Thursday, August 25, 2016
Last updated: 11 months ago

UBC med student develops panic button for sex trade workers

Isabel Chen holds up a watch than could be equiped with the panic button. Photo Kai Jacobson/The Ubyssey

Isabel Chen holds up a watch that could be equipped with the panic button. Photo Kai Jacobson/The Ubyssey

Isabel Chen, a medical student at UBC, is part of a team that has invented a mobile panic button for street-based sex trade workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

A voice or text message is first recorded onto a SIM card, which is inserted into a GPS-enabled device such as a pager that would only need to be charged once a week. Pressing a button on the pager activates the GPS and sends an emergency message and GPS location to a contact who can get help. Because the GPS is not activated until the device is activated, the anonymity of the user is preserved.

The other members of the team include Kyle Ragins, a fourth-year med student at Yale, and Vanessa Forro, a master’s of public health student from Case Western in Ohio. Both Ragins and Forro have been involved in this project from its inception.

“We thought we would run the idea by local organizations and see what they thought. And we’ve received a lot of support so we’ve just sort of been trekking along,” Chen said.

According to Chen, a few of the specifics are still to be decided. Once prototype devices are ordered, the three students will hold focus groups to determine which type of device is more useful. GPS-enabled pagers and watches have been considered, but they are also open to using something else entirely. Also to be decided is the recipient of these emergency messages; it could potentially be a friend, relative, community partner or the Vancouver Police Department.

After the focus groups, Chen, Forro and Ragins will launch a six-month pilot project by giving devices to 100 women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Chen said they are not currently working with the Vancouver Police Department. She noted that legal issues complicate the relationship between the police and sex trade workers; she is waiting for the focus groups to clarify what the users would be most comfortable with.

One group they will be working with is WISH, a drop-in centre that provides aid to female sex workers. “WISH is super on-board. They’ve been providing a lot of support and just, like, general advice.… We couldn’t do this project without them,” Chen said.

Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, said the project is still in early stages and they are working to consult the sex workers themselves.

“We have to go to the women to find out.… We need to consult with the people who are most affected,” said Gibson.

Chen said that the idea came from a variety of different influences, notably her research: at Yale, she studied intimate partner homicide as part of her master’s of public health degree. In a January 2012 missing women’s commission report, she read that sex workers mentioned GPS panic alarms as something that might be helpful. Panic alarms are already used in brothels, but women working on the street don’t have that security.

The group is currently holding a fundraising initiative online. The initial goal was to raise $5,500 to pay for sample devices, focus groups and the first 100 pilot devices. Two days ago, the budget was expanded to $8,140, which covers the entire pilot project. “Any extra funds we’ll just donate to WISH or whatever community organization ends up continuing the project,” Chen said.

As of Tuesday night, according to the project website,, the total funds raised were $16,115.

UPDATE: Originally, the group thought they were generously overfunded, with donations numbering $16,000. But according to the website’s page, $15,000 of those were donated from fraudulent accounts. The group now has only $1,200 in donations, roughly 16 per cent of the total goal.