Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and harassment.
A UTSU director of applied science & engineering, Nelson Lee, and his fellow computer engineering student Ethan Hugh have designed an app to help improve student safety on campus.
The app, called Haven, is meant to help students feel safer by connecting them with their trusted contacts — also known as their “Angels” — and emergency services. The idea for Haven came to Lee after he struggled to find proactive tools for students to help them stay safe on campus.
“I saw a friend of mine had posted on her Instagram of her sexual assault experience on campus, and for me that was pretty shocking,” he said. Lee explained that they brainstormed several ideas to improve student safety, such as legal clinics for survivors, but ultimately decided on a more proactive and preventative tool for students — an app that students can access from their phones.
Analyzing data on campus safety
Lee and Hugh highlighted the findings of the Government of Ontario’s Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey, conducted in 2018, which involved more than 160,000 students across the province. The survey measured how respondents perceived, understood, and responded to sexual violence. The postsecondary student survey found that 63.2 per cent of university students had experienced sexual harassment.
Haven’s co-founders also conducted an internal survey with over 250 respondents which they say corroborated this finding. Of the respondents, 83 per cent indicated that they felt unsafe outside their homes at night without friends or family.
“Those numbers, along with our own internal survey, have showcased really how prevalent this issue is, and there isn’t a lot being done at the moment that really impacts [individuals] at a personal level in their day-to-day lives,” said Lee.
Sexual violence and in-person learning
Hugh, who serves as Haven’s chief technology officer, also added that remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has affected sexual assault and harrassment levels on university campuses. “We spoke with a few experts who worked at crisis centres and one of them mentioned that this year, because university was online, they experienced a lot less calls, which just goes to show how much it actually happens on university campuses.”
Designed through the accredited NEST Hatchery Program, a U of T startup incubator, Haven allows its users to enable “emergency mode” where the app alerts your trusted contacts list with your status and location. It also allows you to call useful contacts, like your Angels and emergency services, and provides you with a script that includes the details required by emergency operators. The app also allows its users to set a ‘destination timer’ to inform your loved ones when you get home safely.
Advice from up and coming entrepreneurs
The incoming second-year engineering students also spoke to The Varsity about the rewarding experience of entrepreneurship. Unlike internships where students may have one specific role, creating a business venture means wearing many hats.
“We had to do everything ourselves, whether that’s developing the app, designing the user interface and experience, incorporating our company, going to the bank and setting up a bank account, [or] doing the marketing,” Lee told The Varsity.
The app can be found in the App Store and Google Play Store as Haven – Safety Alert and Locator. The co-founders told The Varsity that they will also include QR codes for the app on posters around U of T.
In addition to its speed and reliability, what distinguishes Haven from other safety apps is its founders’ emphasis on maintaining the privacy of its users. “We want to empower you, not take your freedom away,” wrote the co-founders.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:
- Visit safety.utoronto.ca for a list of safety resources.
- Visit svpscentre.utoronto.ca for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected].
- Call Campus Police to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for U of T St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (for U of T Mississauga)
- Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
- Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
- Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511