize the user’s location (geo-coordinates, closest street address if possible, etc.) and continue repeating them until the user stopped it or the 911 operator stopped it.  Also a certain set of inbound key strokes from a 911 operator could trigger the phone to speak the location as well.  Such an approach would also provide E911 info and context before all of the necessary nationwide hardware upgrades are in place.  

    Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t like applications to be able to access the phone service – but it would seem that this is exactly the kind of application which can and should be authorized.

    If the accelerometer in the phone was good enough, a smart enough app could know when you are in a car (because you are geolocated to the road) and also had a serious accident (because of the impact acceleration) and assuming the phone was still functioning could automatically dial 911. . .

    Good luck with this application! 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LCQ5UWSBIAR5TLBEEGAQOCMN2I Tom
  • http://twitter.com/jstevens jane stevens

    Of all crime, stranger crime is the least we have to worry about. Most women who are assaulted suffer the assault at the hands of their spouse, significant other or ex-spouses and ex-boyfriends.
    It would be great if you could create an app to get the police to respond appropriately and consistently — that would reduce crime! Unfortunately, the media (and I speak as a member of the working media) doesn’t provide an accurate picture of local crime, although we do a pretty good job of providing accurate picture of an individual crime. The result is that we worry about all the wrong things….and call our husbands when we’re walking across a perfectly safe parking lot.

    • Dremer

      This not a cure all but it’s far better than sharp keys, mace orw whistles. If this was a solution to all types of physical assaults it would be priceless… Agreed?

  • Doriano Carta

    Isn’t Life360.com doing this already with more features?

    • Young Woman

      Life360 is more aimed toward families and parents keeping track of their kids. This app seems to be aimed at professional, potentially single women who walk alone at night to their cars/buses/etc. iWitness is more for when the individual carrying it feels unsafe rather than for regular check-ins. 

  • Pete Namlook

    The app could be enhanced by a hardware module that communicated with assailants
    via 9mm protocol.

  • 20something Seattlite

    Most men will never really understand the fear many women have. It is true, not all women (like Guest’s wife) are afraid, but as a young woman I hear plenty of stories of girls living in the city or in the UDistrict who get very nervous walking around at night. Whether or not that fear is statistically deserved doesn’t really matter. It is there, and this is one scenario where you really don’t want to be the 1%.
    I also believe it is unfair to characterize this app as providing a “false sense of security.” According to the Rape Aggression Defense System of self-defense for women, making noise and creating a stir is one of the best ways to deter a criminal. Criminals don’t want to get caught. They attack women who are alone in the dark because they assume they can get away with it. An app that makes a high pitched noise, shines a bright light in their faces and captures video of them to be given to the police is going to keep away many would-be criminals simply by upping the likelihood that they won’t, in fact, get away with it. That is the goal. Not to defeat an attacker, but rather to keep them from attacking you. 

    I think this app will help. Will it solve independent crime? No. Will it make the police respond consistently and appropriately? No. Will it protect the woman assaulted by her husband/boyfriend? Unlikely. Will it keep someone who would otherwise attack me on my way home at night from doing so? Yeah maybe. And that added layer of security is worth $30 per year for me. 

    • Guest

      No doubt that women have varying levels of concern/fear over their personal well being, especially compared to men in the same situation.  All I’m saying is I feel like that fear is misplaced and driven by what people see on TV, not reality.  This app is analogous to taking your shoes off at the airport security checkpoint.  The primary objective is to make people feel better, and the chance that it will actually prevent something bad from happening is minimal and likely not worth the effort.  In my opinion, the app is a gimmick that just feeds on the fear to make quick buck. 

      No doubt this thing will prevent an attack or two that the company can point to as an example of it’s effectiveness, but by that logic, Nike could claim the same thing if their shoes help someone run away from an attacker.

      If this app provides $30 worth of comfort to you, then have at it.  However, it is probably also worth researching and considering other methods of self-defense or prevention (martial arts, pepper spray, different parking lot, etc.) that don’t require you to have your phone in hand, battery charged, and app activated.  The complexity of this solution increases the chance that it won’t work, and you should probably have an alternative plan.

      • 20something Seattlite

        Dear Guest, 

        I have in fact researched other methods of self-defense. I didn’t mention R.A.D. for no reason. I took the class (which was instructed by trained police men and women), to the tune of about $200. They taught us basic self-defense but also prevention. A couple points from there:
        1) the vast majority of women are at a physiological disadvantage to the vast majority of men in fight. So even though they taught us how to fight, they were very clear that a physical confrontation should be as a last resort. 
        2) Pepper spray and other “weapons” women carry in their purses often end up being used against them. The attacker usually knows how to use these things better than the women they attack. While carrying pepper spray is great, women need to be aware of the danger it poses and make sure they know how to use it. 

        I really don’t think you are giving this app enough credit. Perhaps it is a bit tedious to keep my phone on and unlocked, but no more so than making sure that you have ready access to pepper spray from inside the vast chasm that is a woman’s purse. It requires me to think about my safety before I leave my office and remember to arm the device. That is not so difficult.  

        And really, “different parking lot?” First off – I ride the bus. But regardless that is a little rude. It is basically saying that if I feel unsafe leaving my work at night I need to just find a different job. So women shouldn’t work is SoDo or Pioneer Sq if they have to leave their work after dark (which is 4pm in December)? I don’t really think that is a workable solution. 

        What iWitness provides is not blanket protection against crime, nor does it claim to. It is simply one more tool to put in my arsenal to protect myself. I have martial arts training, I am aware of my surroundings and I know not to walk in alleyways at night. But now I also have this app so that if the unthinkable should happen, I am even more prepared. You might think it is silly. I think it is a welcome addition to the app store. 

        • Admin

          hi 20,
          I’ve been studying and living this stuff for 10 years.
          you’re on the right track.
          Dave

  • http://robyncannon.com/ Robyncannon

    You only have to have the experience of being trailed once to understand the value of this
    app as a female or senior. I am grateful that such technology exists and can arm me with a tool that could essentially save my life. I live in a secluded spot and even the walk from my car down the stairs to my doorway in the dark has raised my heartbeat, not knowing who might be waiting around the corner. I not only congratulate you on the development, but will
    happily pay $30 annual for peace of mind. Not to mention informing my friends and colleagues.  Nice going…and thanks.

  • http://robyncannon.com/ Robyncannon

    You only have to have the experience of being trailed once to understand the value of this
    app as a female or senior. I am grateful that such technology exists and can arm me with a tool that could essentially save my life. I live in a secluded spot and even the walk from my car down the stairs to my doorway in the dark has raised my heartbeat, not knowing who might be waiting around the corner. I not only congratulate you on the development, but will
    happily pay $30 annual for peace of mind. Not to mention informing my friends and colleagues.  Nice going…and thanks.

  • Candace Willliams

    This is a “must have” for me and many of my friends and family – especially when traveling
    and out of your comfort zone – can’t wait to get this

  • Guest

    $600k? Surely there must be better investment opportunities here in Seattle.

    “To make sure the app only sends out notifications if someone is truly in danger.”

    Somehow I have my doubts that a piece of code really has the ability to decide if “someone is truly in danger”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/techrealm Barry Morgan

    I love almost all the features except the siren… I have been beaten to a pulp cause Verizon decided to add a siren to my GzOne phone and I didn’t know it till after I dialed 911 for a armed burglary. If its an option that can be turned off then yeah its cool.