A closer look into our Oakland announcement

A quick note: BlueLight is now Patronus. This post doesn’t reflect our name change as it’s a snapshot of a moment from a BlueLight-specific past. Enjoy this moment in history!

When we announced that our routing network would soon be expanding to our hometown, Oakland, we expected some lively discussions — and we weren’t disappointed.

Some people were intrigued:

Others were critical:

Still others, well…

In the past week, we’ve been in the thick of a wider conversation of the 911 problem — both in Oakland and nationwide — and heard reasonable points from voices on all sides. There’s a legitimate discussion to be had, with room to disagree on the right path forward.

In the interest of making that discussion more fruitful, we want to set the record straight from where we stand. Here’s a window into the evolution of our pricing, why we are in this space, and some things the press coverage — and our announcement — might have left out of the picture.

Why do we charge?

Let’s get right down to it. The part of this story that got Twitter and some local journalists fired up is not an illegitimate concern. There are two truths here.

First, 911 needs to be fixed for everyone. This problem is endemic across the country, our hometown included. Oakland police have offered a temporary solution to any resident with a cell phone, but the city’s planned long-term solution is still years away — a fact that’s true of regions across the country.

Second, income inequality means that our smartphone-based, paid-subscription-based solution may not be currently accessible to everyone.

So why do we charge?

In brief: out of necessity. Like any product, especially one that requires constant research and development, we have very real and unavoidable operating costs. These include paying our telecom partners that are crucial to routing the numbers, maintaining servers across the country to make sure calls get through no matter what, and staff to keep the product going. In our early days, we offered BlueLight for free, but that approach became unsustainable as we scaled and refined our technology. We run a tight ship, operating very leanly, but we can’t continue to provide — much less advance — our service without some way to fund it.

In figuring out the best way to do that, we were faced with a few options. First: we could use advertising, which would mine people’s personal data to keep it cost-free for them. That’s what Google and Facebook have done, but we think that’s the wrong approach for such a personal service as safety. Ads would also potentially block the functionality of BlueLight, which we will absolutely not allow to happen.

Second: We could wait for companies and cities to decide to pay for our product. This would put us in the same queue as hundreds of other promising technologies, squandering our life-saving potential while we wait to clear the red tape. The mobile 911 battle has been fought for decades, and changes have been fragmented at best, hopelessly backward at worst. We’re looking at 2019 until the official solution is slated to come to Oakland, for example. It’s barely 2016. With an estimated 10,000 lives a year nationwide lost to sub-par 911 location, we didn’t want to wait a minute longer to do something we could do right now.

Third, and finally: we could charge customers directly. We were worried — and still are — that this approach could cause barriers to customers for whom cost was an issue. That said, we aren’t looking to profiteer; we’re looking to keep providing a service that already helps people across the country. We’ve got a following of blind users, groups of loyalists on college campuses where we began, people who pay for our service because not only do we provide value to them, but we listen to what they need and build the product around them. We don’t call them our users, as many tech companies do; we call them our customers, because they’re the ones who matter most to us. After long and painful consideration, we decided charging directly was the right answer — at least for the moment.

But the approach we chose, and the price we set, was only a first draft. This is not the end of the story. In the short term, we’re exploring options such as adjusting price and finding ways to subsidize access for people who cannot afford to pay for the service. In fact, we’ve made one adjustment already: following feedback from college students who found our initial $9.99/year student price too hard to fit into their budgets, we dropped the price for students with .edu email addresses by half, to $4.99/year.

We are open to new changes to expand access for Oaklanders as well, and are taking steps to talk to the community to find solutions together. Some solutions we’re considering include revisiting our price for segments of the public, and the possibility of funding subscriptions for vulnerable and low-income populations with a portion of the proceeds from paying subscribers.

As a more long-term solution, we’re fostering discussions with public and private entities in a position to underwrite the service. While we’ve gotten a start, this process will likely take a while, as small tech companies move much faster than foundations and government agencies.

In the meantime, we’re working to make our service as widely available as a small company can manage on its own. It’s not a perfect solution, but we’re evolving as fast as we can.

What are we doing here?

Another question critics have raised is whether private companies have any business in public services. In the past few days, the term “for-profit company” has been thrown at us like an accusation, as though the answer were obvious.

We disagree. Instead, we’d rephrase that question: what role do private companies have in the public sphere?

Because we do, undoubtedly, have a role. Many public resources are, in fact, run by private companies. Utilities like power and water, for example, but also hospitals, urgent care centers, and other crucial services that government at every level has seen as the best and smartest solutions to public needs.

Small companies and city governments have a long history — and a bright future — of forming symbiotic relationships. Between the reach of the latter and the nimbleness of the former, we can make a big impact much faster together. From city bike share programs to mobile payments for parking meters, private companies, especially in the tech space, make cities healthier and more convenient.

This is the whole idea of the Smart Cities movement, in which we are active and enthusiastic participants. In the 2015 MCIC competition, we had the opportunity to demonstrate to over 20 US cities how much potential there was to improve their 911 — and how much could be done right now, or just a few months in the future. Through our involvement, we’ve met with elected figures, city tech officials, police and 911 dispatchers in cities across the nation, discussing the issues and testing the technology.

To wit, there is both precedent and demand for private companies to contribute to the public sphere. We are taking that opportunity.

What aren’t they talking about?

You wouldn’t know it from the buzz on Twitter, but we have a long history of looking out for people for whom safety is a daily concern. Many of the customers we’re closest to are young women, students and parents, the blind, and seniors.

We draw from our own experience, and the experiences of our customers, to think of new ways to keep them safe.

And not only do we route emergency calls every day; we also help young women’s friends accompany them home in the dark on campus and in cities, families watch over each other on long commutes, outdoors enthusiasts feel confident in the wilds of America, and blind people with guide dogs feel safe and well-oriented.

On a more personal note: while we won’t deny that as a tech startup in Oakland, we form a droplet in the deluge of tech-related change that has overcome the area over the past several decades, in many ways we don’t fit the stereotype assigned to us. We’re half women, half people of color, and nearly 20% LGBT.

And while only some of us are longtime East Bay residents, we have been reaching out to local groups since before making the announcement. Local Realtors and blind centers, to name a couple, have already given us their time and input, and we are listening closely to as many people as we can in order to make the best decisions possible in serving our own community.

We’re listening — closely.

Good intentions aren’t magic, and they don’t outweigh problematic actions. We apologize for any aspect of our announcement that brought into question the integrity of BlueLight and our team. Rest assured we’re striving to do better, communicate more clearly, and act equitably.

In addition to reaching out to groups, we’ll also be hosting meetups at local coffee shops to answer questions, get your ideas, and go deeper into the conversation. If you’re interested in joining us, sign up for email updates — or just check our Twitter account, @bluelightsafe.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our CEO, Preet Anand, directly at preet@getbluelight.com.

Thanks for taking the time to learn more.

Team BlueLight

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