Civic tech founders offer four takes on the 'panic button' - DC


Nov. 20, 2017 12:56 pm

Civic tech founders offer four takes on the ‘panic button’

The Public Good App House Festival event featured founders looking to help protesters, immigrants and others.

Reach founder Alexander Salazar is looking to address mistrust between citizens and authorities.

(Photo via Twitter)

In these uncertain times, it may help to have an app with a panic button to alert a prearranged list of contacts in case things get out of hand.

Four founders who demonstrated at last week’s Public Good App House Festival at the Shaw Neighborhood Library were thinking along those lines, though at least one is against the use of the term “panic button.” 

The free festival gathered civic tech founders and developers from locales around the country and world to share ideas. The Nov. 15 session provided one such cross-section. Here’s a look at the four apps that were showcased:


The Whistler app is designed for an activist and protester to document human rights violations in countries with tyrannical regimes. Once a report is filed, the user’s message, geolocation and time of day is sent to a pre-approved list of contacts. If the authorities are coming, a user can then press the panic button, which sends an alert to those contacts and also erases sensitive information on the phone, such as videos, photos and contacts.

“We’re talking about users who face the threat of being jailed or attacked or killed if they are identified,” said Whistler’s D.C.–based founder Raphael Mimoun. “The idea is that as a journalist or a human rights organization, when I receive a video or a photo, you can not take it at face value.”

The app, which will launch next month on Android, is meant for activists in war-torn countries.

“The users and the populations that we are talking about… The government is actively trying to put these people in jail,” Mimoun said. “We don’t think about being for or against law enforcement. We are for freedom of expression, and we believe that everyone in the world has an inherent right to document what is going on around them and to share it with whomever they want.”     


Immigration raids can happen anytime, anywhere. Natalia Margolis was inspired to develop Notifica after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The soon-to-be-released app that notifies emergency contacts for undocumented immigrants in the event of a raid by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials.


“There’s the fear and uncertainty of what to do in the moment. Who do I call? What do I do?” Margolis said. “It’s strengthening these local rapid response networks. It’s not going to solve the problem, it’s not going to stop all deportations, but it could give someone peace of mind that at least someone’s friends and families knows what happened to them.” 

Margolis said that the term “panic button” is detrimental for users who live in fear.   

“To get people to use this, it’s really about being empowered to prepare beforehand, about providing a sense of calm and not stoking more fear,” she said. “I’m all for government services and building those up and having the government protect us, but in our case for our users, the government is not on their side.”


Greg Czarnowski and his Boston-based team developed this free app last year for college students and employees on corporate trips. The user enters their destination address and the app creates an estimated time of arrival, which will ask if they have arrived safely. If not, or if the user hits the panic button, their emergency contacts will be notified.

“When you take an Uber, take a Lyft, take a taxi, you are getting into a car with a driver who you essentially don’t know anything about,” Czarnowski said. “So, what we are trying to do is create a safety net for any traveler with a ride-sharing service.”


This app offers paths to avoid crime scenes, or anonymously report an incident while alerting your community. Think of Reach as the Waze of criminal activity, allowing users to document where crime is occurring, where police have gathered and what kind of incident is occurring. 

“Many people in the Americas don’t trust in their authorities,” said Reach creator Alexander Salazar. “If you want to make a complaint about discrimination and you go to a police station and they again discriminate. So, there is a mistrust. This platform is free and open to everyone.”

Salazar said the app, which launched in 2015, has 10,000 users in Peru and Costa Rica. It also has a panic button, which alerts law enforcement officials. Some of the data is provided by the police and fire departments, while the rest comes from users on the ground.   

“The panic button is an easy way to ask for help,” Salazar said, adding that police are notified if the button is pushed. “If you are in the area of a police station, they receive your alert. If you move to another area, the application automatically send another alert to the police station of that area.”

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