Friday, September 22, 2017

Blink

BLINK is an app that facilitates bystander intervention and encourages people to be supportive of one another in times of adversity - a return to humanity, if you will. Ideated and coded by Jaspal Oberoi and his team, BLINK is on its way to making the world a safer space. Here is an interview with Jaspal.

Tell us a little about yourself and all that marks your journey into what you're doing today.
My sister and I had quite a protected childhood, owing to my father being an army officer, and my mother usually teaching in the same school that my sister and I studied in. We were shifting from one army cantonment to the next, every year or two. Making new friends in new places was a necessity. From a very early age, I was exposed to the concept of helping those in need. I have countless memories of my dad helping accident victims on the road, my mom counselling troubled students, the army folks helping out civilians whenever needed… My mom was a person who thrived on making connections with random strangers. She was the most gentle soul, and was deeply loved by anyone who got to know her. She was the Principal of one of the leading schools in the country before she passed away in 2009. As it happens, I grew up as a good mix of my mom and dad — Love making connections with everyone I meet, stop to help whoever I can, whenever I can. From filling out immigration forms for uneducated people at the airport, to helping someone travelling alone with a baby, to giving first aid to accident victims and taking them to the hospital, I’ve done it all, more than a few times. I worked in the Merchant Navy for over 20 years. The biggest rule at sea is that you have an obligation to help anyone who is in distress. I happen to have lived by that rule my entire life. 

How did Blink come about? What inspired it?
In December of 2012, when Jyoti Singh was brutally raped in a moving bus, I, along with my wife and kids was driving back home from a dinner, on that same road, at that very time. Of course, we only read about it the next morning. I remember thinking to myself that I was there, and feeling terrible that there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. The actual idea for the app came to me a year or two later, but my entire life, up until now, has been a chain of events, the culmination of which, seems to be the BLINK app.

I was working as Captain on Oil Tankers for a few years before I reached a point in my life where I needed to do something more meaningful. I had already been sitting on this idea for a year or so by this time. I was kinda hoping someone else would build it and I would then be able to use it and that would have made me happy too. One or two people have tried to build something like this since I first started thinking about it, but I guess there were other priorities for them, so they didn’t follow through all the way with their apps, leaving me with no usable app for this purpose. So, when I decided I wanted to do something that would make a difference, this was the one thing my mind kept coming back to. I did have a family to support, though, so it was still a huge decision for me to stop sailing as Captain, and saying no to the thousands of dollars I could easily make every month if I just stayed in my comfort zone. But, this most wonderful person I am lucky to be married to, told me that I must follow my heart, so here I am. 

Post the decision to do this, everything is slowly falling into place, which has been quite amazing to watch! I randomly found my developer, Tej (on a Facebook group), who loved the idea, and at a very young age of 23, had already realised that he wanted to do something meaningful, which I found most admirable. Of course, he’s super smart, and has pretty much built the app single-handedly. If you use the app, you will realise just how complex it is behind the scenes. Building this was no easy task, and we had our share of ups and downs. We also had a lot of help from some friends, who helped us plan the process, the designs, the logo, etc. I am so so grateful for each and every one of them. They always just seemed to come out of the woodwork at exactly the right time!  

Can you take us through how Blink works? 
BLINK is an app that connects Good Samaritans to people who are in need of help, nearby. When someone is in need of help, they can send out an alert from their phone, which will then be received by other users of the app, nearby. These users can then decide whether or not they would like to help this person. Everyone who agrees to help, is taken to an incident view where they can see each other on a map and also chat with each other. You can also see hospitals and police stations nearby, and get driving directions to these. You can also pre-define a few friends, who will always receive any alerts you send out from your phone, no matter how far they are. These friends will be able to join the incident view and chat with other users who have agreed to help. A ten second audio recording is taken from the help seeker’s phone the moment they activate an alert. This can be heard by anyone who joins this incident.

The goal of the app, is quite simple. To make helping cool again. To encourage people to stop and help strangers, not just people they know or are related to. Also, not just women. We don’t like to call this a Women’s Safety app. You don’t need to be a woman to need help, and you most definitely don’t need to be a man to reach out and help someone. We would love it if people decided to use this app for the smaller issues as well, a car that’s broken down or run out of fuel, for example. The point is to encourage people to reach out for help, and also to reach out TO help.

What are some of your key challenges in creating and taking Blink off the floors?
Well, there were some challenges along the way, like I mentioned earlier. This was a completely new choice of career for me, and I was not from a tech background. Luckily though, I was always really good at Computers/Technology and have always been known to be the go-to person for fixing a crashed machine. I have somehow just always understood how a piece of technology works, and this has been a huge area of interest for me. I had done a bit of programming back in high school, and have an analytical mind. So, coming up with the actual LOGIC behind the processes was never a problem. Also, from all my years out at sea, the one thing I learnt is that NO problem is unsolvable, specially if you have nobody to turn to. We sailors fight fires ourselves, we are trained first-aid providers, we carry out extremely tough jobs, with very few people, in very harsh environments, and if things don’t go as planned, us Captains are taught to take responsibility for actions of the entire crew, and figure out the best way forward. So, facing challenges head-on is second nature.

Having said that, the big challenge that I expect to face, now that we have launched, is getting the word out there, and convincing people to change their mindset. People are usually quite worried about helping strangers and a paranoid mind can come up with crazy ways in which a concept like this can go wrong, if given a chance. It is clearly not going to be easy, but as long as I can manage to engage people in a dialogue, I know I can convince them. I will convince them one at a time, if I have to. :) Although, I’m sure this Red Elephant Foundation interview will be a great starting point! The second big challenge will come once we cross the first one, and get a LOT of users. Then, the running costs will shoot up and it will be difficult to keep the app completely free, as it is now. One thing is for sure though, the CORE functionality of the app will remain free, forever. I will add in premium features which can be paid for, which will hopefully help us scale the app to more people.

Can you talk to us a little about the research you took on to identify the gaps in safety, socially, that motivated the creation of Blink?
Well, it didn’t take a lot of research to realise a few things about our country. These things are quite, “in your face”, unfortunately.
a. People are not safe, there is a lot of crime. Pick up a recent newspaper to read more about this. People seem to be resorting to violence more and more easily.
b. The Government does not seem to be doing enough to prevent these crimes. Simple things like unlit streets. More complicated things like swift and consistent punishment for offences. Everything in between. These issues don’t seem to be a priority.
c. The police is not adequately equipped/motivated to respond to reports of these crimes, in time to be effective.
d. People are too busy with their own lives, and this coupled with the “Bystander Effect” stops people from helping one another.
Lack of education/poverty/mass media imparting the wrong values to the younger generation… the list goes on.
Most of these things add to the current unsafe situation in our country. Most were also out of MY control. The one thing I thought I COULD do, was encourage people to stop and help those in need. The bystander effect can be overcome if one person steps up to help someone in need. This app will enable and empower a rising number of Good Samaritans, creating more ACTIVE bystanders. This will hopefully also act as a deterrent to those committing these crimes. As we get more positive feedback, the hope is that people will be more comfortable reaching out to others and start asking for help for less serious things as well, thus helping us achieve our goal.

How can one support your initiative?
We need people to start using the app. The concept of the app is such that it can only really be effective if a lot of people start using it. For that, we need to spread the word. Tell more people about it and start using it effectively. I’m waiting to see how things pan out when it really starts getting used as I envisioned it. If this app can save ONE life, all this hard work we’ve put in will be worthwhile. Support us by using the app. Report any bugs you notice. Give us your feedback. Above all, be patient, we promise to keep improving it! 

Engage with BLINK here, to find out how you can download it. 
As you read this, Jaspal is currently involved in a hurricane relief operation in the Caribbean. You can read about his current engagement here.

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