Apps by and for women

12 December 2014

Programming and creating our own applications or apps is basically about understanding programming codes, taking control and adapting the apparently invisible mechanisms. We need to appropriate technical language and create instruments suited to our needs.

This is the idea behind many women’s hackathons, at which women interested in developing accessible, available technology and tools are invited to form teams to develop a technological prototype to solve a particular problem.

This article describes two apps showcasing how technology can be used by and for women. Prevention, support and protection are values that repeatedly emerge in the creation of these services. Creativity and putting information in women’s hands are the priorities.

Sex education from mobile devices

HappyPlayTime is an application featuring a colourful, bouncy cartoon figure with educational and entertainment purposes. However, this programme never saw the light of day as a mobile phone application. Why? Because the main character is a vulva that asks to be played with, discussing female masturbation in recreational and educational language.

A graphic designer in the United States approached a topic that is taboo, and has historically been rendered complex, distancing women from contact with their own bodies, to provide an opportunity for people to learn facts and techniques about playing with the organ of female pleasure. The game she invented touches on a topic that remains problematic for many people, but especially for those with the responsibility of making decisions about the services available on technological devices on a daily basis.

Tina Gong, the creator of HappyPlayTime, explained from New York that Apple would not include the application among its iPhone options, officially because the proposal was considered “pornographic”. It is interesting to examine what is considered “pornographic”, and the opposition to the author registering it as an “educational game”.

Gong said: “The first time I registered the game, I presented it for users aged 13+. After it was rejected for the reasons given previously, I changed the age limit to 17+, which is the strictest limit available for an app. There are many apps for adults in the app store, and they have got past scrutiny that way. But we were rejected again.”

After trying out the game, which can be used on its internet website, we can confirm that there is not a single instance or image that could be regarded as “pornographic”. There is no comparison possible between a bouncy pink cartoon and the bacchanalia of flesh, silicon and body fluids incessantly offered by the mainstream pornography industry. “Our graphic is entirely aimed at portraying masturbation as the innocent activity it really is,” said the designer.

When Gong asked Apple for more details, they only replied that the “concept” of the game was not appropriate. Because of Apple’s rejection, the application never made it to mobile phones. But how would it have been played and what would it do? Users would interact with the cartoon vulva via the tactile screen of their cell phone, with the aim of getting the animated character to reach climax and have an orgasm.

About why HappyPlayTime was rejected, Gong mused: “I have a feeling that if I changed the way this game was designed, taking out the central core of it being an app where you can literally play with the character, invest emotionally in her well-being, it would get through. They mentioned that the ‘concept’ was objectionable. My feeling is that they don’t mean female masturbation, but just this gaming aspect.”

But Gong has not given up the battle: “As a designer, I’m always looking for ways to break traditional models of doing things, so I guess that makes me stubborn about keeping this game system in place. I don’t want to create a website or article, because so many great resources exist like that already. I’d rather work with those experts to create a new way of digesting the information. Apps like this create more receptivity, and make the educational aspect more inviting, welcoming.”

To reconfigure the game and make it available on the web, the author said she had to rewrite it from scratch: “It was originally native in iOS code. I have spent thousands of dollars to develop it in Javascript.” About the view companies take of creators, she said: “My guess is that Apple might have understood the purpose of it being educational, and that it was built with a mission, but wants to force me to strip out all the things that make this game what it is. And I can’t accept that.”

HappyPlayTime was conceived as a game about identity. Its author sees it as an approach to the intersection between the self and sexuality, “but this is such a multifaceted concept of oneself!” she said. As Gong finishes her day at the design studio where she works, she is still turning over the concept in her mind. “At present I’m planning and putting together some other ideas for creating experiences that expand our knowledge of ourselves, and awareness of who we are meant to be as women,” she said.

Applications for human rights defenders

In El Salvador, William Vides and Mariana Moisa created the application Matilti, in the context of violence against women exacerbated by high rates of femicide and sexual violence, a situation that is opposed by “a feminist women’s movement active in struggle,” according to the designers. In that political framework, they began to explore how reports by citizens could become address and help combat violence against women.

Central America is a region where women human rights defenders are under attack, for fighting against the effects of neo-extractive industrial projects. The application not only supports activists, it also requires public bodies to be accountable for how they respond to denunciations of human rights violations.

“The women’s movement is an excellent network, and in many cases women’s organisations do the work of reporting, caring for and accompanying women facing violence of any kind. It was thought on the one hand that the tool would reduce the risks run by human rights defenders, but it also enjoys the credibility arising from their work on the ground,” the Matilti description says.

The way it works differentiates it from other safety and security apps, perhaps because of the participatory workshops with women human rights defenders, at which the activists themselves analysed and brainstormed about the tool’s features. “For instance, reports of violent situations are not only sent to the police or the Institute for Women, they are also sent to a human rights defender colleague responsible for the person sending the report (‘safety circles’ are created that notify other people when a fellow activist is in danger),” said Vides.

The Matilti application has three particular interconnected features that define it: the organised movement of women defenders, who use the tool, denouncing and informing; the agreements reached between the feminist collective and government institutions, embodied in the application; and finally, the technological mechanism devised specifically for mobile phones (not necessarily smart phones) that are widespread in the country.

“Each message requires a keyword; this is necessary because in our country, not everyone has access to a smartphone or to the internet. Our application can be used in rural areas and by people who have limited knowledge of the use of phones.” Reports follow a predefined pathway, going directly to the Health Ministry, the Salvadoran Institute for Women’s Development, the National Civilian Police, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and other institutions responsible for assisting women in cases of violence and any other reports of aggression, the Matilti activists said.

As reports come in, they are registered, and the application follows up on the efficiency and effectiveness of the institutions. (This information is not made public but is accessed only by human rights defenders registered with Matilti, in order to analyse areas of most conflict and to calculate the response time of the institutions.) If a case is not solved, the alert will remain active until the person reporting the case sends a message to close it down. The application is capable of entering government sites and filling in report forms, and of connecting with other systems compatible with its technological architecture.

Apply your imagination

Applications to help you track your menstrual period, like Love Cycles, or games devised to demythologise subjects that should not continue to be “taboo”, can make us appreciate our bodies from new perspectives, without the heavy burden of morality and expectations about “proper” behaviour.

An open code allows us to create, frees our imagination and resists censorship. The limitations imposed in offline spaces reappear on the internet, and we wish to explore the highest potential of the devices we create in order to overcome them.

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