Since its foundation nearly 50 years ago, the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh has worked to serve survivors of domestic violence and meet people where they are by continuing to provide shelter, resources and hope.
The organization’s latest project, officially launched in early March, provides an additional avenue of support and empowerment to those facing intimate partner violence or domestic abuse.
Free to use, the Bright Sky app helps users identify if one is at risk of abuse, define forms of abuse, detect warning signs and connect users with advice, support, resources and routes for help.
Bright Sky was founded in 2018 by Vodafone Group Foundation and U.K.-based crisis support charity Hestia. Four years prior, Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh launched RUSafe, an app with information and resources on domestic violence, along with local app developer Aspirant.
Inspired by RUSafe, Aspirant began working with Hestia to make improvements and create Bright Sky and launched in London to eventually became available in 12 countries.
Nicole Molinaro, Women’s Center & Shelter president and CEO, said they were asked about a year and a half ago by Aspirant if the nonprofit would be interested in launching the Bright Sky app for the U.S.
“We were like ‘absolutely’ because RUSafe was coming to the end of its life anyway. We didn’t have the capacity to keep it updated,” Molinaro said. “We were really excited about the possibility of Bright Sky because it has not just a better directory but [also has] a lot of better features. It’s just a really easy-to-use, excellent app.”
And so, a “very intense” year of reworking the app began for Molinaro and the Women’s Center & Shelter. Changes needed to be made to the language and the content to match different state and federal laws, Molinaro explained. Bright Sky U.S. also partnered with domesticshelters.org to provide an up-to-date database of domestic violence programs within the app.
On March 9, Bright Sky was formally unveiled and launched in America at the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, a U.N.-sponsored global meeting to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women.
“I don’t have a lot of words to describe it,” Molinaro said of the launch in New York City. “It was amazing. It was one of my professional highlights for sure.”
Likewise, responses to the app have been positive and plentiful. In a recent webinar attended by domestic violence advocates and other domestic violence practitioners and attorneys, Molinaro said they saw “incredibly, overwhelmingly positive feedback on the app.”
The app has seen 1,088 downloads as of Friday. In the past month, 18,000 users have visited the Bright Sky Marketing website, which includes basic information about the app and how to download it. The “forms of abuse” content is the most visited section thus far.
Tabs on the home page of the app include a risk assessment, definitions of different forms of abuse, how to spot red flags and linked resources such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Ready.gov, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and more. Under the advice and support for leaving a partner section, users can access information on how to help a family member or a friend, a list of national helplines, types of support one could employ, and stories and examples of sexual consent and stalking.
“The content itself, it’s very helpful,” Molinaro said. “It’s in bite-sized portions so a survivor or somebody who is looking to support a survivor can go at their own pace. It’s not overwhelming. There’s a lot of content in there, but it goes bit by bit, and we put it in language that’s very accessible.”
Another app feature is the journaling tool, which can be utilized to document evidence of abuse by uploading photos and audio or video clips. Users can also take written notes to keep track of incidents and experiences, which can be used in future support of any action one chooses to take. No information is stored on the app; instead, it is all sent to a secure, confidential email that can be accessed by the user separately from Bright Sky.
“If you play around in the app, you’ll find some special features that make it particularly helpful to survivors,” Molinaro said. The Women’s Center & Shelter calls it life-saving.
More than 10 million adults experience domestic violence annually in the U.S., according to the CDC. One in four women and one in seven men 18 and older in the U.S. have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. On a typical day, nearly 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
Molinaro said that these national numbers are on par with local statistics regarding domestic violence cases.
The Women’s Center & Shelter works with city police, who do lethality assessments when police respond to a domestic violence case. Molinaro said the Women’s Center & Shelter sees over 1,000 potentially lethal calls a year just from Pittsburgh police.
“We believe that domestic violence, in general, is underreported,” she said. “There are about 4,000 different protection from abuse orders every year just in Allegheny County … So we’re talking about an absolutely huge problem.”
According to Molinaro, the app’s name was designed to inspire a feeling of help and hope. The Women’s Center and Shelter president noted that it can be hard to remember you’re not alone when in an abusive relationship, but there are trained professionals who can help with safety planning and provide emotional support and concrete services to help with next steps.
“We didn’t want anything [about the name to be] directly connected to domestic violence, and we wanted something optimistic because we do believe there is help and hope for those who are experiencing domestic violence,” Molinaro said. “We wanted to really get across that there is help and hope available and that there can be brighter skies ahead.”