Nova Ahmed’s new app combats sexual misconduct

Nova Ahmed received her doctoral degree from the Institute after she immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh; her new app helps victims of sexual misconduct. // Photo courtesy of NSUHCI

In the wake of the #MeToo movement that started in 2006 and gained traction around 2017, sexual misconduct has become an increasingly important topic worldwide. More women and men have come forward with their own stories, sharing their support and denouncing their abusers. 

This reigns true in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where Ain O Salish Kendra, a human rights organization there, reported over that 1,600 women were raped in 2020 alone — with the number steadily increasing. Thus, it has become increasingly important for citizens to take precautions and for local officials to apprehend as many abusers as they can. 

The world has seen many innovative ways of helping the public take precautions — nail polish that turns black if it touched a drink that has been laced, very loud whistles  for the sole purpose of alerting those nearby and even a switchblade cleverly curated as a lipstick that any woman
can carry in her purse. 

However, it is important to note that these new technologies are not available worldwide. 

While America has seen an influx of such devices, those who reside in Dhaka and other regions do not have reliable mechanisms to protect them. 

The Technique had the opportunity to interview Nova Ahmed, a Tech alum who graduated with her doctorate in CS in 2010. Shortly after, she returned to Dhaka to use her knowledge to help her city. She is currently a professor at North South University but, in her free time, has dedicated herself to creating Protibadi, an app designed to report and protect the public from abuse. 

Protibadi is a web and mobile phone application that serves multiple purposes. The app has a “Save Me” button designed to emit sound and alert people nearby while simultaneously notifying every emergency contact of the user’s location. 

Another tab allows users to add emergency contacts, and the third tab serves to report locations where assaults have occurred or have been witnessed. 

Though the app has recently gained traction, Ahmed launched the initiative publicly in 2013. 

When asked about the beginnings of her project, Ahmed mentioned how in previous years, Bangladesh did not have emergency responders the way America has 911. She decided to use her systems knowledge to solve that problem. 

In the early stages, Ahmed conducted focus groups and consultations as she wanted to talk to women for research before building the app. 

She asked questions about what should be done, what could have been done to help them and what the major issues were — men on the street, domestic abuse or other causes — but she received little to no response. 

“When I reached out to others, everybody said it was not a real problem, and everybody was saying it doesn’t exist,” Ahmed said. 

Many of the posters she put up calling for women to reach out to her were torn down and defaced. She started to receive cruel and threatening emails that stated that women were the cause, that they were wearing revealing clothes and that was the issue. 

Ahmed was worried because she did not have any backing to support her belief that the women of Bangladesh needed help and almost put her project on pause. 

Months later, Ahmed received a phone call asking for help. The caller was stuck in an abusive household and had gotten Ahmed’s number from a flier. 

The #MeToo movement broke a wall and more women started to feel comfortable sharing their stories — no longer feeling like just a victim, but a survivor. 

They had been worried that the study was not legitimate, that it was not anonymous and that they could be subjected to hate. 

However, Ahmed reassured the women that she was indeed doing legitimate work and she was truly passionate about her cause. 

This spread by word of mouth, and Ahmed started receiving plenty of emails from young girls to old women detailing their situations and asking for help.

After a more in-depth study, Ahmed and her coworkers decided to broaden the technology. 

They worked on building sensors that were portable, low cost, wearable and connected to the app and would still signal emergency contacts if a phone was not reachable in time. 

“The best part is that, though at first, not a lot of people were using the prototype, people started to hear about it, and many variations of the device were created,” Ahmed said. 

Currently, Ahmed is working on a prototype for a refugee organization that reached out to her. 

They wanted the sensors to resemble colorful bangles that were widely used in their community. 

The women had to hike a long way from their base camp to use the restrooms, and faced a lot of harassment there and back. However, they still face many challenges. 

Though she is happy that some people are benefitting, she stated that “commercialization is a tough thing, because people do not want to invest in poor people.” 

Despite an abundance of tech companies and police departments not being willing to invest in Ahmed’s app, she has progressed a long way from the initial backlash. 

Until recently, the sensors had been run as a volunteer organization due to the lack of funding, but with projects like the refugee camp, she hopes to move forward.

Before parting, Ahmed stressed the importance of community.

“Sometimes we know the story but we don’t know the intensity of it. Harassment takes place everywhere, but a young girl in Bangladesh feels like she has to commit suicide and has no way out, but in a different country she would probably get lots of support,” Ahmed said. 

“Being able to have a community where one could provide strength and hope, that there are better things out there, would help. A bigger circle would help immensely — if a young girl here knows that she can reach out to students around the world who are willing to support her, if there is a community that is very vocal against sexual harassment around the world, then she might not make a life-ending decision. It is a social problem and it requires a social solution,” she said
regarding the community.