Soterra is a student-run team that created a device to help provide quick and reliable access to emergency response services for women living in regions with high rates of violence toward females. The team placed in the top five of the XPRIZE competition over the summer and won $50,000. (Courtesy Emily Randolph)

Soterra team hacks away at violence against women

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While testing out its newly created product on a moving train in the middle of Mumbai, India, Soterra, a team of Lehigh students, witnessed firsthand the reason why it entered the XPRIZE competition.

After placing in the top five at the Anu & Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE competition this summer and winning $50,000, the Soterra team is continuing its work for women’s safety.

“We’re shifting toward a more entrepreneurial focus,” said Emily Randolph, ’19, a member of Soterra. “It’s the shift from a project to a company. That’s how I would over-archingly describe it.”

The XPRIZE competition, which according to its website,“challenge(ed) teams to leverage technology to empower communities with a transformative solution that ensures women’s safety,” lead the team to create a product that offers safety functions without needing a smartphone.

Soterra’s product is a small, cost-effective device that uses Bluetooth mesh networking technology and GPS to allow women to discreetly contact friends, family or the police when they feel threatened. The tool starts to work within 90 seconds and triggers a distress signal that transmits information to community respondents.

“Violence against women is a global problem,” Randolph said. “There aren’t many solutions to it.”

Before creating their product, Soterra members wanted to see where violence against women happened most frequently, what resources were available to them and what that looked like on a global scale.

Randolph said the team mapped out violence against women globally by concentration and cell phone density. Then, they placed the maps side by side and saw they were directly inverse.

“We saw that the areas with high risk of attacks were also the areas where many people don’t own smartphones, police might not be a reliable source, there might be cultural stigmas against reporting, among many other things,” Randolph said.

Although the XPRIZE competition is over, Soterra team hasn’t stopped developing its product.

The team started restructuring after the XPRIZE competition. Six of the original 16 team members graduated, but are still involved with Soterra.

Members are still in contact with Any and Naveen Jain to continue improving the product and will present to them in December. The team is also planning to meet with one of the XPRIZE judges to analyze its project and the testing it has done to date.

After the team reevaluates its strategy and product, Randolph said it will begin tests to extend the product’s GPS and signal range.

The team is also looking to improve the device’s code and how it operates before officially releasing it.

“The most challenging part has been ensuring that the technology is reliable,” said Morgan Schurr, ’20, a member of Soterra. “While I personally didn’t have a big part in the technological development, it was challenging to see people who worked so hard on developing the technology experience difficulties.”

Schurr, a business major, is the only member of the team who does not have any engineering experience. She started a similar project on her own but faced challenges with her lack of coding knowledge. As a result, she joined Soterra to help with the business side of the project and shared some of the ideas from her own.

Sharon Kalafut, a professor of computer science and engineering and Soterra’s faculty adviser, said the team’s excitement and compassion is the best part of working with them.

Randolph said the team’s passion for making a difference, along with each member’s diverse opinions and background, has helped Soterra find success.

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