Kwema’s origin story is one that no company would ever wish for.
Back in 2015, co-founders Ali Al Jabry and Carmina Santamaria were living in Latin America, when a friend of theirs was kidnapped on her way home from the airport. Within 36 hours, the news of the abduction had gone viral and the kidnappers, scared by all the media attention, released the woman.
Luckily she made it home safely, while Al Jabry and Santamaria started thinking: what if there were a magic button someone could activate if they were in danger?
After years of work this device turned into a reality, and its use has been embraced around the world. But it’s not just addressing violent crimes (though that is an impactful part of its service). Local governments and corporations as far north as Alaska to as far south as Chile are turning to Kwema as a way to protect and provide peace of mind to their employees and citizens. As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Disruptive technologies — innovative companies who aspire to bring local governments cutting-edge products, which have the potential to fundamentally change the way local governments operate and innovate. We chatted with Ali Al Jabry to talk about how Kwema uses technology to bring safety to workers and communities around the world.
Are you ok?
“Kwema” is a Swahili word that’s used to ask how you are (as in, “Kwema?”). At the same time, it’s used to say “everything’s good, I’m fine” or “I’m in a good place.” Al Jabry says the meaning is fitting for his company:
“It’s a really good way to explain what we provide. We’re allowing people to say, ‘I’m good.’ And also for people to say, hey, is everything okay?’”
Kwema’s wearable safety devices initially focused on preventing gender-based violence, but as the product gained attention the team quickly learned there were much broader applications.
“As word got out there, we got a lot of inbound from companies, governments, and cities asking about using our technology for citizen safety, for employee safety, for family safety, for executive safety. There were so many use cases we hadn’t thought of.”
Today, a lot of the company’s work focuses on employee safety, both in the public and private sector. Cities and counties are a big part of this, says Al Jabry:
“From my conversations with cities and counties, it can be over 50% of county officials who don’t work in offices.”
This may include social workers or child protective service agents who are going into homes, or appraisers, engineers and public works associates who are out in the field. These employees sometimes face risks, whether from a work site or the people they’re serving, or from external sources. Kwema’s goal is to provide a safety resource should any of these public servants find themselves in danger.
How Kwema works
The safety devices produced by Kwema are designed to require no training. They’re small — about the size of two U.S. quarters stuck together — and housed in accesories employees already wear, like bracelets or the first smart badge holder to hit the market.
The service has two main functions: an emergency alert system, and a contact tracing application.
To use the emergency alert function, the Kwema wearer holds a button on the device for 3 seconds. This notifies the nearest 911 center, and provides them the wearer’s name and any personal information they’ve added to the system (age, height, and other info that 911 may ask for). Once the device wearer activates the alert, they’ll get an SMS or phone call in case the activation was an accident — if they don’t respond to this an emergency team is dispatched.
This emergency response also works beyond 911. Users can designate an onsite nurse or emergency contact to get pinged instead. This is helpful, says Al Jabry, in large government office buildings. Kwema can map the interior and use bluetooth gateways to notify onsite emergency personnel where the person in trouble is. Says Al Jabry:
“If someone’s having a heart attack in the cafeteria building, an emergency person would know exactly where they are and save up to 15 minutes, sometimes more. That could be life or death for the person in trouble.”
Kwema’s newer function, contact tracing, allows users to opt into the tracking functionality when they’re in high-risk germ spreading locations around the office — elevators, restrooms, meeting rooms, and the likes. The user double-taps the Kwema device to turn on bluetooth tracing. This bluetooth use, says Al Jabry, is different from the always-on tracking done by mobile phones:
“We don’t really know where people are all the time until they activate the button. When we explained that to employees, opt-ins increased by 60 percent.”
For local governments who work with Kwema, the service operates via a subscription model. Al Jabry explains:
“We are a service, from the wearables to the mobile applications to the dashboard and notification system.”
The wearable devices themselves don’t cost anything; the local government organization would pay a subscription — anywhere from $5 to $25 per user per month. Kwema then provides the devices to everyone enrolled.
Promoting citizen safety & mental health
Some local governments are looking to Kwema to provide services beyond the walls of the city or county hall. The product is now being used as a solution for citizen safety as well. One state in Mexico is giving roughly 15,000 devices to women in its community who have reported being in abusive relationships. A similar effort is being considered in Alaska, where Native Alaskan women experience a high rate of domestic violence. Says Al Jabry:
“These communities are so isolated that police or any type of ranger or officer are sometimes a day away. So we’ve talked to several county leaders and community leaders about doing something more community-driven.”
In partnership with local leaders, the Kwema team is exploring a solution that would designate safety ambassadors in the community who could respond faster than traditional emergency response teams. The wearable devices could even be customized, says Al Jabry:
“We could implement something that could even be made in Alaska Native jewelry.”
The future of workplace wellbeing
Whether the devices are being used in a remote community, or in a busy government department, Kwema has another unexpected benefit beyond active emergency response. Al Jabry explains:
“One benefit we didn’t think of until we started talking more with HR professionals is that we’re actually doing a lot for mental health, because peace of mind is probably one of the worst things not to have.”
The unfortunate reality is that many people take their safety for granted, while others live and work in situations that can cause uncertainty and stress.
“The fact that they know they have this device on them, and if anything goes wrong they can press it and someone will know where they are … this is a huge benefit for how they live, and how confident they are.”
This is going to be even more important, says Al Jabry, as local government workplace structures evolve, and possibly remain remote for a long time.
“Remote work will be such a key thing for the future. So what are the new terms of employers providing safety for their employees?”
It’s a question risk management coordinators for cities and counties are already grappling with. And while some may view the recent shift to working from home as a temporary situation, the most forward thinking agencies are realizing that now is a time to rethink how local government operates. Embracing new tools that promote personal safety and mental health is one of many ways local governments can transform how they support their public servants.