Tag: Better Angels

Self-described activist creator of Cell 411 app weirdly refuses to discuss its closed source tech because of anti-racist Twitter handle of the person asking

About a week ago I published a post cautiously praising the work of Boulder, Colorado based SafeArx, the company behind a smartphone app called Cell 411 claiming to cut down on the need for police:

Let me be clear that I love the idea of a decentralized emergency alerting response platform. I think it’s incredibly important for such a tool to exist. […] I want to see a project with Cell 411’s claims succeed and be a part of abolishing the police and the State altogether. I think there’s real potential there to make headway on an important social good (abolishing the police, dismantling the prison industrial complex, among other social goods) and I want to offer whatever supportive resources I can to further a project with these goals.

In the post, I raised some basic questions about Cell 411 that seemed to have gone unasked by reporters covering it. Chief among them is that the app claims to be a de-centralized alternative to 9-1-1, except that it’s not decentralized at all. I described this discrepancy as follows:

On the Google Play store, Cell 411 describes itself like this:

Cell 411 is a De-centralized, micro-social platform that allows users to issue emergency alerts, and respond to alerts issued by their friends.

The problem is in the very first adjective: de-centralized. To a technologist, “decentralization” is the characteristic of having no single endpoint with which a given user must communicate in order to make use of the service. Think trackerless BitTorrent, BitCoin, Tor, or Diaspora. These are all examples of “decentralized” networks or services because if any given computer running the software goes down, the network stays up. One of the characteristics inherent in decentralized networks is an inability of the network or service creator from unilaterally barring access to the network by a given end-user. In other words, there is no one who can “ban” your account from using BitTorrent. That’s not how “piracy” works, duh.

Unfortunately, many of the people I’ve spoken to about Cell 411 seem to believe that “decentralized” simply means “many users in geographically diverse locations.” But this is obviously ignorant. If that were what decentralized meant, then Facebook and Twitter and Google could all be meaningfully described as “decentralized services.” That’s clearly ridiculous. This image shows the difference between centralization and decentralization:

The difference between centralization and decentralization.

As you can see, what matters is not where the end users are located, but that there is more than one hub for a given end user to connect to in order to access the rest of the network.

Armed with that knowledge, have a look at the very first clause of Cell 411’s Terms of Service legalese, which reads, and I quote:

1. We may terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability, for any reason whatsoever, including without limitation if you breach the Terms.

This is immediately suspect. If they are able to actually enforce such a claim, then it is a claim that directly contradicts a claim made by their own description. In a truly decentralized network or service, the ability for the network creator to unilaterlly “terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability” is not technically possible. If Cell 411 truly is decentralized, this is an unenforceable clause, and they know it. On the other hand, if Cell 411 is centralized (and this clause is enforceable), other, more troubling concerns immediately come to mind. Why should activists trade one centralized emergency dispatch tool run by the government (namely, 9-1-1), for another centralized one run by a company? Isn’t this just replacing one monopoly with another? And why bill a centralized service as a decentralized one in the first place?

Despite this, I was hopeful that Cell 411’s creator, Virgil Vaduva, and his team would be willing to at least address the point, perhaps by discussing their development roadmap. Maybe it’s not decentralized yet, but they intend to decentralize it later on? That would be awesome, and important. Moreover, I asked if they would be interested in combining efforts with me or others with whom I’ve worked, since we’ve been developing an actually decentralized, free software tool with the same goal in mind called Buoy for a few months now. I said as much in my earlier post:

I want to see Cell 411 and Buoy both get better. Buoy could become better if it had Cell 411’s mobile app features. Cell 411 could become better if its server could be run by anyone with a WordPress blog, like Buoy can be.

I sent Virgil Vaduva an email last week, and tweeted at him before writing my post. (My previous post includes a copy of the email I sent him.) I was ignored. So I started tweeting at others who were tweeting about Cell 411, linking them to my questions. It seems that’s what got Mr. Vaduva’s attention, since today I finally got a response from him. And that response is extremely concerning for Cell 411’s supposed target audience: activists. Here’s how Mr. Vaduva “answered” my technical questions:

I’m not entirely sure why technical questions like these were answered by a hyper-focus on the militantly anti-racist Twitter handle I happen to be using right now (it’s actually “Kill White Amerikkka”), unless of course if Vaduva is having some kind of trigger reaction caused by (evidently not-so-latent) internalized white supremacy. Later, he called my original post, which, again, included outright praise for Cell 411 a “shitty hit piece.” I even offered to change my Twitter handle (as if that has any bearing at all on the technical matters?) for the duration of a discussion with him, but again, the only replies were, well, have a look:

The full thread is…well, classic Twitter.

I don’t know about you, but the idea of installing a closed-source app that reports my location to a centralized database controlled by a company whose founder actively deflects legitimate technical questions by objecting to a militantly anti-racist Twitter handle and making immature pro-capitalist statements when asked technical questions doesn’t sit well with me. But even if that were something I could tolerate, it raises even more concerning questions when that very same app is one touted as being built for anti-police brutality activists.

Last week, I would have told my friends, “Go ahead and try Cell 411, but be careful.” With this new information, my advice is: “Don’t trust anything created by SafeArx, including Cell 411, until and unless the technical issues are addressed, the source is released as free software, and its creators make clear that anti-racism and anti-capitalism is a core intention of their development process.”

In my personal opinion, tools like Cell 411 that purport to be “made for activists, by activists” need to be comfortable materially advancing the destruction of whiteness and white identity, as well as standing in solidarity with militant resistance to white supremacy. But even putting aside concerns over Vaduva’s discomfort with anti-racist Twitter handles, any technologist worth his salt who wants his closed-source technology to be trusted should be able to answer some basic questions about it if he’s indeed unwilling to release the source code itself.

Mr. Vaduva and Cell 411 fall short on both counts. The sad thing is that any potentially latent racism in Cell 411’s creator wouldn’t be a technical concern if Cell 411 itself were actually decentralized free software, since the intentions or social beliefs of an app’s creator can’t change how the already-written code works. As I said in the conclusion to my previous post:

It’s obvious, at least to anyone who understands that the purpose of cops is to protect and uphold white supremacy and oppress the working class, why cops would hate a free decentralized emergency response service. Again, I want to use such an app so badly that I began building one myself.

But if Cell 411 is centralized, then it becomes a much more useful tool for law enforcement than it does for a private individual, for exactly the same reason as Facebook presents a much more useful tool for the NSA than it does for your local reading group, despite offering benefits to both.

Cartoon of a protester ineffectually trying to shoot corrupt government officials with a 'Facebook' logo positioned as a gun.

[…]

As long as Cell 411 remains a proprietary, closed-source, centralized tool, all the hype about it being a decentralized app that cops hate will remain hype. And there are few things agents of the State like more than activists who are unable to see the reality of a situation for what it is.

Admiral Ackbar: Proprietary and centralized software-as-a-service? It's a trap!

If you think having a free software, anarchist infrastructural alternative to the police and other State-sponsored emergency services is important and want to see it happen, we need your help making Buoy better. You can find instructions for hacking on Buoy on our wiki.

Cell 411, the “de-centralized” smartphone app that “cops hate” is neither de-centralized nor hated by cops

If you’re following anti-police brutality activists, you might have heard about a new smartphone app that aims to cut down on the need for police. Cell 411 is touted as “the decentralized emergency alerting and response platform” that “cops don’t want you to use.” There’s only one problem: its central marketing claims aren’t true. Cell 411 is not decentralized, and there’s no evidence that cops don’t want you to use it.

Let me be clear that I love the idea of a decentralized emergency alerting response platform. I think it’s incredibly important for such a tool to exist. I’m so committed to that belief that I’ve been building a free software implementation of just such a tool, called Buoy, for a few months now.

Further, I believe it’s equally important that the developers of a tool like this actively eschew the State-sponsored terrorist gangs known as law enforcement, because that mindset will inform the tool’s development process itself. On the face of it and from the research I’ve done to look into Cell 411’s developers, I think there is a lot of welcome overlap between them and myself. Indeed, I’m grateful to them for developing Cell 411 and for dropping their price for it, offering it free-of-charge on the Android and iOS app stores, which is how it should be. Nobody should be charged any money for the opportunity to access tools for self- and community protection; that’s what cops do!

I’ve even reached out both publicly and privately to the developers of Cell 411 through email and Twitter to ask them about a possible collaboration, pointing them at the source code for the Buoy project I’m working on and asking where their source can be found.1 I want to see a project with Cell 411’s claims succeed and be a part of abolishing the police and the State altogether. I think there’s real potential there to make headway on an important social good (abolishing the police, dismantling the prison industrial complex, among other social goods) and I want to offer whatever supportive resources I can to further a project with these goals.

But I am concerned that Cell 411 is not that project. The fact is there are glaring, unexplained inconsistencies between their marketing material, the perception that they encourage the public to have about their tool, and their tool’s legal disclaimers. Such inconsistency is, well, sketchy. But it’s not unfamiliar, because this exact kind of inconsistency is something activists have seen from corporations and even well-meaning individuals before. We should be able to recognize it no matter the flag, no matter how pretty the packaging in which the message is delivered is wrapped in.

On the Google Play store, Cell 411 describes itself like this:

Cell 411 is a De-centralized, micro-social platform that allows users to issue emergency alerts, and respond to alerts issued by their friends.

The problem is in the very first adjective: de-centralized. To a technologist, “decentralization” is the characteristic of having no single endpoint with which a given user must communicate in order to make use of the service. Think trackerless BitTorrent, BitCoin, Tor, or Diaspora. These are all examples of “decentralized” networks or services because if any given computer running the software goes down, the network stays up. One of the characteristics inherent in decentralized networks is an inability of the network or service creator from unilaterally barring access to the network by a given end-user. In other words, there is no one who can “ban” your account from using BitTorrent. That’s not how “piracy” works, duh.

Unfortunately, many of the people I’ve spoken to about Cell 411 seem to believe that “decentralized” simply means “many users in geographically diverse locations.” But this is obviously ignorant. If that were what decentralized meant, then Facebook and Twitter and Google could all be meaningfully described as “decentralized services.” That’s clearly ridiculous. This image shows the difference between centralization and decentralization:

The difference between centralization and decentralization.

As you can see, what matters is not where the end users are located, but that there is more than one hub for a given end user to connect to in order to access the rest of the network.

Armed with that knowledge, have a look at the very first clause of Cell 411’s Terms of Service legalese, which reads, and I quote:

1. We may terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability, for any reason whatsoever, including without limitation if you breach the Terms.

This is immediately suspect. If they are able to actually enforce such a claim, then it is a claim that directly contradicts a claim made by their own description. In a truly decentralized network or service, the ability for the network creator to unilaterlly “terminate or suspend your account immediately, without prior notice or liability” is not technically possible. If Cell 411 truly is decentralized, this is an unenforceable clause, and they know it. On the other hand, if Cell 411 is centralized (and this clause is enforceable), other, more troubling concerns immediately come to mind. Why should activists trade one centralized emergency dispatch tool run by the government (namely, 9-1-1), for another centralized one run by a company? Isn’t this just replacing one monopoly with another? And why bill a centralized service as a decentralized one in the first place?

Virgil Vaduva, Cell 411’s creator, told me on Twitter that the app is not open source but hinted that it might be in the future:

This leaves me with even more questions, which I asked, but received no answer to as yet. (See the Twitter thread linked above.)

Cell 411’s proprietary source code is licensed under an unusual license called the BipCot NoGov license, written by a libertarian group with whom I share distrust and hatred of the United States government. Where we differ, apparently, can be summed up by this Andy Singer quote:

Libertarianism is just Anarchy for rich people.

And that concerns me greatly. Cell 411 originally cost 99¢ per app install on both the Google Play and iTunes app stores. It’s now free, which, again, is a move in the right direction. But by refusing to release the source code, SafeArx holds its users hostage in more ways than one. There are already rumors that the company is intending to monetize the app in the future, perhaps by charging for app downloads or perhaps in some other way in the future. That is fucked. The people who need an alternative to the police most of all are not people with money. That’s why all of Buoy’s code was available as free software from the very beginning; so those people could access the tool. And beyond that, it’s the very people who need an alternative to the prison industrial complex most who are also most in need of safety from capitalism’s exploitative “monetization.”

I hope Virgil chooses to make Cell 411 free software too—i.e., not just free as in no-charge but software libre as in freedom and liberty. A closed-source tool is downright dangerous for activists to rely on, especially for an app that is supposed to be all about communal safety. This has never been more obvious than in the post-Snowden age. If you share our goal of abolishing the State and ending the practice of caging human beings, and you want to dialogue, please do what you can to convince the people running SafeArx and Cell 411 of the obvious strategic superiority of non-cooperation with capitalism.

Which brings me to my next major concern: there is no evidence that cops hate Cell 411, despite the headlines. It’s obvious, at least to anyone who understands that the purpose of cops is to protect and uphold white supremacy and oppress the working class, why cops would hate a free decentralized emergency response service. Again, I want to use such an app so badly that I began building one myself.

But if Cell 411 is centralized, then it becomes a much more useful tool for law enforcement than it does for a private individual, for exactly the same reason as Facebook presents a much more useful tool for the NSA than it does for your local reading group, despite offering benefits to both.

Cartoon of a protester ineffectually trying to shoot corrupt government officials with a 'Facebook' logo positioned as a gun.

I am not saying that Cell 411 is a bad tool. Far from it. My belief is that it is a good tool for individuals and my hope is that it will become a better tool over time. But if Cell 411 is to go from “good” to “great,” then it must actually be decentralized. It must be released freely to the people as free software/software libre. Private individuals who are working to create social infrastructure as an alternative to police must be able to access its source code to integrate it with other tools, to hack on it and make it more secure. This is the free software way, and it is the only feasible anti-capitalist approach. And the only strategically sound way to abolish police is to abolish capitalism, since police are by definition capitalism’s thugs.

It is the explicit intent of police and the State to prevent private individuals from taking their own protection into their own hands, from making their own lives better with their own tools in their own way, by not allowing access to the source of those tools. We, Cell 411 included, should not be emulating that behavior.

I want to be able to run my own Cell 411 server without asking for permission from SafeArx to do so. If Cell 411 were decentralized free software, I would be able to do this today, just as I can publish my own WordPress blog, install my own Diaspora pod, or run my own Tor relay without asking anyone for permission before I do it. This is what I can already do with Buoy, the community-based emergency response system that is already decentralized free software, licensed GPL-3 and available for download and install today from the WordPress plugin repository.

As a developer, I want to see Cell 411 and Buoy both get better. Buoy could become better if it had Cell 411’s mobile app features. Cell 411 could become better if its server could be run by anyone with a WordPress blog, like Buoy can be.

But as long as Cell 411 remains a proprietary, closed-source, centralized tool, all the hype about it being a decentralized app that cops hate will remain hype. And there are few things agents of the State like more than activists who are unable to see the reality of a situation for what it is.

Admiral Ackbar: Proprietary and centralized software-as-a-service? It's a trap!

If you think having a free software, anarchist infrastructural alternative to the police and other State-sponsored emergency services is important and want to see it happen, we need your help making Buoy better. You can find instructions for hacking on Buoy on our wiki.

  1. Here’s the email I sent to Virgil Vaduva, Cell 411’s creator and SafeArx’s founder (the company behind the app):

    From: maymay <bitetheappleback@gmail.com>
    Date: Sat, 27 Feb 2016 20:03:38 -0700

    Hi Virgil,

    My name is maymay. I learned about Cell 411 recently and I’m excited to see its development. It is similar to a web-based project of my own. I am wondering where the source code for the Cell 411 app can be found. I could not find any links to a source code repository from any of the marketing materials that I saw on your website.

    Our own very similar project is called Buoy. The difference is that Buoy is intended for community leaders and intends to be a fully free software “community-based crisis response system,” with the same anti-cop ideology as Cell 411 but built as a plugin for WordPress in order to make it super easy for anyone to host their own community’s 9-1-1 equivalent.

    Our source code is here:

    https://github.com/meitar/better-angels/

    We have focused on the web-app side of things because that’s where our experience lies, but were hoping to create a native mobile app later on. It seems you already made one. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we’re hoping to integrate what you’ve done with Cell 411 with what we’ve already developed in order to facilitate a more decentralized, truly citizen-powered infrastructure alternative to 9-1-1.

    So that’s why we’re interested in looking at Cell 411’s source code.

    Thanks for your work on this so far.

    Cheers,
    -maymay
    Maymay.net
    Cyberbusking.org

    []

Buoy (the first?) anti-policing community-based crisis response system, now available in Spanish

Buoy, (the first?) anti-policing community-based crisis response system, is now available in Spanish.

This is a really, really big deal, because communities of Spanish-speaking residents in the United Snakes of Amerikkka are some of the most oppressively policed communities in this so-called “great” country. These are sometimes families of immigrants, with members who may be undocumented, and for this simple reason they are frequent targets of the xenophobic, racist militarized occupation by the huge number of government-sponsored domestic terror gangs known as “Law Enforcement,” police, or ICE.

With Buoy, residents of these communities finally have the beginnings of a fully community-owned and operated emergency dispatch telecommunication system that does not force or even expect its users to cooperate with 9-1-1, or indeed any other traditional “public safety service” offered by government officials. Buoy users choose people they know and trust in real life and organize “teams” with one another. With the press of a single button, they can then create a private group chat that shows each team member the real-world location of all other team members, allowing team members to share video or pictures and otherwise coordinate appropriate responses to incidents, without the interference of police.

Here is a short video introduction to Buoy’s alert-and-response features:

Of course, there are many other ways social groups of any size can use Buoy. Here’s a list of additional use cases.

If you are interested in helping us crush the monopoly of State-backed so-called “protective services,” if you want to evict the police from your community, if you want to be part of abolishing the police and mercilessly eradicating every reason for their very existence, we want and need you to join this project. Have a look at our “Contributing” guidelines for ways you can help. Liberals, Statists, and cop apologists need not apply.

Kill white supremacy,
-maymay, Buoy developer

P.S. Did you notice how this post has a different tone than my original post announcing Buoy’s prototype release? Guess which one expresses how I really feel.

A Sneak Peek at Better Angels’ Buoy: the private, enhanced 9-1-1 for your personal community

As some of you already know, over the past several months, I’ve been working with a team of collaborators spanning four States and several issue areas ranging from alternative mental health/medical response, to domestic violence survivor support, to police and prison abolitionists. Although we don’t all share the exact same politics, we’ve come together as one group (we’re calling ourselves the “Better Angels”) because we all agree that more has to be done to support communities of people whom the current system fails, regardless of whether that failure is deliberate or not. In the spirit of software development as direct action, we set out to design and implement free software that would have the maximum social impact with the minimum lines of code, as quickly as possible.

Today, I want to introduce you to that software project, which we’re calling Buoy.

Screenshot of the Better Angels Buoy community-driven emergency dispatch system sending an alert to a crisis response team.

What is Buoy

Buoy is a private, enhanced 9-1-1 for your website and community. We call it a “community-driven emergency dispatch system” because everything about its design is based on the idea that in situations where traditional emergency services are not available, reliable, trustworthy, or sufficient, communities can come together to aid each other in times of need. Moreover, Buoy can be used by groups of any size, ranging from national organizations like the National Coaliation Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), to local community groups such as Solidarity Houston, or even private social clubs such as your World of WarCraft guild.

Indeed, the more community leaders who add the Buoy system on their websites, the safer people in those communities can be. One can imagine the Internet as a vast ocean, its many users as people sailing to the many ports on the high seas. Buoy is software that equips your website with tools that your users can use to help one another in the real world; the more buoys are deployed on the ocean, the safer traveling becomes for everyone.

How does Buoy work?

Using Buoy is simple. After a website admin installs and activates Buoy, each user of that website can define their personal response team by entering other users as their emergency contacts. This is shown in the screenshot below.

Screenshot of Buoy's "Choose your response team" page.

The “Choose your team members” page, available under the “My Team” heading in the WordPress dashboard menu, allows you to add or remove users from your response team. When you add a user, they receive an email notification inviting them to join your team.

Screenshot of Buoy's "Team Membership" page.

When you are invited to join someone’s response team, you receive an email with a link to the “Team Membership” page, shown here. On this page you can accept another user’s invitation to join their team or leave the teams you have previously joined.

After at least one person accepts your invitation to join your response team (i.e., they have opted-in to being one of your emergency contacts), you can access the Buoy emergency alert screen.

screenshot-3

You can bookmark this page and add it to your phone’s home screen so you can launch Buoy the same way you would launch any other app you installed from the app store. Pressing the large button nearest the bottom of the screen activates an alert and immediately sends notifications to your response team. Clicking on the smaller button with the chat bubble icon on it opens the custom alert dialog, shown next.

screenshot-4

Using that button with the chat-bubble icon on it, you can provide additional context about your situation that will be sent as part of the notification responders receive.

For some use cases, however, sending an alert after an emergency presents itself isn’t enough. Unfortunately, this is the only option that traditional 9-1-1 and other emergency dispatch services offer. In reality, though, there are many cases where people know they’re about to do something a little risky, and want support around that. This is what the other button with the clock icon on it is for.

Clicking on the smaller button with the clock icon on it opens the timed alert (“safe call”) dialog, shown next.

screenshot-5

Use this button to schedule an alert to be sent some time in the future. This way you can alert your response team to an emergency in the event that you are unable to cancel the alert, rather than the other way around. This is especially useful for “bad dates.” It’s also useful for border crossings or periodic check-ins with vulnerable people, such as journalists traveling overseas.

Regardless of which alert option you select, Buoy will gather some information from your device (including your location and your alert message) and either send your alert to your response team immediately or schedule the alert with the Buoy server. A nice pulsing circle animation provides visual feedback during this process.

screenshot-6

If you pressed one of the immediate alert buttons, the next thing you’ll see when you use Buoy is some safety information. This information is currently provided by the website admin, but we have some ideas of how to make this even more useful. Either way, if it is safe to do so, you can read through this information and/or take one of the suggested actions immediately. In the example screenshot here, Buoy has been installed on the website of a domestic violence survivor’s shelter, so the admin composed safety information that helps DV survivors quickly find and access even more supportive resources, such as hotlines and other nearby services like animal rescuers.

screenshot-7

If you’re in an emergency situation where interacting with your phone isn’t feasible, such as if you are being beaten or chased, you can simply ignore this screen. As long as you don’t lose or shut off your device, your device will send your location to your response team so that they will be able to track and find you, even if you travel away from the spot where the crisis originally began.

If you can interact with your phone, you can also close the safety information window at any time. When you do, you will see that behind the safety information window, a private, temporary chat room has been loaded in the background.

screenshot-8

When one of your response team members responds to your alert, they will join you in this chat room.

In addition to the chat room, behind the safety information window is also a real-time map. (The map can be accessed at any time by clicking or tapping the “Show Map” button. Tapping the same button again hides the map.)

screenshot-9

On the map, a red pin shows the initial location of the emergency. Your avatar shows your current position. As responders respond to your alert, their avatars will also be added to the map.

Buoy is just as easy to use from the point of view of a responder, as it is from the point of view of someone sending an alert. When a responder clicks on a notification from the alert (either by email, SMS/txt message, or whatever other notification mechanism they prefer—we are continually working to add new notification channels as our people-power and resources allow), they will be shown your alert message along with a map. They can click on the red pin to get turn-by-turn directions from their current location to the emergency alert signal. If they choose to respond, they click on the “Respond” button and will automatically be added to the group chat shown earlier.

screenshot-10

When a responder clicks the “Respond” button, they will automatically be added to the same live chat room that the alerter is in. They will also see the same map.

screenshot-11

The alerter and all current responders become aware of new responders as they are added to the chat room and the map. As people involved in the incident move around in the physical world, the map shown to each of the other people also updates, displaying their new location in near real time.

screenshot-12

Clicking on any of the user icons on the map reveals one-click access to both turn-by-turn directions to their location and one-click access to call them from your phone, Facetime, Skype, or whatever default calling app your device uses.

Who should use Buoy? Should it only be used in emergencies?

Although Buoy is designed to be useful in even the most physically high-risk situations such as domestic or dating violence abuses, kidnapping, home invasion, and other frightening scenarios, you can use Buoy however you want. We particularly encourage you to use Buoy when you feel like your situation may not rise to the level of calling 9-1-1 or when you feel like the presence of police officers will not improve the situation.

For instance:

  • If you feel you are being followed as you walk home on campus, use Buoy. Your friends will be able to watch your location on their screens and quietly chat with you as you walk home, ensuring you reach your destination safely.
  • If you or someone you are with feels suicidal, or is having a “bad trip,” and you don’t want cops showing up to your house but need assistance, use Buoy. Responders will be notified of your physical location and will be able to coordinate a response action with you and with each-other in real time without ever notifying the authorities of the situation.
  • If you are with a group at an outing such as a hike or a large amusement park and get separated from your group, use Buoy. Each group member will be able to see one another’s current location on a map, can easily coordinate where to meet up, and can even access turn-by-turn directions to one another’s locations with one tap of a finger.

We’ve designed Buoy with people for whom “calling the cops” is not possible or safe, such as:

  • Undocumented immigrant and homeless populations.
  • Domestic violence victims and survivors.
  • Social justice and social change activists/political dissidents.
  • Freed prisoners.
  • Frequent targets of assault and street harassment (trans/queer people, women).
  • People suffering from a medical or mental health emergency.
  • Especially all the intersections of the above (homeless feminine queer youth of color, for instance).

In other words, these are all demographics who could benefit by having “someone to call” in the event of an emergency for whom “the police” is obviously a counterproductive answer, because when police are involved they are more likely to escalate the situation than de-escalate it.

That said, even if these descriptions don’t fit who you are, you can still use Buoy and if you do, we hope you find it useful.

How can I get Buoy?

Buoy is a bit like a very advanced telephone. Just like a telephone, it’s not very useful if no one else you know has one! For Buoy, or a telephone, to be useful, you have to know someone else who already has it.

Since Buoy is so new and is designed to be used in real-life emergencies, we are only working with a small group of alpha testers in order to ensure that there are no major technical or usability issues before its widespread adoption. However, we are very excited about the possibilities and we are currently looking to include more people in the testing process. If you think this is exciting and want to help put the finishing polish on this tool, please get in touch with someone from the Better Angels collective directly; links to our contact information is posted on the Buoy project’s development site. (Or just email me at bitetheappleback+better.angels.buoy@gmail.com directly.)

That being said, if you are a community leader, and you maintain a WordPress-powered website, you can try out Buoy right now by installing it directly from your WordPress admin screens! It’s just as easy to install as any other WordPress plugin. Similarly, if you yourself are not a “community leader,” but you want to try it out, you can either ask to join our private testing phase or you can tell others in your community about Buoy and see if the group of you can install it on your own group’s website.

If you do that, don’t hesitate to ask for technical or other help of any kind over at the Buoy support forums.

How can I help Better Angels projects?

There’s a lot you can do to help make Buoy better or help the Better Angels collective more generally! Check out our contributor guides for more information! Of course, one of the most immediate things you can do to help is spread the word about this project. (Hint hint, click the reshare button, nudge nudge!) Cash donations are also very helpful! Finally, we’re also trying very hard to get the entire tool translated into Spanish, so if you’re bilingual and want to help, please sign up to be a Better Angels translator here.

We think Buoy is a great tool for building strong, autonomous, socially responsible, self-sufficient communities, and we hope you’ll join us in empowering those communities by making them aware of Buoy.