Georgia Tech student helps create street harassment app

Five years ago, Emily May co-founded Hollaback! as a method to combat street harassment, a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces.

A blog on the website www.ihollaback.org urged people to post their stories, photos and locations of harassment.

“We wanted to transform street harassment into something shareable,” she said.

May, who is based in New York, is dedicated to social change. But she’s the first to admit that technology isn’t her specialty.

Fortunately for May, Jill Dimond, a Ph.D candidate at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Interactive Computing, came into her orbit at the perfect time.

In the summer of 2009, conversations among May, other activists and the 20 volunteers who assist in the daily combing of information on ihollaback determined that the next logical advancement would be an app with mapping software, allowing people to immediately report the location of any harassment incidents.

After spending about $15,000 for a Brooklyn technology firm to create a 99-cent Hollaback! app for the iPhone, May next pondered the development of an Android app.

And then, in one of those inexplicable twists of fate, Dimond arrived.

Dimond, 27, was researching how technology and intimate partner violence are intertwined when she saw a blog post about Hollaback!’s need to beef up its technology.

The combination of a computer science background and a stint as an intern at Google, who worked on a project called App Inventor, made Dimond the perfect collaborator.

“Jill is my hero. When she e-mailed me about the work she was researching, I thought, ‘This is too good to be true,’” May said. “When I told her what we really needed was a Droid app, she thought about it and figured it would be fun. I didn’t hear from her for a few weeks, and then I get this e-mail from her that said, ‘Here’s your Droid app.’ …She really is a gift.”

May estimates that Dimond has provided Hollaback! with about $30,000 in pro bono work. The Android app is also 99 cents.

Dimond, who is now officially the technical lead for the apps and the website, is humble about her contributions.

“I’m doing action research,” she said. “I’m lucky I have a Ph.D fellowship so I can study all of this.”

While the Android app has so far gotten a modest 100 downloads, the ihollaback site receives several thousand hits a day.

“More commonly, people are submitting their stories on the website. We’re not sure if it’s because they don’t want to type out a story on their phone, so we’re looking into a text message-based version since a lot of people don’t have smartphones,” Dimond said.

The ihollaback website lists 10 city-specific blogs, with Savannah tucked among major locations such as Washington D.C., Chicago and London.

As with any user-based content, proving the validity of the claims entered on ihollaback or via the apps is a serious consideration – and the primary task of most of May’s 20 volunteers.

Dimond believes that the stories are always too personal to be fictionalized, and as further validation, users also often submit photos with their stories.

May noted that in the five years of the existence of Hollaback!, she’s never received a single complaint or argument about posted material.

“People really respect the space and understand that if they screw this up by sending made-up information, there is nowhere else they can go,” she said.

The next step for Hollaback! is to start city-specific apps and, with Dimond at the helm, Atlanta is expected to be one of the first in the U.S., while Berlin and Buenos Aires are also on the near-future list.

“Harassment,” Diamond said, “doesn’t have any boundaries.”