Google’s Trusted Contacts app is great in uncertain situations

Trusted Contact's beautiful onboarding screens.

Trusted Contact’s beautiful onboarding screens.

Last week Google launched a new app for personal security, Trusted Contacts. Its goal is to share precise (and sensitive) location data between, well, trusted contacts such as close friends and family members. Mutual trusted contacts can see each other’s status, defined by Google as “whether you’ve moved around recently and are online” to quickly see if their contact has been recently active. For more stressful situations, mutual contacts can share location in two ways:

First, to request each other’s precise location. This is useful if contact A is worried about contact B and wants to know exactly where they are. Contact A sends a request which vibrates contact B’s phone and lets them decide how to answer: with their location or with a denial. If contact B doesn’t answer within five minutes with either, then contact B’s location is shared automatically, even if their phone is offline. Google gave the example of someone not arriving for a coffee date when they get lost on a hike and using the Trusted Contacts app to get their exact location. I like the automated answer after five minutes because it applies not just to emergency situations but also when contact B cannot access their phone such as when they are driving or in a theater.

Second, a contact can chose to continuously share their own location for a while when they are in a situation where they feel unsafe. In this case their trusted contact can follow their location on a map in real-time. The sharing contact can turn off location sharing when they reach their destination or feel safe. Google called this a “virtual walk home.”

I think Trusted Contacts answers a real need, especially between family members. It’s taken two probable user stories and created a solution that works well. I like the instant read of the situation, to know, at a glance and without requesting more info, whether the contact was recently active. I like that it works even if the phone is offline, as there are still many areas in the US and the world without coverage, especially rural areas, national parks, and other recreational areas.

Location sharing stays in my notification tray, a reminder to turn it off when no longer necessary.

Location sharing stays in my notification tray, a reminder to turn it off when no longer necessary.

I also like that a notification that I’m sharing my location with a specific contact stays in the notification tray with a quick way to turn it off. That way users are always aware who knows exactly where they are. Onboarding is well done and clear as the app first walked users through granting the required permissions (location and contacts) and then presenting a list of potential contacts to add. The contacts are listed in decreasing importance as represented by (as far as I can tell) a combination of the frequency of emails and Hangout chats. I wonder what this list contains when most of important communicating is through non-Google apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

Here’s what I’m not a fan of: that an always-on Location History is required for Location Sharing. As the convenient popup explains it: Location Sharing “also helps you get useful information such as automatic commute predictions, improved search results, and more useful ads on and off Google.” While it makes perfect sense that location needs to be on, the explanation for saving location history raises doubts as to its necessity, and I’m for collecting and accessing the minimal amount of personally sensitive information to get a task done.

There is, however, one common scenario that isn’t covered by Trusted Contacts: the panic button. It’s for situations where a user didn’t have the prescience to turn on a virtual walk home but finds themselves in an emergency situation. This might be implemented with a long press on the power button. The app could then start a configurable countdown and send an SOS message to a selected contact. Then it could send the user’s location and try to establish a voice connection. If that contact doesn’t respond, the app can try the next one, and so on. Users can prioritize their emergency contact list and determine at what point on that list to call 911. This is something similar to what Apple introduced with its SOS feature on Watch and could help allay a common fear when walking alone. Other than that, Trusted Contacts is a welcome

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