Witness’s Live-Streaming App Is A Panic Button For The Smartphone Age

What if live streaming, like those streams that run today on apps like Periscope or Meerkat, could be used to save lives? That’s the premise behind an app called Witness, which made its debut today at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY Hackathon.

Built over the course of the weekend, developer Marinos Bernitsas demoed an app that immediately begins recording live audio and video as soon as you tap the app’s icon, but doesn’t actually display the video stream being recorded on the smartphone’s screen.

Meanwhile, instead of having the stream sent out to the public via social networks like Twitter, only designated contacts you’ve previously configured in the app’s settings are alerted to the incident via phone calls and text messages.

“Whatever emergency I have, I pretty much always have my phone and my wallet with me,” Bernitsas explains. That’s why he says it made sense to take advantage of the smartphone’s camera, microphone and GPS to build an app that could help keep people safe.

Having previously worked in algorithmic trading in New York, Bernitsas quit his job a year ago in order to focus on his passion for building apps. One of these, an app called “Ask ne1,” is already live on iTunes, allowing users within a certain proximity to ask each other questions and chat.

Witness’s creator worked on his app independently over the course of the weekend at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, he says, only getting three hours of sleep in the process.

Bernitsas says he was originally inspired to take advantage of the smartphone’s camera and sensors for general personal safety purposes – like for those times when friends of his would walk home from his apartment late at night. But in more recent months, the idea seemed to resonate even further, as a number of incidents involving police brutality began to make national headlines.

In some of these cases, witnesses had recorded the arrests on their mobile devices which helped to build a case against the police officers in question.

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However, having to rely on the chance that a nearby witness would record an incident isn’t really the best option. Plus, there are other times when you would want to record an emergency or otherwise threatening situation that don’t involve encounters with the law. In addition, the process of actually beginning to record a smartphone video makes it obvious to observers what you’re up to, and it takes several steps to even get started, much less later share the video with others.

The Witness app takes a different approach, operating sort of like a “panic button” for your phone. The app takes advantage of an open-source project called Kickflip, a library for live streaming for the iPhone, which Bernitsas modified to upload to his own server.

To use Witness, you first set up your emergency contacts by listing their name and phone number in the app. You can then start a live stream with a tap of the app’s icon. After doing so, your contacts receive a phone call with an automated recording that informs you that your friend has activated Witness and to “follow the link on your text message to track this incident in real-time.”


At the same time, your friends also receive a text with the link that takes to you the Witness website. On the website, which is mobile-optimized, recipients can watch and listen to the live video as it happens, view a map with the stream’s location (which is updated as the person moves), and view a full log file related to the incident.

On the Witness user’s phone, however, there’s only a red banner at the top above a black screen. That could make it a bit difficult to make sure you’re framing the right shot, but because the app is aimed at emergency use instead of social video, it’s less of a concern.

What’s also clever about the app is that even if the user loses their Internet connection, Witness will record video in 10-second chunks and store them locally on the end user’s iPhone. When their connection returns, that video is uploaded to the server.

Bernitsas says he may continue to develop Witness in the future, but needs to better research Apple’s policies on emergency apps to determine whether or not it would be allowed in the App Store.