Graduate Student Designs Mobile App, JUST US, for Community Activism

Sept. 30, 2020

As thousands of Americans gathered to commemorate the historic civil rights March on Washington on August 28, a social impact app quietly launched to honor the legacy of activism and empower the next generation of change makers. JUST US is a tool supporting Black and brown communities by enabling voice-activated smartphone safety commands during interactions with police: notifying community members, pinging designated contacts and live-streaming the interaction.

A graphic that reads "JUST US: sometimes justice is up to just us"

"The research behind the's heart wrenching," says Candace Walker, JUST US product developer and graduate student in the Master of Science in Integrated Design, Business and Technology at USC Iovine and Young Academy. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1 in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police, and a recent survey reports that more than three-quarters of Black mothers worry their children will be victims of police brutality.

"It just hurts that this is occurring in this day and age," says Walker.

Walker and JUST US founder, Charmine Davis, could never have known how timely their app would be. The app's development began in December last year, according to Walker, before the mass civil rights protests of 2020. Walker had just delivered another mobile app to her clients at the Jenesse Center, which provides information and services for domestic violence survivors. The Jenesse Center's director of behavioral health, Charmine Davis, caught up with Walker and said, "I have an idea."

Jay Clewis wears a shirt that says "JUST US"

Professor Jay Clewis participating in the JUST US promotional video

That idea became the initial proposal for JUST US, which Walker shared with her fellow graduate students and professor in the Integrated Projects Lab, but she was uncertain whether the idea would get any traction. The project’s development began before the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor catalyzed widespread action with the Black Lives Matter movement. Nonetheless, the instructor, Jay Clewis, enthusiastically threw his support behind the project, as did many of Walker's fellow Academy students. Together, the graduate students formed a lab team to validate the JUST US concept and prototype its design.

Using the principles of human-centered design strategy, the student team fleshed out the JUST US concept: iterating week after week, testing the app's design and refining the user experience. When the team presented their proposal to Charmine Davis, she was floored and "felt very ready to move it forward," Walker recalls.

An AR interface superimposed over a car dashboard. The interface has a traffic-light red/yellow/green light structure and reads "Help," "Heads Up" and "Check In"

An early look at the JUST US interface

Walker used her connections in the software engineering world and found Post-Industria, a Ukraine-based software development team whose code powers the JUST US design. The firm implemented the three voice-activated commands designed for the app: a Check In that confirms that the user is safe and sends their location to designated contacts; a Heads Up command that notifies contacts that a user is being pulled over; and a Help command to alert contacts and members of the JUST US community network that the user needs assistance on the scene. With the app’s integrated live streaming capabilities and community-oriented approach, “We hope [JUST US] will deter the senseless deaths and provide justice to our community,” says Davis.

Both Walker and Davis are mothers themselves, lending personal urgency to the JUST US mission. This fall, JUST US will host virtual and local events to build a network of fellow mothers of driving-age children, so that parents like Walker and Davis can connect with community organizers and share news and resources.

A graphic of a black woman holding a flag. Text reads "Mothers across the country deserve peace of mind. We stand with you"

On its own, JUST US is "a tool, not a solution," Walker says. "I wish it were a solution to end the injustice that occurs with African-American and Hispanic males disproportionately. But at minimum, we could provide that demographic with a tool that will help them get home safe."

JUST US, available for download in the App Store on iOS devices 5.0 and later.

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