Panic Button: Why we are retiring the app

Guest authors

This post is by Tanya O’Carroll, Adviser Tech and Human Rights, Amnesty International; Danna Ingleton, Adviser, Human Rights Defenders; and Jun Matsushita, Founder and CEO, iilab.

In 2012, Amnesty International, with support from our partners at iilab, The Engine Room and Frontline Defenders, began developing a tool that would provide human rights defenders with an alert system in their pocket: the Panic Button app. Now, we’ve made the decision to cease ongoing support for the app. Here, we share the lessons learned and what it means for the future of developing security tools for human rights activists.

The origins of Panic Button

When we first called on the tech community to help us use technology to prevent unlawful detentions — back in 2012 — we always knew we would be trying something different. That was Amnesty International’s first Open Innovation Challenge; it was the first time the organization attempted to use technology to address human rights abuses directly.

Our dream was to develop a smart and simple tool that would provide human rights defenders (HRDs) with an alert system in their pocket: the panic button app.

A huge, collaborative effort came out of that dream. About 350 designers and developers took part in an open design process, and multiple hackathons and codejams over a year and a half to prototype and develop the app. There were three iterations of the UX as we responded to the feedback and input of human rights defenders in Amnesty’s networks. 120 HRDs from 17 countries took part in in a six-month pilot and helped us understand how the app was working – or not working! – for them in practice (an evaluation of the pilot can be found here).

We were also lucky to benefit from the insights and wisdom of a small group of amazing partners at iilab, Frontline Defenders and The Engine Room.

From the outset, all those involved knew this was about much more than an app. At its centre, the Panic Button project aimed to develop a model for strong peer-to-peer emergency response between HRDs and their networks. We worked closely with defenders from across the world to understand and build upon their existing security practices, designing a flexible security framework that would help them prepare for and manage physical threats. We called this security framework the PACT so that HRDs and their networks would be “Prepared to ACT.”

A participant at a Panic Button workshop creates a map of countries where we tested Panic Button in partnership with the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project in 2014.

Why we are sunsetting Panic Button

Five years later and we have many stories of successes, failures and lessons learned. It would be worrying if we didn’t; it would mean that we hadn’t really tried anything new. We are proud of what we achieved with the PACT — and the training kit that supports it — which represent an innovative approach to emergency response planning with HRDs. This has been confirmed over and over again in the feedback we have received from activists in trainings (some of the testimony from HRDs can be found here in our training diary).

Unfortunately, despite a huge collective effort, we have had to come to terms with the fact that the Panic Button app has not become the tool we hoped it would be. That’s why today we are making the painful decision, after months of pursuing all other avenues, to cease our support for the Panic Button app.

We arrived at that decision for three reasons:

  1. Despite our best efforts, we have not been able to secure any substantial external funding for the project since being awarded £100,000 as runners-up in the Google Global Impact Award in June 2013. In part, this is due to what in hindsight was a short-lived boom in funding and excitement around “tech 4 good.”
  2. Without adequate resourcing, we have not been able to resolve a major technical issue with the app: a false alert problem caused by “false positives” when the phone thinks the power button has been triggered.
  3. Also linked to resourcing, we have not been able to keep up with the level of human resources needed to maintain our engagement with users.

We think a lot of our experiences will be familiar to others who have experimented with developing tech for social good. We also think that failures too often get swept under the carpet. We don’t want to do that. Two months ago, we joined a session at the Internet Freedom Festival in Valencia to share lessons from the Panic Button experience. This post builds off the discussions we had with many of you there.

We also think that failures too often get swept under the carpet. We don’t want to do that.

We hope our experience provides useful lessons for app developers, human rights technologists and funders, and contributes towards tech initiatives that are scalable, sustainable and socially impactful.

We also owe it to our users, and the many friends of this project, to provide a proper explanation as to why, even after all our best efforts, the Panic Button app has not worked. For that reason, we dedicated our next post to taking a closer look at the challenges the Panic Button app faced and ultimately could not overcome.


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