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Indian women use smartphones to 'pin the creeps'
by Staff Writers
Mumbai (AFP) March 3, 2013


World's top tech fair pins hopes on Asia, social media
Berlin (AFP) March 03, 2013 - The world's biggest high-tech fair, the CeBIT, kicks off Tuesday, pinning its hopes on growing tech regions Asia and Africa and the hot topic of social media to beat competition from other high-profile fairs.

More than 4,000 exhibitors from some 70 countries are expected to set up shop in the northern German city of Hanover, about the same number as last year despite the weak economic environment, organisers said.

"CeBIT is becoming increasingly international as we see countries in Asia and Africa developing more and more into IT nations," said Hartwig von Sass, a spokesman for organisers Deutsche Messe.

However, even with stable exhibitor numbers, the CeBIT is a far cry from its glory days at the height of the dot-com boom, when 8,000 firms would scrap for places in the hanger-like halls of the sprawling fair grounds.

CeBIT is battling competition from the swanky Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the just-finished Mobile World Congress in Barcelona but Sass insisted that Hanover was still top of the tree.

"No matter what other fair you look at, they're all half as big as us," said Sass, who said 350,000 visitors swarmed through the stands last year.

CeBIT is also the only fair catering to the whole IT sector rather than a specific part, he added, announcing that tech giants like IBM, Microsoft, SAP and Google would be present at this year's event.

The IT industry enters the CeBIT in relatively bullish mood, with German industry group BITKOM forecasting in the run-up to the fair that global tech spending was poised to rise by 5.1 percent to 2.7 trillion euros ($3.5 trillion) this year.

This year's CeBIT theme is "shareconomy", the increasing trend of users sharing data and things, with examples being "carsharing" and of course social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Several exhibits will be devoted to shifting the way office communications are run, moving from email -- which some experts see as increasingly obsolete -- to internal social media platforms.

Innovative ways to process vast amounts of data as well as the perennial issues of cloud computing -- storing data remotely -- and Internet security will also be major topics at this year's event.

But as ever with the CeBIT, it is not all work and no play as there will be the usual display of head-spinning gadgets and pointless but fun applications to entertain the punters.

For those who despair of finding the right items in massive supermarkets, a firm has developed a trolley that communicates with the shelves, points the hapless shopper in the right direction and ticks things off the list.

And for the strains of daily life, a communications firm has created an app that gives you a read-out on your stress levels just from testing your voice.

Another firm has pioneered the must-have piece of furniture for those accused of being couch potatoes.

The chair measures weight, heart rate, blood pressure and other important health data and, if it doesn't like what it sees, transforms into a rowing machine so you can shift a few pounds while you watch your favourite programme.

While the fair officially throws open its doors on Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will give the opening speech the night before along with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Poland is this year's "partner country", with around 150 Polish exhibitors expected to make the trip over the border.

With virtual bodyguards, panic buttons and maps to pinpoint harassment blackspots, women in urban India are using their smartphones for protection after a notorious gang-rape in New Delhi.

Interest in safety apps and websites has surged since the fatal December attack, in which a 23-year-old student was set upon by a drunken gang on her way home from a cinema in the Indian capital.

After outrage and protests erupted, four businesswomen set up Safecity.in, a website for victims of harassment to channel their anger.

The site encourages them to "Pin the Creeps" by reporting incidents of harassment and abuse -- ranging from catcalling to rape -- which are added to an online map and sent to those requesting alerts.

Mumbai-based Elsa D'Silva, a founder of the site, said social media had allowed women to speak out and warn others of dangerous areas, even if they are reluctant to give their name or make a complaint to the police.

"Now you feel more empowered to do something about it, even if it's just sharing your experience," said D'Silva. "We're not going to keep quiet any more."

The website has linked up with new mobile app SafeTrac, developed by tech firm KritiLabs and downloadable for free, which has an SOS button to alert emergency contacts and lets relatives or friends track the user's journey.

It joins a host of similar apps designed to reassure women, especially those working late and travelling alone -- that is, if they can afford mobile Internet access.

The first such Indian app was FightBack, launched by non-profit trust Whypoll a year before the Delhi attack, since when it has gone free of charge and seen a flurry of downloads.

Whypoll founder Hindol Sengupta said they were now working on a "next generation" app that will include guidance for reporting abuse.

"Women often don't know their legal rights when they go to the police station and they can be further violated there," he said.

"The kind of people who have reached out to us for information has astounded me."

Such developments are being encouraged. India's IT trade body NASSCOM has opened a contest to find the best app for women's safety. Separately, free app Stipator (Latin for "bodyguard") won an award for social innovation last month from NASSCOM.

A government commission, set up to prevent sex crimes after the Delhi attack, recommended the development of mobile phone apps for sending distress signals to the police.

Even in Mumbai, considered one of India's safest cities, police launched their own ICE (In Case of Emergency) app in January and say they have seen thousands of downloads, although its practicality has been criticised.

A piece in the DNA newspaper pointed out that many women in India cannot afford a basic mobile phone, let alone the Android device required.

"Also, when in distress, how often do we get time to take the phone out of our bag, unlock it and open an application to let people know we are in trouble?" it asked.

Technology clearly has its limits: it cannot fulfil the need for decent law enforcement, or change attitudes towards women.

And while the Indian smartphone market is rising rapidly -- expected to soon become the world's third largest -- it still accounts for a fraction of about 700 million active mobile subscriptions in the country.

Most safety apps require GPS capabilities that standard mobile phones do not have, although some developers offer emergency texting services.

The creators of Stipator, Ratnesh Desai and three fellow Microsoft employees in Hyderabad city, are also working on a "lipstick-sized" safety device for women without phones.

Techies and activists hope that if their tools catch on, they might one day act as a deterrent to abuse.

"If word gets out there are such apps, people wanting to molest someone will have to be more careful," said Desai.

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