Why you should care
The ability to keep track of abusive events is helping victims help themselves.
Survivors of domestic violence often say that one of the hardest parts is getting people to believe them. Another challenge: keeping track of ongoing control and violence. Police frequently advise victims to make notes, but it can be difficult when abuse is occurring daily. “Family violence chips away at you,” says Emily Maguire, CEO of the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria (DVRCV), based in Melbourne, Australia. “It’s hard to remember what name you were called on Monday versus what you were called on Wednesday versus how your parenting was attacked on Friday.”
Arc, a new app created by the DVRCV, is specifically designed for collecting evidence of domestic abuse. Not only can it assist with applying for protection against abusers, but it also helps users better understand what’s happening to them by providing a space to collect notes and recordings. With domestic violence being experienced by as many as one in every three women globally, this kind of app — which could be a literal lifesaver — is a game-changer when it comes to empowering victims.
Two of Arc’s most important features assist with compiling timelines and exporting summary reports. This ability is crucial — a 2013 Durham University study found that most existing domestic violence apps do “not really add anything” useful for victims. Of the 80 different apps they researched, most simply provided resources (32 percent) or a panic button (49 percent).
If available, photos, video and audio can be attached to the entry, which can then be categorized by abuse type.
“Survivors told us they wanted to see something which would help them remember what happened,” Maguire explains. Many women had been using their phones to document their experiences but needed something to help them more easily keep track — not just for police or court purposes, but for themselves. “We found that [documenting] made women feel more sane. It made them see patterns and see that what was happening in their relationships was serious.”
With funding from the Victorian government’s Public Sector Innovation Fund and the Department of Social Services, DVRCV brought in two domestic violence specialists to lead the development of Arc. Throughout 2018 they consulted with survivors and service providers to ensure the app fulfilled an actual need. Research from the University of New South Wales in 2018 found that women had a variety of reasons for recording their abusers, explains the study’s researcher Heather Douglas, including safety reasons, collecting evidence for court and having something to show police, lawyers and support workers so they would be believed.
One survivor, Vera, told Douglas that she recorded her ex-partner “because I really want evidence that he always verbally abused me.” Another, Maddy, explained, “I’m just trying to keep a record … instead of it being my word against him.”
The core element of Arc is the “entries” feature. Here, users record an event with notes and rank the experience on a scale of one to five (one being safe, and five being scared). If available, photos, video and audio can be attached to the entry, which can then be categorized by abuse type (cultural, emotional, sexual, financial, psychological or physical). Summary reports can then be easily compiled and shared with friends or support services. The app also provides information on how to apply for protective orders in Australia.
Concern about victims’ safety was important when designing Arc, Maguire notes. It was “one of the most intensive conversations our organization has ever had.” Data is encrypted and stored in the cloud on Amazon Web Services, which requires a password to access, and DVRCV does not have access to this information. Maguire also points out that there are probably more security concerns about keeping handwritten notes, and that a phone can actually be safer “because it’s on you all the time.”
Arc was launched in March this year and has already been downloaded 1,900 times. “This is really significant for a family violence app,” Maguire says. A woman currently going through a court case against her partner, and who has been using Arc for five months, told DVRCV that the app helped her not only with legal evidence but mentally as well: “It’s just nice to know you’re not going crazy.”
While the app is currently only available in Australia, it’s a model worth adopting in other countries. Even in places where no protective orders are available in cases of domestic violence, an app like Arc can help victims make sense of abuse situations, emboldening them to take action and leave dangerous home environments.
Crucially, Arc is also one way of “taking back tech” for women, Maguire says. Because many perpetrators abuse victims through their phones, such as through constant text messaging or even GPS tracking, some women can become “terrified” of their devices. “So we wanted to … make women feel that their phone is their friend, not their enemy.”