How an 18-year-old coder and activist developed a new app for survivors of sexual assault

Sofia Ongele (right) developed the app and chatbot ReDawn after attending Kode With Klossy. (Courtesy of Flytographers)

Sofia Ongele (right) developed the app and chatbot ReDawn after attending Kode With Klossy. (Courtesy of Flytographers)

Kode With Klossy alumna Sofia Ongele developed the app ReDawn to provide confidential advice to survivors of sexual assault.

When I was 15, I didn’t know anything about coding. I was always intrigued by what made the world turn, but the technology behind the apps on my phone and the websites I visited seemed too complex to grasp. I thought, “If this isn’t a subject taught in school, then it must be too complicated for me to understand.”

Around the same time, I found a PRGM button on my graphing calculator, which I assumed was for making minimal computer programs. My friend Laird had made programs on his graphing calculator to create countdowns and display the digits of pi. I was fascinated by how he could make the calculator run commands. So I proceeded to study his code, noting that the “Disp” command would show on screen any text that appeared in quotations.

(Courtesy of Flytographers)

(Courtesy of Flytographers)

One day after a statistics exam, I had some free time before class ended so I did a bit of tinkering and made a fully functional program that displayed line by line the lyrics of my favorite song at the time, “Hello” by Adele. I was pleasantly surprised that with a few simple functions and sheer curiosity, I was able to make something out of absolutely nothing.

I wondered what was possible on a full computer if I could build a program on a calculator. Since my school did not offer computer science courses, I took to searching on Google. I stumbled upon the Kode with Klossy program, which offers scholarships to girls ages 13-18 to learn how to code in fun and collaborative classrooms. Armed with my graphing calculator in one hand and my unquenched thirst for knowledge in the other, I applied and was accepted to their 2016 summer program in Los Angeles.

Attending Kode with Klossy began my journey into discovering all there is to know about code. I learned how to do a lot more than making Adele lyrics appear on my calculator. We began the program by navigating through the command line, which is a text-based interface you can use to make your computer perform actions without a mouse. Think about it like this: if you have an analog clock (the one that uses hands to tell time), you can change the time with a dial, which acts like an interface. Or you could open up the clock and move the gears by hand. That’s what a command line does. You bypass the operating system to get the computer to do exactly what you want it to and you can do more than just using the programs on the computer. But like gears on a clock, you also need a certain level of technical knowledge when working in command line or you could end up deleting everything.

We expanded to creating our own command line interfaces with the web language Ruby where users could interact with our code (including a command line calculator!). We also made our own websites with HTML and CSS and concluded the program by bringing together our newfound knowledge of front-end and back-end development to make web applications as our final projects.

Until Kode with Klossy, none of my STEM classes were made up entirely of young women. It was refreshing to be in an environment where we could both bond over “girl things” and plans for world domination. All toxic masculinity — which many of us had experienced throughout schooling one time or another — was left at the door. In Kode with Klossy, I found a sisterhood of like-minded, brilliant and spunky young women who will always support me.

It’s important to teach girls to code because if a problem is identified by someone who hasn’t been given the resources and skills to tackle it, we lose valuable viewpoints and potential solutions to help underrepresented populations. For example, my first app, ReDawn, provides resources for victims of sexual assault. It tackles a problem that the average programmer (a white male) probably wouldn’t have thought needed solving through tech.

(Courtesy of Sofia Ongele)

(Courtesy of Sofia Ongele)

The idea came to me after a sexual assault incident hit very close to home and I was completely at a loss for what to do. I wanted to help out in any way that I could, but I had no idea where to begin. I resorted to vigorously Googling everything. I felt helpless — and I also felt afraid. I realised that I wouldn’t know what to do if anything happened to me and I would be too scared to reach out to anyone for advice. In light of the Kavanaugh hearings, I felt that it was important to provide survivors and their communities with resources to seek help.

After four weeks of non-stop coding, I created ReDawn, which provides confidential advice to victims of assault or anyone experiencing trauma from an attack on someone they care about. Its primary functionality is a chatbot named Dawn. I felt that this was the most natural approach because people are instinctually conversational. Being able to talk to someone and knowing it's impossible to get traced back to you can make all the difference in sensitive situations. ReDawn also has tabs to connect users to local resources and hotlines and to log past incidents of abuse.

To create this app, I put all of the skills I had learned in summers past to the test. For the Dawn chatbot, I used the DialogFlow API, which essentially allows me to integrate the chatbot within my app’s code while allowing for it to be trained through the cloud. Simply put: it uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify an intent based on the user’s input and responds accordingly. Because of AI’s natural language processing abilities, it can identify the same intents regardless of varied phrasing, making this API much easier than creating all of the use cases from scratch. For the location data, I web scraped from Planned Parenthood’s and RAINN’s websites to find information about health and community centers. With programs I coded in Ruby and JavaScript, I parsed through them, converted addresses to longitude and latitude, organized and formatted information, and stored the information (i.e. name, description) in over 7,600 lines of JSON code. That sounds like a lot, but the great thing about code is the ability to make your programs do the tedious, dirty work for you! After collecting my data and training my chatbot, I dove into app development with Swift and integrated the aforementioned technology into the actual front-end and back-end engineering of the app.

 
(Courtesy of Sofia Ongele)

(Courtesy of Sofia Ongele)

 

I have always been a perfectionist, afraid of the prospect of failure and shortcomings. I used to abandon projects or ideas when I wasn’t skilled enough to execute them flawlessly. However, with ReDawn, even though I was swimming in uncharted waters, I felt so much comfort in knowing that I was working on my passion project and that my Kode with Klossy sisters were there to help and critique me every step of the way. I was able to abandon my long-cherished ideals of perfection and send a minimum viable product (or MVP) to the App Store.

It warms my heart that people are benefiting from something I made from scratch, something I was almost too afraid to send out. Survivors have thanked me for working on it, saying they wished something like this existed before. At the same time, it’s far from perfect, but I’ve come to realize that I have my entire life to build upon it, which is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from coding. Things won’t always work out your way. You’ll stumble and fall, get tripped up on your own errors, feel like giving up time and time again, but the perseverance gained in the process is priceless.


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about the author

Sofia Ongele is an 18-year-old coder, student and activist. An avid lover of all things food and close follower of astrology, she hopes to spend her future uplifting the voices of the margianalised with technology, one line of code at a time.