SAN MARCOS — A San Marcos company that co-launched an app assisting sexual assault survivors is hoping to expand the tool from where it is currently being piloted at Arizona State University to colleges and institutions in San Diego County and beyond.
Here4U, a decision aid tool for survivors, was born out of a partnership between Dr. Michelle Villegas-Gold, ASU’s director of health and clinical research within the Office of the Vice President of Research, and Maggie Slater, owner of San Marcos-based app development company Aliferous Technology.
The mobile and online app, launched at ASU in the fall of 2021, walks users through a series of basic questions about when and where the assault occurred. The internet-based platform also inquires about the individual’s current safety level and their preferences for receiving medical care and support — or “care pathway” — and whether to report the incident to the college or law enforcement, known as the “justice pathway.”
The original concept came from Villegas-Gold’s dissertation work between 2016 and 2018, as she sought to develop a digital decision aid for student survivors who have experienced the pervasive issue of sexual assault.
Around one in four female undergraduate students experience rape or sexual violence, according to data from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).
“Part of the whole reason I created this is there are so many decisions you have to make in such a short time frame and in a traumatized state,” Villegas-Gold said. “It is intended to make the systems in place less complex, less confusing, and connect people to existing resources. It helps people know about and use the resources that are there and use them in a way that is less frustrating for them and is more efficient.”
While applauded by the college, her project lacked the needed funding and support to be put in place for student use. However, after hearing about the project online, Slater was inspired and reached out to Villegas-Gold in 2019 to see if Aliferous Technology could help with the tech side of things from San Marcos.
After consulting with survivors, students, medical practitioners, advocates and detectives, Here4U was officially launched online and made available to ASU students last fall.
“Michelle had the tool, and we came on as a tech provider, so now she and I are partners,” Slater said. “We feel blessed that we can provide the opportunity for the survivors to take their power back and make their own choices after such a violating situation.”
Over 700 individuals have used the tool since its launch, with some tweaks made along the way based on student feedback. After seeing how well received it was at ASU, Slater said she hopes to expand it from Arizona to San Diego County and the state of California.
Slater said she had spoken briefly with CSU San Marcos about the possibility of making Here4U available at the university and said she was encouraged to try to bring it to all 23 CSU campuses. Aliferous is also in talks with San Diego County leaders about potential ways to implement Here4U.
“Our mission is to reach as many survivors as possible in an on- and off-campus space. Hopefully, with the tool growing nationwide, perhaps worldwide, we can see those stats go down,” Slater said.
Since Here4U is currently designed to provide information about justice and care pathways, specifically at ASU and the larger Phoenix metropolitan area, it would need to be adapted before being launched somewhere new.
Depending on the size of the university or city where it is being implemented, the app could be launch-ready in around two months.
“We’d have the skeleton, but we’d need to go in and plug in the specific details for those counties and schools. It can’t copy and paste from one place to another, but that’s why it’s so needed. We do all the messy work on the back end,” said Villegas-Gold.
One of the tool’s principal features is the list of pros and cons provided for different decisions, which gives survivors a clear idea of what to expect when reporting a case to the college, getting a rape kit, and pursuing justice through the courts.
For example, when presenting the option of receiving a medical forensic exam (also known as a rape kit), Here4U informs users that while the test can prove a sex act took place, it cannot prove that someone was sexually assaulted and that while trauma-informed medical professionals perform the exam, it can potentially feel invasive and re-traumatizing.
“There are pros and cons for each pathway, just so we’re not persuading survivors to go one way or another,” Slater said.