Is it wise to rely on a mobile phone for your personal safety? Gizmogirl and Kent Police put a new, delayed texting service to the test. SafetyText is a personal safety service that uses delayed text messaging. Users send text details to a central phone service about where they are, how they can be contacted and when they're due home. The user sets a delay on the text message of between 30 minutes and 24 hours and, if everything goes to plan, cancels the message before it is sent. If something happens that prevents them sticking to their plans, the text is automatically sent on to the user's buddy mobile number. SafetyText claims that by alerting friends and family quickly when someone goes missing, and by giving details to help trace them, people are building a safety blanket for themselves.
We invited some typically irresponsible teenagers to put SafetyText to the test. They were asked to think of times when they had felt as risk or been in real danger. We then asked them to test SafetyText in the context of their real experiences and judge how good a safety blanket it would provide.
First we registered with www.safetytext.com. The website is used to store contact telephone numbers, photos and personal details of users. Once set up, the service operates straight from a mobile phone. To complete registration, users send a text message costing 25p plus network charge, and receive a four-digit PIN to access their account. Receiving our PIN was our first hitch. It failed to arrive, either because of problems with our network or with SafetyText.
We reported the problem and received our PIN the following day. We had a few more problems logging on to the website. Initially, our details were not recognised because we entered our user name in lower case, forgetting the website is case sensitive. Not realising our mistake, we opted to enter our mobile telephone number instead. This should have sent us a reminder email with our log in details. Instead, it failed to recognise our number. After an email reminder, we managed to complete our account and profile pages. This is where users store telephone and email contact details for buddies.
Five buddies can be stored and users select on their mobile phone which buddy is to receive a text. The profile page stores personal details including a description, distinguishing features, friends and family contacts, places you visit often, habits and an optional photo. Users elect whether or not their details can be passed to the police if they go missing.
Once up and running, SafetyText worked like clockwork. To test the system, we sent a text, delayed by 1 hour. As a reminder, SafetyText sends users a random text from a pseudo name 30 minutes before the delay on messages runs out. Ours said '73% in maths Paul'.
After an hour, SafetyText sent our message on to our buddy and to our nominated email address with advice on what to do. The technology worked well but our teenage testers questioned its effectiveness. They were rash and doubted they would ever use the service.
Based on their experiences, risks were impossible to predict. Whereabouts were difficult to predict too with plans changing all the time. The idea that they should play safe and track their everyday lives with text messages costing up to 50p a time was a non-starter. Problems with network coverage, and phones and email being switched off, raised doubts about how quickly buddies would respond. Stephen Hansford, Chief Inspector of Kent Police, who is not a teenager, was much more enthusiastic. He was positive about technology in general and personal safety, despite the crime wave that is mobile phones and the well publicized failings of information systems in crime prevention. With SafetyText, someone would know early if anything untoward had happened and know where to start looking for that person. "Using technology to aid the basic message of letting someone know where you are, how to contact you, when to expect you back, sounds good sense," he said.
SafetyText will appeal to some, but not all. The very people that parents most hope would use SafetyText, may well steer clear of it. NHS Trusts that employ nurses travelling to and from work out of hours have expressed an interest, as have universities concerned about freshers new to their surroundings. Lifestyles where SafetyText is already in use include internet bondage clubbers and dating agencies. Two weeks after its launch, the professionals showing great interest in Safetytext are sex workers. Let's hope their faith in technology is rewarded.