These apps notify you when bad news happens. Here’s why they’re so necessary


What do you choose to be notified about in real-time on your phone? I am alerted, for example, when someone mentions me on Twitter. I’m told when events I have agreed to attend are approaching. I’m alerted when news deemed “breaking” has broken, and I’m alerted to the fact that my baby nephew is an Instagram smash hit. I am not notified when a police officer kills someone in the U.S. But I could be.

Data artist and journalist with The Intercept, Josh Begley, last week launched an iPhone app which sends a push notification every time the Guardian adds a name to its online database of police killings, The Counted. Begley’s app is fittingly titled “Archives + Absences”—when we count and keep record of lives taken by the police, we are archiving those lives made absent. Further, the entire project of databasing police killings is an answer to a glaring absence: The U.S. government has no comprehensive record of the number of people killed by law enforcement. To count, as in the Guardian’s project, is one thing. But what does it mean to insert the consistent fact of police killings into our daily smartphone usage?

The question is twofold: how does presenting such information through an app notification shape how we treat this critical information? And, secondly, how might the inclusion of tragic information onto our app landscape shift how we think about this technology and its uses? Archives + Absences is certainly not the first app devoted to a grim and grave subject. Begley’s first iPhone app offering, Metadata+, alerted users to every new drone strike carried about by the U.S., including information on the ages of casualties, and whether they were reported civilians. Apple removed this app last September, after it had garnered 50,000 installations, ambiguously citing “content that many users would find objectionable.” (Shouldn’t all users find such content objectionable, if not unbearable?) Metadata+ then joined a small cadre of arguably ethical apps removed by Apple’s review processors on the same shaky grounds.

The tech giant has for several years been transparent about its muddy process of determining apps objectionable. In 2010, an Apple statement revealed it uses the same questionable criterion for objectionability that the Supreme Court established in 1964 to define obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” For now, the police killing alerts have passed muster. The work of the movement asserting that Black Lives Matter in forcing the plague of racist police violence to the fore cannot have been absent from Apple’s deliberations. Equally, their (and our) thoughts about the function of apps may be changing. Six years ago, Apple’s position was that the App Store was not necessary a home for “complicated” material. “If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app,” the company stated.

It’s not a question of whether content should be made public about, say, drone strikes or sweatshop labor (an app game concerning which was also removed), but rather about how it gets to be content, and whether it should be delivered via app. Of course, apps could take any number of forms—a self-contained program with a specific purpose is by definition an app. But the apps we tend to use, the content they offer and the shape of their interfaces, are pretty limited and focus on messaging, lifestyle, shopping and productivity.

Since our smartphones play such a huge role in our digitally integrated lives, and since apps essentially organize how we live online through mobile devices, there’s reason to argue for the inclusion of violences and horrors plaguing so many lives. For Begley, Archives + Absences is exactly such a project. “As with the drone app,” he told Fusion, “the narrative is interruption. A brief notification. A person’s name: Bettie Jones. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland.”

“The narrative is interruption. A brief notification. A person’s name: Bettie Jones. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland.”

Even for people deeply invested in the struggle against police violence and racism, who might fastidiously follow reports of killings, a real-time update would be a useful tool. For those of us who are not confronted daily with law enforcement aggression, regular alerts could hopefully stop us turning away between the headlines and marches. Those oppressed by state violence are not accorded the opportunity to turn away at all. It is perhaps the case that only already interested parties would opt for such programs on their cell phones. But the work of interested, involved and angered parties is exactly why police killings are part of mainstream debate at all. If we reject an archaic digital dualism, and assert that our online lives are no less “real” than our offline lines, we should consider at least the possible social effect of organizing the smartphone apparatus more explicitly around struggles.

As social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson commented: “We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen.”

Begley’s app is far from the only such program to focus on police violence. Other apps, such as those through which users can record altercations with cops, and directly upload the videos, are interactive tools, as opposed to notification systems. It makes sense that we should have both in our pockets. Across the country, ACLU local chapters have seen over a quarter million of their apps installed, according to an ACLU spokesperson. Jason Van Arden designed the ACLU Mobile Justice App, which was then released by local affiliates to flurries of press pick up. Van Arden designed the very first such cop watch app in 2011, Panic Button, and has seen the iterations multiply and update since. He reminded Fusion via the phone that the app is a simple idea; using the smartphone camera, which is itself an app so broadly used that it’s easy to forget it is an app at all.

Ben Bowens, a communications associate at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which launched a version of the Mobile Justice app last November, described it to Fusion as an “empowerment tool.” He noted that there have been 3,500 installations so far, and that many of the videos sent in include those filming cops at protests. The hope is to both change police behavior through public observation, and to challenge impunity with evidence. Footage of the killings of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or John Crawford III to name just three was no bulwark to impunity. Which is to say that filming cops is necessary, but clearly not sufficient. The ACLU apps serve an important purpose, but they can’t deliver what’s on the label—mobile justice.

Bowens told Fusion that the ACLU is working on including a “bystander” function on the app, which could be used to inform other people nearby (presumably users of the app) if an altercation is taking place, so that they might attend as witnesses.

The Circle of 6 app, originally designed to help fight campus assault and support victims, works on the simple premise that, with two clicks, a user can inform their closest contacts of their whereabouts and if they need help. Law enforcement is not given access to the data, nor alerted by default (a user must opt for this). After over 300,000 installations, founder Nancy Schwartzman has seen numerous examples of individuals using the app to get out of dangerous situations. A pilot program and extensive survey at Williams College on sexual assault and Circle of 6 usage saw some positive results on campus.

“[Of] The 1,500 students surveyed, over 52 percent said they had intervened in situations—even without knowing the students involved,” she said. “So the ethos of Circle of 6 and a small circle of connection is rippling outward into larger communities of care.” An app intended to enable swift contact with friends and relatives is being used to help strangers, too. These statistics may also reflect—happily—a broader state of social awareness around campus assault.

We customize our smartphone interfaces, and thus shape much of our online lives, with the apps we choose and use. But we mustn’t forget how massive corporations—Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook—over determine the shapes available to make. This is not, of course, an online-only phenomenon; it’s capitalism. It’s perhaps of relevance, then, that both Begley and Van Arden describe themselves as artists. We might think of their offerings as attempts at digital dérive; rapid paths through predictable, overdetermined landscapes of smartphone interfaces, directed toward new awarenesses and, at best, new types of relationality. I’m not advocating smartphone asceticism, far from it. You won’t pry my thumb from an Instagram swipe. But an app like Archives + Absences should be held there, too, uncomfortable and totally objectionable.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin