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Feel unsafe? There’s an app for that

With crime rates high and no efficient emergency number available, an app developed by a student aims to make people in Kenya feel safer.

Kenyan university student Edwin Inganji was happily pursuing his passion – computer science – until he lost his laptop in an armed robbery. Beaten and bruised, and wondering how he could call for help since his mobile phone had also been stolen, Inganji came up with a new coding idea: what about a type of “panic button” app that could be activated quickly and silently, alerting the emergency services of your location and directing them straight to you?

Thus “Usalama” (Swahili for security) was born, a smartphone app activated simply by shaking one’s phone three times, holding down the volume button, or tapping on the emergency icon. The app alerts the police, medical or fire authorities – as well as every other Usalama user within 200m – broadening the scope of help available to the person in need.

Had Inganji configured the app before the robbery, he could have reached into his pocket, shaken his phone and activated the app and, perhaps, still lost it – but the police would have been notified of both the location of the crime and the thieves’ new location, tracing them through GPS on Inganji’s stolen mobile phone.

“In Nairobi, in Kenya generally, reaching the emergency services when you need them is really difficult – the toll-free line just doesn’t go through,” says Inganji, 22. “Either you have to take yourself [to the police station or hospital], or have a witness take you. If no one is around to help you, most of the time you’re screwed.”

The government’s 999 emergency number was disconnected in 1998 amid claims that the state lacked both the personnel and the facilities to deal with callers. And since it was reconnected in 2013 – the year Inganji was mugged – the toll-free line has been overloaded with prank callers asking for recipe ideas and hotel bookings.

Nairobi’s crime rate is twice the national average and armed street crime, car hijackings, home invasions and kidnapping occur at any time, anywhere.

Inganji’s app, which he developed with his classmates (who are cofounders), includes a database of all the crimes logged, which helps emergency services know where most crimes are being committed and where best to position officers.

“It shows us where crime is happening but the services are failing to deploy,” says Inganji. “So it shows who is not being accountable, and should make the services act with more responsibility.”

The app requires the user to input three personal contacts – such as a spouse, parent or work colleague – who are notified alongside the services of any emergency situation and are given updates every five minutes until the situation is resolved. In this way, the user’s contacts can also ensure services are accountable, says Inganji.

Inganji and his team plan to broaden the app beyond its “panic button” use, with a platform where users can share news of crimes occurring in their immediate area, in turn alerting police but also warning other Usalama users of dangers in the vicinity.

They also plan to make a “timer”, whereby a user can trigger a distress signal if they hae not returned home by a set hour; as well as a “walk with me” feature, which allows users to escort one another home virtually and ensure that each party has returned safely (it is cancellable at any time by either user).

Ultimately, says Inganji, the app could fill a void that has plagued Kenya for years: a desperate need for security in almost all aspects of life.

“We want it to be something that you use every day,” he says of the app. “Not just something you use when you’re in distress, but something that helps you feel safe.”

Edwin Inganji’s app was shortlisted for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa prize for engineering innovation. This feature was originally published as part of The Guardian’s Global Development project.