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To Prevent Sexual Assault, White House Issues Challenge: Build an App

The Obama administration’s latest effort to stem sexual abuse on college campuses borrows heavily from the onetime iPhone slogan: “there’s an app for that.”

Or, there should be, say executives. Today the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the Department of Health and Human Services, announced a contest to develop a smartphone app to help students better protect themselves in risky situations. The effort is dubbed Apps Against Abuse.

The competition calls for developers to build an app that lets women designate friends or emergency contacts and check in with them during at-risk situations. The app would also provide fast access to information and resources for dealing with sexual assault or dating violence. HHS will announce the winner on October 31 and feature the app on its Web site.

“Everyone has a role to play in the prevention of violence and abuse,” Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. secretary of health and human services, said in a prepared statement. “This application can be another way to encourage young women and men to take an active role in the prevention of dating violence and sexual assault.”

The administration’s previous efforts on the issue have focused on challenging colleges to improve their responses to sexual assault, such as the U.S. Education Department’s controversial and far-reaching “Dear Colleague” letter.

Kimber J. Nicoletti-Martinez, director of multicultural efforts to end sexual assault at Purdue University, said she is intrigued by the idea of enlisting young people themselves, armed with their smartphones.

“It seems good to engage technology in prevention, especially since people with the higher risk factor like to communicate through technology,” she said. “I think it’s better than not having any plan.”

However, she added, an app that calls on female students to take preventative measures has its shortcomings. It relies on women recognizing when they are at risk and does not change the attitude that the burden to avoid assault is on women.

“Maybe people could add more components to it to ask people to confront their beliefs,” about what causes sexual assault, she said—like building an app that resembles Angry Birds. “Is there some kind of bird you can fling against misogynistic attitudes?”

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