In the past month, millions of college freshmen have experienced the rite of passage that is the frat party. It's hot, it's crowded, it's loud, and you barely know anybody. You might notice that girl who's almost too drunk to stand up, who's getting cornered into conversation by a stranger. A guy wandering around alone who seems a little too old to be there. A reluctant drinker being encouraged to do shots in someone's room. Would you — 18 years old and buzzed on cheap beer — step in and make sure everyone is safe? Or would you just keep your mouth shut and hope someone else intervenes?
Most would do the latter; it's known as the "bystander effect." That atmosphere of uncertainty around strangers is part of what leads to one of the most pervasive forms of sexual assault on college campuses right now: Sexual assault and so-called "acquaintance rape." At the Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, students are working on apps to help partygoers prevent such assaults.
During the past year, the increase in sexual assaults on college campuses has made headline news and caused a nationwide stir. In January, President Barack Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. In April, the White House released a statement calling on schools to step up education, prevention, and response efforts to protect the one in five young women who will become a victim of sexual assault during her time in college.
Students at the Integrated Innovation Institute have developed prototypes for two mobile apps that would leverage the power of bystanders and their ever-present smartphones to stop acquaintance rape and sexual assault before it can happen. One is called NightOwl, which lets people communicate anonymously with other people in the same location (like a party or a frat house, or even a restaurant, club, or military base) to call attention to potential problems ("does anyone know that guy in the blue shirt who's cornering that girl over there?"). The other is called SPOT (A Problem), an app integrated with a wearable tech bracelet that instantly alerts the party host or fraternity risk manager that there's a potential issue ("weird guy in a blue shirt cornering some girl in the front hall, you should check it out").
ABOVE: The current prototype for the NightOwl app. CREDIT: Integrated Innovation Institute
The Integrated Innovation Institute is an interdisciplinary program that combines students in the Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering, the College of Fine Arts, and the Tepper School of Business. The program's website talks about cross-training students to become "elite innovators" and "enhance the effectiveness of thinking and generating results." In practice, that means the students work with real-world companies to develop solutions that are functional (the engineering side), appealing to use (the design side), and marketable (the business side).
While they were doing background research, the students who developed these apps found that many schools held sexual assault awareness education programs near the beginning of the year; students rarely remembered the information months or years later when they needed it. Another big issue is the so-called "bystander effect," which posits that when there are lots of people at a party, everyone assumes someone else will do something about that weird guy or ask that girl if she's OK.
Peter Boatwright is the co-founder and co-director of the Institute and a professor of marketing at the Tepper School of Business. He told Fusion the Institute's success in the for-profit private sector made him and the other directors wonder what else they could do.
"It seemed to us that, wow, with these methods that are working, let's turn this toward social innovation as well," Boatwright said. Since they were already in a college environment, it made sense to tackle an issue that is so relevant to college students.
Carnegie Mellon University was on the list of 55 schools called out in May by the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights for violating students' Title IX rights in how they handled assault allegations. Boatwright clarified that the Integrated Innovation Institute was already working on these projects before that letter went out.
ABOVE: A prototype design for SPOT. CREDIT: Integrated Innovation Institute.
Connie Chun earned her MBA from the Tepper School of Business in May of this year. She worked on SPOT. She said one of the big hurdles they faced while brainstorming ideas for the project was how to avoid victim-blaming. She cited the recently announced "anti-rape nail polish" as an example of a good idea that missed the mark.
"As much of a good intention as (the nail polish's creators) might have, they still put the responsibility on the potential victim," Chun said. "So if the victim didn't wear the technology or use the app, it was their fault. We decided the way to address the issue was to get the community involved."
SPOT's developers liked the idea of a smartphone app, but it posed a timing dilemma: Everyone brings their phone to a party, but it's usually in their pocket or purse. A time-sensitive message might not reach the recipient in time. With SPOT, the host of the party or a designated "risk manager" would sport a tech bracelet that lit up and vibrated when they got a message on their phone from the app.
ABOVE: A video about SPOT. CREDIT: Integrated Innovation Institute
Mike Bojanoski, another recent graduate who worked at the Integrated Innovation Institute, worked on NightOwl. NightOwl creates a temporary location-based network that guests can access to communicate with fellow partygoers. The developers wanted people to use NightOwl for all kinds of messaging, not just sexual assault warnings. That functionality means people will already have their phone out and be using the app while they're having a good time, at which point they also theoretically could use it to report a possible safety issue. And it messages everyone in the vicinity, not just a specific person.
"Let's say the party runs out of drinks, I could say 'I'm going to the store, does anybody have any requests?" Bojanowski suggested. "Or I could say, 'a neighbor knocked on the door and everyone should quiet down.' I can message that to everyone." They're working on integrating song requests via integration with Spotify.
ABOVE: A video about NightOwl. CREDIT: Integrated Innovation Institute
Right now, both NightOwl and SPOT are prototypes: They've been designed and tested by focus groups, but there are no functioning models of either app. Boatwright says he hopes getting the word out about the ideas might attract the people they need to make them reality.
"The next step for the Institute is to get some funding to code them up," Boatwright said. "They've proven the concept, that it's feasible, but the features aren't there. So the next step is to hire somebody to program a working prototype."