Knowing to call 911 for help is common knowledge, but it was an impossible task for senior Annmarie Stockinger when she was sexually assaulted in Tower C during her first year at Pitt.
Fear rendered her powerless. She could not even try to dial three simple numbers.
“I was holding my phone the whole time,” Stockinger said.
Stockinger said someone who encounters a violent situation — sexual or otherwise — may not call and ask for help immediately. A person being attacked may not want to attempt to get help while the attack is happening in case it escalates the situation.
“It’s very hard to pull out your phone and dial a number, even if that number is 911. It’s a paralyzing experience,” Stockinger said.
A friend called the police immediately after discovering Stockinger in the hallway. To cope with the incident, Stockinger transferred to Georgia State University and started going to therapy.
According to a study conducted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five female students are sexually assaulted on college campuses per year. Stockinger, who now studies mathematics at Georgia State, was determined to lower these statistics after her traumatizing experience. Her solution was to create GoSafely.
GoSafely is a small, wearable key chain about the size of a thumbdrive. Users can press a button once to contact police or twice for paramedics. From there, the device makes an automated call to either 911 or to a friend or family member. The software relays the user’s exact location and any personal information the user entered through the app, including allergies or other medical information.
If the user contacts police or paramedics, an installed microphone sends a live audio stream of the attack directly to the police station. This audio recording, though not accessible through the device itself, can be obtained by the police station and used as evidence in a courtroom.
In the case that a friend or family is alerted, GoSafely sends an exact location via call or text, depending on user preferences in the web app.
Though the product has several innovative features, Stockinger was inspired by some already existing products. She first had the idea for the device after seeing two advertisements on the same day for products with similar technology — the Amazon Dash Button and Life Alert.
“I realized that all these buttons were doing was making a call to a server and ordering something. I thought, ‘Hm, maybe we could use this as a key chain where you press a button and call for help,’” Stockinger said.
She decided to bring her idea to HackATL, a competitive event in Atlanta where programmers collaborate on projects in order to gain more development support. After her idea wowed the judges and won the contest, Stockinger sought out other people who could help bring her idea to fruition.
She reached out to Koby Schmetterling, her former high school friend and the Pitt student who found her in the hallway the night of her assault, to help design the project.
“I’m not a mechanical engineer — I work right now in data science, so I know a lot of software engineering, but I had never designed hardware before,” Stockinger said.
Koby Schmetterling, a senior at Pitt and now the chief technology officer of GoSafely, said he agreed to help because he wanted to find a way to help people be themselves and do what they love.
“I have too many friends and too many stories,” Schmetterling said.
Stockinger and Schmetterling began conducting research about sexual violence and crime on campus. Stockinger conducted one study which found that only 10 percent of about 70 college students surveyed in Atlanta knew how to utilize the emergency phones on campus.
“That for me was also validation that the system in place wasn’t really functional,” Stockinger said. “I thought the wearable key chain would fix the problem in ways that other things don’t.”
Though there are already apps on the market that aim to help people in danger, like bSafe and Companion, these apps require a charged phone as well as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Stockinger sought to create a small, accessible device independent of a phone.
Stockinger conducted another survey among 60 college students in Atlanta and found that 90 percent of people said they carry their keys at all times. She figured that there would be enough interest in a key-chain-like emergency help button to go through with their plan.
After contributing much of their free time and personal funds, the two were able to design a device that can send a signal to the police at the touch of a button. Rahul Sane, a senior at Pitt studying bioengineering, joined the GoSafely team about five months ago to help share the workload and act as chief operating officer of the company.
“All three of us have a personal stake in this issue and there’s a reason why each of us are doing this,” Sane said. “It’s not like we just decided to band together and form a company out of nowhere.”
The team of three has won a number of awards since last spring that have helped them develop their device. Prizes included $19,000 in grants, a free year of office space through WeWork, $120,000 worth of free server space from Microsoft and Microsoft’s Most Potential Impact Award.
Stockinger has taken a full year off of school to focus completely on GoSafely, working hard to market and continue developing her product.
“I hope to do three things — make people feel safer, encourage people to perform bystander intervention and do good, and I want to help people live more and explore the world with less fear,” Stockinger said. “Be safe, do good, live more.”
With the product in the final testing stages, the GoSafely team is launching a fundraiser on Indiegogo later this month to raise additional funds to complete development.
“It’s really about having the independence to work in a manner that allows us to serve the people we are trying to reach,” Sane said.
Sane sees significant expansion in GoSafely’s future — including nursing homes, corporate offices and elementary schools — but college students are the primary market.
“My vision,” Schmetterling said, “is at freshman orientation to hear, ‘Here’s your student ID and here’s your GoSafely.’”