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Preventing Rape with the Push of a Button

After Jacqueline Ros's sister was sexually assaulted, she created Revolar, a small wearable device that sends customizable alerts to your friends or family when you feel in danger—or just uneasy.

by Suzannah Weiss
Mar 17 2016, 3:00pm

Photo by Lauren Naefe via Stocksy

When Jacqueline Ros's little sister was sexually assaulted, first by someone she knew and then again by an attacker in a parking lot, Ros wished she could have intervened. But how can you help someone if you don't know they're in trouble? Taking out your phone—much less looking up your location and calling a friend or family member—is not exactly easy, or safe, during an assault. Ros wished it were easier for victims to contact loved ones in times of need—and to talk in advance about the fact that they might one day need them.

Even though she couldn't save her sister at the time, Ros created a way to help her and others stay safe in the future—and it comes in the form of a tiny button you can clip to your clothes.

The idea for Revolar, which means "to fly again" in Spanish, was born in an entrepreneurship course during Ros's senior year of college. When the professor asked students to think of a real-world problem and come up with a solution, she immediately conjured an image of her sister, in danger, pressing a button. Her sister got excited when Ros told her about the idea, and after a discussion with her professor, she decided to take it out of the classroom.

After graduating with a degree in international studies and Spanish, Ros took a job with Teach for America to save money and then worked several part-time jobs while building her startup. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, completion of the 2015 Boulder Techstars accelerator program, and a funding round with the Foundry Group, Ros has raised over $3.5 million for Revolar, which started shipping pre-orders on March 15 and will appear in stores on April 22.

The small plastic device, which is less than two inches long, has a button users can press either twice or three times to text their GPS locations to pre-set groups of people. Two presses, for example, might send a text to a few friends to convey that you're feeling uneasy. Three presses could prompt your family to call the police. Since each user determines what these signals mean for them, people have to talk to their loved ones in advance about their safety concerns.

"It's about starting those uncomfortable conversations that people aren't sure how they can have," said Ros. "By giving this device to your loved one, you're telling them, 'I want you to be part of this conversation when it comes to my safety.'"

This conversation continues after users press Revolar. "Had my sister pressed this button, I could've gone up to her and been like, 'What happened?' And she would have had that space to say, 'This is what happened me. This is how I called for help.' She would've been a lot less alone," said Ros.

Photo by Alec Tremaine

The ability to ask for help in a situation that's uncomfortable but not necessarily life-threatening distinguishes Revolar from other devices like Wearsafe and Life Alert, which are only meant for emergencies. Like Wearsafe, Revolar is designed to be worn discreetly on your clothes or keychain. (Ros clips hers to her bra.) Rather than only protect people from individual threats, Ros hopes to address the culture of fear that women and other vulnerable groups experience on a daily basis.

Revolar also aims to combat the victim blaming and doubt sexual assault survivors experience. "When women report [sexual assault], [authorities] ask them, 'How much were you drinking?', 'What were you wearing?', and questions they wouldn't have been asked if their car was stolen," Ros said. While survivors shouldn't have to confront these attitudes, Revolar users who choose to report an assault to the police can produce data that proves they asked for help. By providing clear evidence that an encounter was not consensual, the device can prevent the revictimization that often comes from being doubted.

Because law enforcement's responses can be unsympathetic, Ros did not design Revolar to automatically contact the police. "We don't want to force survivors to report," she said. "Not everybody is ready to report to the police, and we're big believers in respecting your privacy and respecting your choice. [Revolar users] have the data they can go forward or not go forward with, and that's up to them." She added that many police departments simply don't have the infrastructure to receive these alerts. For users who want to program contacts besides their own friends and family, the company is adding a 24-hour monitoring service this summer.

Read More: What Happens When You Tell Siri 'I Was Raped'

As Ros and her team have presented Revolar at conferences and tested it with beta users, they've realized it can be used to fight a lot more than sexual assault. It can provide a way for people with allergies and other medical conditions to communicate when they need help, and it can start dialogues about mental health as well as safety.

"I've had a variety of people come up to me and say that when they suffered from depression and had suicidal thoughts, it was hard for them to pick up the phone, but having a button helps them start that conversation," Ros said.

Though Revolar will initially sell in the US and Canada, Ros, who is Colombian and lived in Mexico City for four years, says she hopes to bring Revolar to regions with an especially high need for alternatives to law enforcement. In the US, she said, "We are truly privileged to think calling the police is the right thing to do."

As a young Latina, Ros frequently encounters skepticism from members of the tech industry. "Investors tend to invest in what they know, and I don't have the background of a typical CEO of a tech company," she said. However, her own investors recognize that her background provides the perspective necessary to tackle rape culture in a way it hasn't been addressed before.

"Rape culture is about making people feel isolated," she said. "Our device is about empowering and connecting them so they don't have to face that kind of isolation."