Rethinking 911: An Interview with BlueLight Founder Preet Anand
Preet Anand is the CEO and founder of BlueLight, the safety service everyone should have on their smartphone. He’s a curious person that enjoys parkour, history, tinkering, and asking “I wonder why . . .” Here, he and Mailande talk about his inspiration for BlueLight, enabling vs. disrupting, what men can do to make the world safer for women, and more.
Mailande: Hi, Preet! Some of our readers are familiar with you already, but some may not be. Can you quickly tell us what you’re up to?
Preet: Sure. I’m the CEO of a company called BlueLight. We are focused on bringing personal safety into the digital age.
Mailande: All right, awesome. We’ve written a little bit about you in the past. We know that when you’re contacting 911 with a mobile phone, BlueLight is an app that adds certain safety features to that call and communicates your location to the 911 responder. The first question is – and this has come up when I’ve talked about BlueLight with others – why don’t 911 responders know where you are when you call them from a cell phone? Most people don’t know that, and it’s usually a shocking realization.
Preet: Sure. First, though, one thing I’m going to say is we don’t just want you to think about BlueLight when you’re having an emergency. Our goal is for BlueLight to provide you with a constant feeling of reassurance, to help you be safe in general, and give you the best help possible in the event of an emergency. But regarding 911, the main thing is that the system on the dispatchers’ side hasn’t changed in a very long time. 911 was created for a landline world, and it’s still designed for one. To add some perspective, I’ll say this: I know it’s crazy to think about, but seven years ago, the iPhone did not exist. It didn’t come out until I was in college, and so much of the world has changed in the short time since then – in under a decade. I’ll put it another way: while George W. Bush was our president, nobody could use Instagram.
Mailande: Wow. Yeah, at this point, it seems as though iPhones and everything that comes with them have always existed somehow.
Preet: Exactly. And 911 is such a mission-critical service, and it’s so massive. Changing it for a smartphone world is tough. Also, information comes into a 911 dispatch center in a very particular way for security reasons, which means that dispatchers don’t necessarily get regular access to the internet. Making our location a GPS signal, loading Google Maps, all of that requires the internet. And lastly – I hate to say it, but it’s true – the cell phone carriers and the government haven’t necessarily made it a priority to shift things in the holistic way that would be needed. 911 regulations are conducted at a national level via the FCC, but the implementation is coordinated county-by-county, carrier-by-carrier, and at each individual call center.
Mailande: Gotcha. Yeah, that’s pretty fragmented.
Preet: So, for example, in May 2014, the ability to text 911 came up. But here’s the problem: 97% of people with a cell phone can text 911, but only 0.8% of dispatch centers can receive them. That’s a huge issue – there are multiple pieces and systems at work here. At BlueLight, we’re taking a software-first approach to the problem, starting with the tiny computers that people carry around with them and connecting those to the existing system.
Mailande: Cool. So how do you actually make the call with BlueLight?
Preet: In both the Android and iPhone versions, you can make the call from your lock screen. You open BlueLight, press the Request Help button, wait for a short delay to rule out a false alarm, and get connected. You can make that call in three taps of your finger. And then, depending on the nature of the emergency, we can alert your emergency contacts and send them your location as well. For example, if I made a 911 call right now, BlueLight would tell my wife, my brother, and a colleague that I made an emergency call and tell them my location. Additionally, after the call is made, BlueLight highlights my current location to me, so that I don’t have to frantically figure out an address when the dispatcher asks.
Mailande: Yeah, those are great features.
Preet: Talking in another context, though, one of the other things that BlueLight does is connect you with emergency services that are more local than 911. Let’s say I’m a student at the University of San Diego, in my hometown. If I have an emergency and call 911, it won’t go to the USD police, who would be the closest responders. It would go to the San Diego Police Department, who would be geographically further away. USD probably has some other emergency number, which maybe I have in my phone or memorized, but maybe not. With BlueLight, we populate the app with the best responders on different campuses – and we can do this with other areas like ski slopes and corporations too – so that when you dial 911 from within that area, your call is rerouted to the most effective emergency services. So instead of the San Diego PD, I’d automatically call the USD police.
Mailande: Awesome. Next question: what was your original vision for this company? Has it evolved or expanded over time, or was this something that you saw in its entirety from day one and have just been working towards? I’m curious.
Preet: No, I definitely can say we did not see it in its entirety in Day One. Not even close. Part of that was because Day One was so long ago. Day One was freshman year of college, when I had just heard the absurd statistic – which is still, to me, an astounding number – that one in four women on college campuses will be victims of attempted sexual assault by the time they graduate.
Mailande: Yeah, it’s horrifying.
Preet: That’s so insane. And clearly there are a lot of factors that go into that, and I am not at all trying to say that we can solve all of them. But when I heard that, I couldn’t believe it. There are so many women in my life that I care about. I just thought to myself, “That’s a ridiculous amount of unnecessary trauma,” and asked myself, “What could I do about that?” The goal has always been to make a dent in that number, although the idea has evolved – I actually thought first about ways to make pepper spray better. But now, the idea has expanded beyond that specific problem to things like “How do we help someone who has peanut allergy, so that we can give a responder that information and make sure that an EpiPen is part of the response?” And the idea marinated for a long time – from that first idea in 2006, BlueLight as it is now became a company in 2013.
Mailande: Cool. Ideally, could there be an entire portfolio that you could share with an emergency team, that you could somehow have stored with BlueLight everything from allergies to chronic illnesses? You could have a kind of packet to share with responders, like the tags that some people wear around their necks if they’re deathly allergic to medication, but in digital form. Is that possible?
Preet: Absolutely, that is definitely a goal of ours. The analogy I like to use to describe our ideal future is this: if you think of a skydiver, they’re about to go jump out of a plane, to do something new that they’ve always wanted to do. A critical partner of theirs is their parachute. BlueLight wants to be the parachute in all parts of your life.
Mailande: When you say that you want BlueLight to be like a general parachute, are there other functions in that regard that we might not know about already?
Preet: We want to be the trusted brand for safety and security in the digital age, in a time when wearable tech is becoming a more mainstream way of monitoring bodily activity. If you’re having a respiratory attack, or your heart rate slows, we want BlueLight to able to take that information from wearables and automatically call for help for you. If you have a motorcycle crash, it can be there for you. There are a ton of applications that can come from that kind of thing. At this point, it’s hard to know what wearables will be industry leaders and which will be reliable, but we could definitely work with information about heart rate and respiratory rate. And skin tension, which changes when someone is having an anxiety attack. A lot of this will take a while to happen, but we really want to connect BlueLight to all of this information in order to create the best outcomes.
Mailande: Right. After all of the incidents over the past few months involving police violence, there’s been a lot of debate about the effectiveness of body cameras and other devices. Is there any room for video integration in what you’re thinking about, in order to record incidents with law enforcement?
Preet: I would say yes to that. But our first focus is to get credibility and trust on what we’re already bringing to market, because once we can achieve that, we can do a lot of other exciting things. First, and most importantly, we want people to believe at a visceral, emotional level that if something happens, BlueLight is the button to press, and the way to get help. Whether they see something happen to someone else, or whether it happens to them. Until we have that trust, we’re hesitant to bring in anything else that could cause chaos, which includes video at the moment.
Mailande: That makes total sense, in terms of an order of operations. On another note, you recently wrote a piece – I think I found it on Twitter – about the difference between enabling and disrupting. Can you tell us –
Preet: Wow! I didn’t even know anybody had read that piece. Awesome.
Mailande: Ha, yup. I just read it. I’ve been thinking about disruption a bit, because I was actually in a commercial that my friend was making last week, and I had to make up a bunch of sentences of random business jargon. We were laughing about the word “disrupt,” because it’s always being thrown around as a) meaning whatever you want it to mean, b) always being good, and c) a strategy in itself. I’m not saying that it doesn’t have meaning, but sometimes it’s hilariously overused. I really liked your piece, and I wondered if you could talk about the enable vs. disrupt dichotomy that you brought out.
Preet: Sure! The short of it is, disruption is sort of a word for displacement, for creating some chaos in order to bring a new thing to market. The chaos you’re creating is for competitors, and you’re defining yourself and your effect relative to them. As an example, some people would say that Google disrupted the search engine market in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Some people would say Uber is disrupting the taxi and transportation industry. I think if you flip that term, you can stop focusing on “disrupting” your competitors and turn your attention to the actual people you’re providing value for. Then, the word to focus on is “enable.” In that way, you could say that Google is disrupting other search engines, or you could say that Google is enabling billions of people around the world find information to better their lives. Did you know that the fourth most-Googled how-to is “How to get pregnant”?
Mailande: Oh, wow. Okay. Nope, totally didn’t know that.
Preet: Or at least it was a couple months ago. I’m sort of a dork in looking at this stuff. You could say that Google’s disrupting search engines, or you could say that Google’s enabling people who want to get pregnant. I think that any business’s job is to create value for people. If, in the process of enabling that value, our company disrupts existing systems, then so be it. The focus should first be on customers, not competitors. If I were to encapsulate it in one sentence, I would say that exactly: the focus should be on customers, not competitors.
Mailande: Cool, thank you. Speaking of enabling customers, you have obviously spent a lot of time thinking about women’s safety, which is awesome. I wonder, beyond building this app, do you have any ideas to share about what men can do to make the world better or safer for women? Has this conversation with yourself gone beyond this company? Guys sometimes ask me, “What can I do? How can I address this problem as a normal dude?” I’m wondering if you had any thoughts on that.
Preet: That is an amazing question.
Mailande: Thank you.
Preet: I do have thoughts. These issues are very, very complicated. But I would say the first, and most important, thing is for men to actually empathize with women. We need to make an effort to really open up an honest dialogue with women about this. There’s a weird polarity that exists, where for women, this is an extremely frequent topic. Women talk about safety and violence in their lives routinely.
Mailande: Yeah, we have to.
Preet: Right. And for men, this never comes up, or it almost never comes up. Men aren’t aware of the anxiety that women have to go through, or how tied these concerns are to the ways in which they experience the world. So men have to make an effort with women that they’re comfortable with and just ask them honestly, “How do you think about your own safety? What concerns do you have, and how often do they play into your regular life?” It’s shocking for us to realize how constant it is. Whereas for men, it’s a much less frequent thought pattern. And if you’re a guy who mostly has male friends, you experience the world based on the information you receive, and you won’t empathize with the other side. I think that the other thing is that when we’re in a position to actually do something, if we see something that doesn’t look right, we have to just ask the question. Just a simple “Hey, is everything okay?” can help. Empathy is a huge thing.
Mailande: Yeah. That’s a great answer. Thank you.
Preet: I think that empathy will usually unlock in each person something that they can do to help. For example, with BlueLight, as I learned to empathize, I realized that we needed to bring more women into our company as soon as humanly possible. Now, 40% of our staff are women.
Mailande: That’s really cool. I’m really, really happy to hear that.
Preet: It’s been amazing. The sad truth, though, is that men – even with huge amounts of empathy – won’t understand women’s experiences at the level that they themselves do.
Mailande: Yeah, that’s really great. This isn’t really a question, but I was thinking today about women in tech, and the amplification of women’s voices in all kinds of different companies. I think it’s obviously important across the board, but especially for companies that are providing services that are obviously not aimed entirely at women, but that can do a lot for women in particular, to have those voices not only as customers but as creators as well. I’m really happy to hear that that’s true of you guys. I also can’t wait until your commitment to that is not remarkable anymore! That day will be really exciting.
Preet: That’s true too. It’s surprising for me how much people actually notice that. You’re right, it’s surprising how that is surprising.
Mailande: Yeah, I can’t wait until this is literally the most boring thing we could ever be talking about. Since we’re not there yet though, unfortunately, it’s great to hear that BlueLight is part of that change. Anything else you want to share with our readers?
Preet: Honestly, we know that we have a way to go. If people have any questions, we’d love for them to reach out to us and help with the dialogue. Our focus is to provide a very valuable service that helps people. Part of that is to be responsive, and to really be there when people have questions. If anyone’s got thoughts or feedback, please reach out to me at preet@BlueLight.com, or via Twitter @preetnation.
Got ideas about how to make BlueLight better? Drop Preet a note! You can also read more about BlueLight on the company blog.