Burnaby student's app is countering COVID-19 domestic violence

Canada’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef shared that domestic violence rates are rising in parts of the country amid government-directed isolation measures.

This alarming issue prompted first year Burnaby BCIT Computer Systems Technology student Mattias Henders to participate in and win his first hackathon at #TogetherVSVirus Online Hackathon against COVID-19 (#TogetherVSVirus).

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Out of more than 500 participants bringing forth 23 interdisciplinary projects, Henders’ team project, Spring Out, an app that supports survivors of domestic abuse, won one of the top six innovative projects in this hackathon.

“I commend the ingenuity of this app, as exploring non-traditional means to connect those being hurt to resources could be a life line. We need to pull out all measures to assist everyone experiencing violence, as it is unreasonable to put the onus on them to create ways of accessing help when barriers are insurmountable,” said Tara WilkieBCIT Forensic Health Sciences instructor, in a statement. “There are great challenges and risks with getting help when violence is incurred in the home on any given day, and the pandemic has added another layer for those living within this. Accessing help is not as easy as picking up a phone, calling out to a neighbor, or running away, or women and children would do this. Leaving without a plan can sometimes pose greater risk and harm to women and children and in most cases requires calculated assistance.”

#TogetherVSVirus is organized by 25 post-secondary and industry partners across Canada to bring together creative minds to develop fresh ideas and solutions in dealing with and against COVID-19. Over 48 hours, industry experts, technology specialists, researchers, and students from all over Canada collaborated to find solutions for challenges faced in Canada presently and in the future.

Henders attributes the news to have sparked his initial idea for Spring Out. He still recalls reading the news late last year about the woman who called 911 to report domestic violence under the guise of a pizza order. He thought it raised the issue of a technological gap in supporting survivors of domestic abuse. Fast forward a few months to when he learned about domestic violence rates rising in parts of Canada during the CVOID-19 pandemic. Henders felt it was critical that he find an innovative solution to support survivors of domestic abuse while bridging the technological gap. #TogetherVSVirus created the perfect opportunity for him to bring this idea to life.

The Provincial Health Official’s order to physical distance was already in place when Henders and his first team member, Peter Thomsen, began recruiting for his team so they resorted recruit by posting the idea of Spring Out on a Slack channel for #TogetherVSVirus. Soon enough, four others interested in the project joined the team.

Spring Out provides a discrete portal for survivors of domestic abuse to access resources and connect for help, especially during a time of physical distancing.

The initial point of entry for primary users is the integration of the Spring Out app on Slack. By providing basic information such as number of dependents and postal code, but maintaining general privacy and security, users can quickly access help and connect with public health services in a few easy steps. The app bot is silent and primarily mobile based to allow maximum maneuverability. On exiting Slack, users can disguise the app on their mobile device by choosing a “theme” they may already be interested in, such as gardening or cooking. They are then ported to landing pages with dynamically loaded facade images to offer a discreet place for heavily cloaked domestic abuse information, accessible to the survivor who is seeking help, on harmless looking web pages, with an ever-present “escape/exit” button.

Henders’ team was composed of an experienced husband-wife computer programmer duo, computing students, and new graduates from B.C. and Ottawa. Throughout the project, the team collaborated with interdisciplinary experts and mentors, including a neuropsychology and psychiatry researcher, local support groups for survivors of domestic abuse, entrepreneurs specializing in health and technology, and more.

“It was definitely different to work remotely but it’s nothing new. As a BCIT Computing student, I’m prepared to adapt to different learning environments and to find innovative solutions to challenges in the real world,” explained Henders. “It was great to work with an interdisciplinary team of experts as this brought a fulsome perspective to the project and provided me with immense learning experience.”

Spring Out is currently used as a website but the team hopes to accelerate the process in getting this up and running as an app. As well, with more communication apps that can connect to the web service and provide data for various Employee Assistance Programs, Henders aims to increase awareness for the app and its services, primarily targeting developed countries.

“I encourage all Computing students to do hackathons. Even though it was my first hackathon and I was beyond nervous going in, especially being the lead, the amount of skills especially soft skills that I’ve learned is phenomenal. I’ll be doing more of these in the future,” added Henders.

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