[Trigger warning] This article discusses domestic violence.
According to statistics compiled by White Ribbon, domestic and family violence is the principal cause of homelessness for women and their children, with one in four children in Australia exposed to domestic violence.
Over 12 months, on average, one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner.
From education to intervention and support, there is clearly much to be done to address this issue, and it is not one easily solved.
Aiming to help by connecting persons at risk to support when they need it is Australian startup Commsync, which has created a system for devices that can, when called upon by someone at risk, put into action a pre-programmed safety plan.
Founded by Chris Boyle, Tom O’Neill and Rachael Trihey, Commsync consists of a not-for-profit arm, the Commsync Foundation, and Commsync Alert, a commercial arm focused on driving safety outcomes across health, aged care, and lone workers.
The idea for the device was based on Boyle’s experiences working in the child protection system for more than 20 years.
Those exposed to domestic violence are advised by the system to call a 1800 call centre or police in order to get help, Boyle explained; he sat around countless dining tables over the years writing down safety plans for vulnerable women and children, but, despite the best intentions of those involved, Boyle said these plans just do not work.
“In a crisis, those at risk cannot get to the phone, call the police, explain where they are, describe what’s happening, and then wait for a response – which can be hours as police across Australia respond to a call regarding domestic violence every two minutes,” Boyle explained.
“As a result, children are often left to hide under their beds and wait for the violence to stop or jump the fence and get help from the neighbour to call the police.”
Commsync was born as Boyle linked up with O’Neill, whose background in tech allowed him to see how technology could help address some of these issues. Trihey saw how the idea could be rolled out commercially across a number of situations and sectors, such as health and aged care, helping to fund the Foundation’s work.
“Our collective passion is to give a voice and a real tangible solution to our community’s most vulnerable by developing a solution for them that actually works. We are driven to fundamentally shift the way the system responds to women and children at risk of abuse and violence and move conversations into action,” Boyle said.
The startup has come across a range of the usual startup challenges – the founders bootstrapping and developing Commsync on the side while continuing to work their day jobs, the pace of technology, and the like – but Boyle said the toughest has been how slowly the system around domestic violence and child protection moves.
“In regards to the system responses, the simple transportation of new solutions is ineffective unless we have established political and public will. In order to first achieve change, we need to understand what maintains the status quo,” Boyle said.
“The domestic violence and child protection sectors are the most risk averse and complex systems. The introduction of technology into these sectors is not changing what we are seeking to achieve in keeping people safe, rather, it’s how we are doing this which is different.”
The CommSyncAlert solution, Boyle explained, looks to combine best practice principles with technology to create a unified safety response for those at risk.
“The process of identifying the best people to respond to them in any emergency can take some time, as many children and women exposed to domestic violence are often isolated from family and friends,” he said.
“Once the network of safety and support has been nominated, a conversation is had with each member to understand what they will do if they get the call for help, and how they can best respond in the safest way, in the shortest amount of time possible.”
For the person at risk, their pre-programmed safety plan can be activated by pressing a particular button on their device. Depending on their plan, one-way or two-way voice communication between the victim and their designated respondent will then be opened, with live recording activated, and the user’s GPS location identified.
The designated responder, meanwhile, can acknowledge the call for help by accepting the alarm and therefore becoming a responder. They can hear what’s happening on real time through the device, or talk to the victim if two-way communication is available.
They will know where the person at risk is thanks to the GPS location, which will be sent via SMS and email, and through the audio they are receiving, will be able to proactively appraise the situation and act accordingly, with Commsync giving them the ability to conference call in others without hanging up on the call.
All actions and data will be stored for reporting purposes.
The Commsync Foundation is working with a variety of organisations, from government to corporates, to help fund the devices for those in need.
“The philosophy of the Commsync Foundation is that the most vulnerable women and children at risk of domestic violence should not have to pay for their safety. Furthermore, given financial abuse and isolation, they are often the least able to afford it,” Boyle said.
Commsync is one of seven finalists in this year’s Optus Future Makers program, hoping to take out the funding prize and participate in the Singtel Group Future Makers program taking place at the Impact Investment Summit later this year.
“Having the guidance and support to navigating through the pitfalls of a startup will allow us to refine our solution and allow us to scale, both the Foundation and commercial aspects of our business, ensuring we can get our solution into the hands of those who need it the most,” Boyle said.
Beyond the program, Commsync’s goal over the coming year is to design an automated self-service portal that allows its commercial customers to do more with their devices and accounts.
“With this, we can grow the commercial aspect of our business to support the Foundation work to achieve a fundamental shift in the way we, as a community, respond to domestic and family violence,” Boyle said.
“Commsync is passionate about providing a tangible safety solution for our most vulnerable children and women, both here in Australia and across the world. Our goals if for them to be able to focus on their futures instead of constantly looking over their shoulders.”