The Pitt News

Summer Guide: Kitestring: Let your friends know you got home safe

By Abbey Reighard / Senior Staff Writer

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“Text me when you get home.” 

We say this to the friend leaving the bar at 2 a.m. who lives on the other side of town, to the colleague who walks home alone after a late work night or to the significant other with a long commute. 

Kitestring — a new text message-based safety service launched in February 2014 — may curb such worries of friends and families. 

Kitestring users text the service the amount of time they expect to be out of the house. After the set amount of time, Kitestring sends a text message to check in with the user. If the user doesn’t respond after five minutes, Kitestring texts the user’s emergency contacts to notify them that something may be wrong. 

Stephan Boyer, 23, came up with Kitestring last January when his girlfriend was walking home one night after work. Boyer’s girlfriend had asked him to text her later to make sure she arrived at her house safely.

“It occurred to me that there should be an app or service that can check up on you in situations like these,” Boyer said. “After all, not everyone has a boyfriend they can rely on.” 

Boyer, who graduated from MIT last June with a degree in computer science, said he launched Kitestring on February 4, 2014 —  four days after he came up with the idea for the service.

Kitestring is available to download from the service’s website, www.kitestring.io. The service is free to users, although there are some plans with extra features such as unlimited trips and customizable check-in periods. 

Boyer said he didn’t come up with the name “Kitestring” on his own. His friend helped him choose a name for the service during a brainstorming session. 

“It resonated with me because kites convey a positive image and the string allows the kite to fly and feel free,” Boyer said. “But, at the end of the day, you can always reel it in and bring it home.”

As of the end of June 2014, 68,522 people have signed up for Kitestring, according to Boyer. 

Kitestring servers currently use only text messages to communicate with users, but Boyer said he is thinking about adding email to the application, too, so users can have another way of communication. 

Kitestring users typically send messages to the application that give only the amount of time they will be out, but Boyer said he encourages users to customize their messages to Kitestring with information about where they’re going, who they’re going with and what to do in case of an emergency. 

Kitestring users can also use code words or duress messages. Normally, users text back Kitestring “OK” or any other short response to let the application know they are home safe. If the users choose to, they can set a different term or code word to send to Kitestring so that no one else can check in with the app. 

“If an assailant forces the user to enter their check-in password, the user would use their duress code instead,” Boyer said. “We encourage users to use both a check-in password and a duress code.” 

Duress messages are texts to Kitestring that notifies Kitestring servers that the user is in trouble and needs their emergency contacts to be notified immediately. 

Kitestring is currently only available in English and can only be used in the United States. However, Boyer said he would like to expand the Kitestring target market to include the United Kingdom as well. 

Boyer said he hopes Kitestring will help users to feel safer when they go out and don’t have anyone to check in on them, but added that he “didn’t want to scare people into using it.”

“I wanted to build something that people love and gives them peace of mind,” Boyer said. 

Although Kitestring could help to ease minds, there are drawbacks.

Christopher Cullen, a former Pitt grad student, was nearly mugged on a Friday night in March 2011. He said a service like Kitestring, with its five-minute response time, may not have been as effective for him because the confrontation happened so quickly. 

A junior liberal studies major at the time, Cullen, now 24, said he was only a few doors away from his apartment when one of the men lifted up his shirt to reveal a gun tucked in his pants. As the man lifted the gun a street lamp suddenly came on “and lit up the corner, bright as day.” The men fled.

“I stood there in complete shock,” Cullen said. “I was somehow more surprised that it was over than that it had happened at all.”

When Cullen got to his apartment, he notified the Pittsburgh City Police about the incident and, the next morning, Cullen filed a report with the Pitt Police. 

Guy Johnson, Pitt Police community relations officer, said Kitestring “could be beneficial” to students, but added that he doesn’t think students would consistently check in with the service.

“We’re talking about thousands of students, and not all of them are going to remember to check in,” Johnson said. “I know students have a lot on their minds.” 

Johnson said if students don’t check in when they are supposed to and Pitt Police are listed as an emergency contact in students’ phones, Pitt Police could end up taking calls every time a student using Kitestring forgets to check in with the service.

“It would put us in a situation where we’d be like ‘how do we respond to all these calls?’” Johnson said.

Johnson said students should take advantage of the resources provided by Pitt Police, such as the informational safety packets distributed to students during freshman orientation.

Johnson also recommended that students always try to walk home with a friend but, if that isn’t possible, he added that students should take the Pitt shuttles or call Safe Rider. 

“At no point should students be walking home alone late at night if they think they can’t get back home safely,” Johnson said. 

Rachel Gartz, a junior majoring in rehabilitation science, had never heard of Kitestring, but said she might have used the service when she went out with new people if she had known about it.

“I could see where [Kitestring] would have been helpful then,” Gartz said. 

Gartz said there were times when she went out on dates and felt uncomfortable. A service like Kitestring could have helped her to feel safer, though she pointed out that the service might not work for her because she doesn’t always remember to check her phone. 

“For me, I think [Kitestring] could be more of an issue because I might forget to check my phone and then I would just freak my friends and family out,” Gartz said. 

Cullen agreed. 

“[Kitestring] runs the risk of accidentally calling someone’s parents or the police because their child innocuously fell asleep early or unexpectedly decided to go home with someone they met at a party,” Cullen said.

Cullen also added that he thinks Kitestring’s effectiveness is probably mostly dependent on the student using the service.

“I believe a dedicated user of Kitestring could help their concerned friends or anxious parents to breath a sigh of relief several times each week,” Cullen said.   

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Summer Guide: Kitestring: Let your friends know you got home safe