IYA grad student creates community activism app

Photo of a graphic showing 3 depictions of phone screen displays that show the JUST US apps features such as "Help," "Heads up" and "Check in"
JUST US allows users to record encounters with police and alert designated contacts by using voice commands. (Photo Courtesy of JUST US)

JUST US, an app which helps people live stream interactions with law enforcement, began out of necessity for founder Charmine Davis. With a son nearing driving age, Davis was overwhelmed by the reality that one in 1,000 Black men in the United States are killed by the police. Giving her son independence as a mother meant living with that fear.  

With this in mind, Davis approached Candace Walker, a graduate student in the Iovine and Young Academy. After almost a year of market research and product development in the Academy’s Integrated Project Lab, JUST US was released in August. Davis and Walker — who was recently nominated for a dot.LA Social Justice Award for her work on JUST US — ultimately aimed to create a tool for community activism against police brutality.

“The most significant aspect of this app is that a mom can feel connected to her child,” Davis said. “If her child is in trouble  a mother would fly across the earth to get to her child …  It’s a mother’s biggest fear that their child would be hurt, and they didn’t hear them.”

This idea was crucial to the development of JUST US. The app, they knew, could give mothers peace of mind — both by creating a network of active bystanders and increasing accountability from law enforcement. It was key, though, that the app be simple to use and easy to access. Jay Clewis, the professor who led the team in the Integrated Project Lab, emphasized the importance of user experience in developing JUST US.

“Here’s the situation — I’m sitting in a car, I’m nervous,” Clewis said. “You don’t have the time and awareness to grab a phone and open an app and go through some complicated process. It had to be really simple to initiate.”

JUST US has three main functions: Help, Heads Up and Check In. After pre-selecting five designated contacts, the user can access the app entirely through voice commands. Saying “Hey Siri, check in,” should alert the designated contacts that the user is safe. Initiating the Heads Up feature starts a livestream and, for users who have subscribed, shares their location with a list of pre-selected contacts. If users feel they are in immediate danger, the ‘Help’ feature alerts all JUST US users in a two mile radius of the situation.

These functionalities are a result of multiple iterations of market research and product testing in the lab. The lab team, which Walker led starting in December 2019, ultimately aimed to equip Black and brown communities with the tools and information to affect change and increase accountability from law enforcement.

“That’s really the goal — to get our kids home safe, to get our loved ones home safe,” Walker said. “To basically be able to live without the fear, knowing whether or not we’ll make it back home.”

The team looked at hard research and data sets on police brutality and racial profiling but also communicated directly with the communities that JUST US would ultimately serve. 

From there, they created a low-fidelity prototype and gauged market response. After sending the plans to a team of developers in Ukraine, JUST US became available for purchase on Aug. 28 — the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. 

From the initial pitch to JUST US’s release, the supportive atmosphere within the Academy was essential to the success of the app, Walker and Clewis said. 

“It gives students who are very passionate, very socially aware and want to have a positive social impact — it gives them a really safe space to explore ideas,” Clewis said. “You can validate ideas before you spend a lot of time, effort and money building something.”

Having just been released for download in August, Clewis believes that JUST US still has room to grow and hopes that user feedback will allow the team to further the app’s potential. For Davis, the release of the app meant even more.

“It was a relief for me,” Davis said. “I talk to moms all the time and I hear their fears … [JUST US] has all the functions that I felt like it needed to meet the needs of a mother who wants her kids to be safe.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Charmine Davis as the co-founder when she is the founder. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.