The culture of secrecy that fuels campus rape has a tech solution

Raising awareness at Stanford.
Raising awareness at Stanford.
Image: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
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Sexual assault and rape have become the scourge of US campuses, with over one in five women and 5.4% of men attacked during their time at college. It took a combination of those shocking stats and some high-profile cases, like that of a former Stanford student convicted last year of raping an unconscious woman outside a party, to catapult the issue to the top of university agendas.

Now, one tech company says it has a solution to a part of the problem: The fact that less than one in 10 sexual assaults is ever reported, and most attacks are perpetrated by people who carry out more than one assault. Callisto, a San Francisco-based non-profit that has created an online tool for reporting assaults, says its approach could eventually reduce the number of attacks by two-thirds.

Callisto is the brainchild of epidemiologist Jess Ladd, who now leads an all-female core team of nine working on the tool. It’s designed to overcome the biggest blocks to coming forward about assault, including the fear of not being believed or of going through the process alone.

Development on Callisto—named after a nymph who, according to Greek mythology, suffered an assault—started in 2014, with year-long pilots launching in August 2015 at the University of San Francisco and Pomona College. It’s since been tested at eight colleges in total: Central College, Coe College, Caniusius College, St. John’s University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, all of which have signed up to continue using it, the company said. Stanford launched its own pilot last week. Seed funding came from Google, and the non-profit has raised a total of $2.5 million to date, mostly from philanthropic organizations.

The system allows students who have been attacked to create an account of their experience online. They can do so from a place—like their home—where they feel safe, and save it as a time-stamped record before deciding whether to share it with the relevant authorities (whether this is the police or the university depends on how the system is configured). The system aims to address the potential fear of speaking directly about an attack to law enforcement, campus authorities, or anyone else who might question its veracity. Those who report using the system can choose what information to include. Data is encrypted to protect identities, limiting the worry that it will fall into the wrong hands.

One unique aspect of the tool is its “matching” function. When a student creates an assault report, she or he can choose to save it, or submit it straight away to the relevant authority. But there is also a third choice: save and submit at a future date, but only when the same perpetrator has been named in another report. This offers back-up for anyone fearful of going through the reporting process alone.

The matching function came out of careful research into how people experiencing trauma might want to use technology, according to Kelsey Gilmore-Innis, the non-profit’s chief technology officer.

Up to now, most work in web and app design, and best practices in the field, relate to getting a user to click on ads or buy things, she said. This is a whole different ballgame: “Designing for folks who are traumatized…for experiences that are bad, that are scary, that are unwanted, is new,” she said. The imperative for Facebook to deal with crimes and other traumatic events broadcast on its Live feature, and Twitter’s battle with trolling and hate speech, might fall into the same category.

So far, the software hasn’t found a match, which would be generated when an encrypted piece of information, for example an attacker’s Facebook URL, was “unlocked” by another report containing the same information. But the company said trials have seen a reporting rate of 20%, double that of the national average, based on how many people who create an assault account then go on to report it officially. On average, repeat attackers commit five assaults, said Ladd in a TED talk last year. If the two first such offenses were caught and matched by the system, she explained, an average of three subsequent attacks could be avoided.

Callisto built a web service rather than a mobile app because they discovered—perhaps unsurprisingly—that “no one wanted the ‘I’ve been assaulted’ app on their phone,” Gilmore-Innis explained. Working in new territory can be frustrating, she said. “No one can answer my questions…like, what is password recall like for people experiencing a PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] flashback? We don’t know, and there’s not work out there about it.” Increasingly though, Gilmore-Innis says tech companies will need to deal with such issues: “We live our lives online, including the bad parts and the hard parts, and I think there’s going to be more and more of that in coming years.”

This story was updated to remove a Callisto demo site link that didn’t accurately reflect how the tool works.